Ever since Colin Kaepernick became the 49ers' starting quarterback in 2012, the football world has been enamored with his athleticism, both fans and critics alike. After all, watching Kaepernick take off down the field is like witnessing a long-striding gazelle bound across open plains: it's a rare display of natural talent. It's this same talent that has put his every move under the microscope this offseason. An exodus of players. Ongoing trade rumors. Refined mechanics. A new offense. A lackluster preseason. Just name your poison and chances are Colin Kaepernick has been subjected to it.
Now you can add this to the list, courtesy of Neil Greenberg of the Washington Post: Kaepernick is poised to follow in Robert Griffin's footsteps, whose epic fall has taken him from the second overall pick in the 2012 NFL Draft to third-string backup for the Washington Redskins, behind the likes of Kirk Cousins and Colt McCoy.
It's tempting to compare the two quarterbacks. Both are dual-threat athletes with big contracts. Both had breakout seasons in 2012. Both have experienced similar challenges, whether it's accuracy problems, poor mechanics, or even the occasional social media foul. It's true, both quarterbacks have struggled to transition into a more traditional pocket-passer role, but make no mistake, Griffin's downfall is a different narrative entirely—one that is marred by significant injuries, misguided blame, and lost trust.
Despite having his own rough-and-tumble season, Kaepernick finds himself in a very different situation. His teammates speak of him as a strong leader with a relentless work ethic. He spent the offseason correcting his mechanics with two-time MVP Kurt Warner. Although the 49ers parted ways with the majority of their 2014 coaching staff, Kaepernick still has plenty of familiar supporters within the organization, such as general manager Trent Baalke, head coach Jim Tomsula, and even owner Jed York (for what it's worth). In an interview with Mark Purdy of the San Jose Mercury News, new offensive coordinator Geep Chryst reminded fans that former head coach Jim Harbaugh wasn't the only one to push for the selection of the athletic quarterback in the 2011 NFL Draft.
"Kap's part of that draft class with a lot of quarterbacks—including Cam Newton, Christian Ponder, Blaine Gabbert, Andy Dalton," said Chryst. "We fell in love with Kap from jump street. And I would say here, five years down the road looking back, I'd still like to get Kap if we'd had the first draft pick."
Believing in Kaepernick is one thing, but helping him succeed is another. The greatest impact in Kaepernick's development will come down to offensive philosophy and how Chryst constructs a more quarterback-friendly system than his predecessor, Greg Roman. In his last season with the 49ers, Roman received mounting criticism for a less-than-stellar passing offensive. "I don't see wide receiver screens," said former quarterback and CBS Sports analyst Chris Simms. "I don't see running back screens. Very rarely are there easy slam-dunk completions, which are a part of any really good offense."
Around this time last year, Roman told the media that, "I for one love throwing to the [running] backs because a lot of times people forget about them." In that same season, Kaepernick connected with Frank Gore only 11 times. Gore, for his part, is no slouch when it comes to catching the ball. From 2007 to 2010, he amassed 194 receptions, over 1,600 yards and eight touchdowns. Twenty-one of those receptions resulted in explosive plays that went for 20+ yards. In his four seasons with Roman, Gore only reached 72 receptions, 600 receiving yards, and scored just twice. The number of big-time receptions? Four. Even if the 49ers harness a fragment of this production from their tailbacks it could pay big dividends for their quarterback.
Some critics might be quick to point out Kaepernick's mediocre performance in the preseason, completing 5 of 13 passes for 40 yards and no touchdowns. As Tomsula recently explained, the 49ers' goal was to take Kaepernick out of his comfort zone, testing both the quarterback and his makeshift offensive line in drop-back situations. Once the season kicks off, opposing defenses are more likely to see Kaepernick roll away from pressure the same way backup quarterback Blaine Gabbert did during the preseason, posting a 108.8 passer rating. Between rollouts, swing passes, and an up-tempo offense, Kaepernick might have the support he needs to build on his confidence, convert third downs, and consistently move the offense down the field as a passer.
This, along with the 49ers' offensive personnel, could help Kaepernick take a significant step forward. The team's wide receiver core is arguably the most talented Kaepernick has ever had, with the addition of deep-threat Torrey Smith, the consistent Anquan Boldin, and emerging impact players like Bruce Ellington. Reggie Bush, another offseason acquisition, will provide a proven receiver out of the backfield, and Kaepernick could also enjoy a resurgence with some familiar faces like tight end Vernon Davis. Only two-seasons removed from being the 49ers' second leading receiver, Davis looks motivated to prove he is still a big-play threat as he enters the last year of his contract. The biggest question mark, of course, is the retooled offensive line. As 49ers Webzone's Jesse Dumas points out, what might be viewed as a negative could turn into a positive out of sheer necessity with the 49ers emphasizing screens, bootlegs, and play action to offset blitzing defenses.
Kaepernick will not be the next Tom Brady or Joe Montana, but does that mean his only alternative is to suffer the same fate as Griffin? Yes, there's work to be done, especially after a season where the strong-armed quarterback threw for a career-high 10 interceptions, was sacked 52 times, and posted a fourth quarter passer rating of 60.3. But no one knows this better than Kaepernick himself. Often pegged as the first one to arrive at the 49ers' facility and the last one to leave, Kaepernick looks determined to write his own destiny.
"He has a strong, burning desire to be great," Chryst said in his interview with Purdy. "Not just to be good, but great. And I think that's something you can tap into as a coach and that the teammates can respect."