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As soon as Chip Kelly was named the new head coach of the San Francisco Forty-Niners, media personalities began offering their views on what the hiring meant for Colin Kaepernick. Some impressions were rooted in shallow evaluation that never delved deeper than, "Kap can run, sooooooo…," while others dissected the on-field evidence that Kaepernick has provided to this point and attempted to measure his strengths and weaknesses against what Chip Kelly appears to demand of his quarterbacks in his offense.
Most frequently, those analyses lead to negative predictions, based upon the demand the offense places on quarterbacks to make correct decisions quickly, as well as Kaepernick's struggles to move through his read progressions quickly enough to beat approaching pass rushers in the past two seasons and to deliver passes in a timely and accurate manner. Without a doubt, aspects of Chip Kelly's offense require lightning-quick decision making and instant, precise execution. With respect to the work that went into those evaluations, it may be more instructive to cut Kelly's offense into chunks to weigh Kaepernick's strengths and weaknesses against the demands of the offense in a less generalized manner. To facilitate this process, I'd like to categorize play types that depend heavily upon execution by the quarterback as: zone read, run/pass option, drop back passing, and play-action passing.
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Understanding that the run/pass option is a variation of the zone read, I chose to list the zone read as a separate category in which the only two outcomes are that the quarterback runs the ball or another teammate runs the ball. In these instances, Kaepernick has done well. He helped pioneer the zone read from a pistol set while accumulating impressive stats in Nevada. He's tough, physically impressive, and he has the patience to sell his fake to assist the ball carrier, accepting the physical punishment he must absorb to do so. His self-confidence has occasionally betrayed him in zone reads, as he has occasionally kept the ball on high-stakes plays when the read should indicate that he should hand off, betting on himself rather than the play design. I don't believe he mistook the read in those instances; I think his muscle memory from Nevada encouraged him to keep the ball and make a play because he had done so successfully many times through his years in college. While Kaepernick's detractors have used the term, "paralysis by analysis," to explain his deliberate, plodding progressions through route packages on pass plays, he's had no such issue executing the zone read, even as more athletic defenders and increasingly creative coordinators seek to choke the life out of the play. His elite physical characteristics cannot be ignored by defenses, opening up opportunities for other runners.
The most basic run/pass option involves a flat route or bubble screen run by a receiver aligned away from the intended path of the zone run (run action). This is a zone read alternative for teams who do not wish to run with their quarterback, to decrease risk or to compensate for the quarterback's limited athleticism. The quarterback either gives to the back or throws to the flat receiver. This choice is generally made based upon the drop of one defender (most commonly the backside outside linebacker), is simply executed by many high school quarterbacks, and is not the focus of this evaluation.
Here is where Chip Kelly's offense can give quarterbacks and defensive coordinators alike fits of nervousness. Once the play begins, the quarterback must decide whether to give the ball to the running back or keep it, based upon the reactions of one specific, predetermined defender (generally a defensive lineman, and most often the defensive end aligned away from the run action) to the outset of the play. Should that defender's reaction indicate that the quarterback should keep the ball, the quarterback's eyes must immediately shift to the second level of the defense (often the hook/curl zone, roughly ten yards deep from the numbers to the hashes) to determine if the linebackers are flowing to the run or covering the pass. If the linebackers run downhill to stop the run, the quarterback must throw to an open receiver up the seam. It should be an easy, open throw, if the read truly indicates that a throw should be made. This play genuinely requires multiple split-second decisions by the quarterback, and choosing incorrectly could easily result in a turnover.
This is the type of demand made by Kelly's offense that causes evaluators to predict failure by Colin Kaepernick in this scheme; however, I don't believe this type of play should strain Kaepernick too greatly. While he has struggled to identify the best matchup and to deliver a ball on time, he is not being asked to identify the open receiver amongst several options; he is being asked to decide whether one receiver is open enough to make a reception. If that one receiver is open, Kaepernick throws the ball. If not, he keeps the ball and gains what yards he can on foot. In the last two years, Colin Kaepernick has been exhaustively criticized for locking onto a receiver and waiting for him to uncover; in this case, that's essentially all he's asked to do.
DROP BACK PASSING
The single most troublesome aspect of Kaepernick's game has always begged the question, "How well can he throw the ball when everyone knows he has to throw it?" The answers have been uneven, but the most recent returns were bad, and occasionally ugly. Kaepernick doesn't often move through progressions very quickly, and he frequently only appears to read one side of the field on a given play, never seeing open teammates in many instances.
There are two general schools of thought on route progression; reading the route, and reading the coverage. A quarterback reading routes is expected to look at each route in a predetermined order, visually acquiring the receiver running each route and determining whether or not he is likely to win his route and catch the ball if it is thrown to him. Additional emphasis can be placed on whether he will have enough to room to run to allow for a first down or touchdown.
When reading coverage, the quarterback has identified one defender at a time who will be attacked by two routes in the play. When the defender's drop covers one route and surrender's the other, the quarterback throws to the open man. If the defender is helped in his matchup by another defender, the quarterback moves to another defender who is being attacked by a different route package, reading that defenders drop to determine which route will be open. This strategy requires receivers to be in the right place at the right time, the quarterback to know where the receivers should be, and for the quarterback to trust his receivers to be there.
I do not know if Kaepernick has been asked to read routes, coverages, or both while in San Francisco, but I do believe that it is fair to say that he has not been able to identify open receivers quickly enough since the play of the 49ers offensive line as declined enough to make speed and timing an issue. This may have been the single most glaring weakness in Kaepernick's game over the last two years. That said, I don't see this weakness being a crippling detriment to Kaepernick's ability to succeed as a drop back passer in Kelly's offense. Kaepernick is a very intelligent person, but he appears to be a deliberate decision maker, which likely makes route progressions difficult. Chip Kelly's offense identifies favorable matchups by pre-snap alignment, and the fast tempo of the offense makes it difficult for defenses to alter that alignment once they are set. Simply, Kaepernick could know fairly certainly who he will be targeting before the ball is snapped. If that sounds familiar, it should. Detractors have often stated that Kaepernick will appear to enter a play knowing where he wants to go with the ball, and stubbornly forcing the ball there, even when other receivers are more open. Here's why that might be okay in Kelly's scheme: each play is based upon a series of rules for the quarterback, and the routes are designed to challenge defenders and uncover a receiver, based upon the alignment of the defense. Even when the optimal receiver is not clearly identified by alignment, a Chip Kelly quarterback should only have to read one side of the formation or one defender to determine where to throw the ball on most plays. As was the case in the run/pass option, one of Kaepernick's more commonly trumpeted weaknesses could be an asset in this portion of Kelly's offense. As long as he can throw with consistent mechanics and improve his short/intermediate accuracy, he should have an opportunity to succeed this fall.
With the 49ers' dominant offensive line, Frank Gore's tough and creative running, and Kaepernick's combination of rocket arm and confidence, the play action passing game of the San Francisco 49ers was a revelation in late 2012. A disciplined, methodical offense suddenly began to run up points and churn out yards. Kaepernick's ability to drive the ball downfield with velocity, accuracy, and fearlessness made him an instant celebrity and had network experts tout him as the future of football. As the running game diminished and pass protection became a slapstick affair, Kaepernick's production and confidence wavered, and he was suddenly and widely accepted as a quarterback who needed elite support and who could not keep defenses from stacking the box against the running game. While recent results haven't been encouraging, play-action passing remains an aspect of Kaepernick's game that experts refer to as an area of optimism, citing the great success he found when defenses were prone to the unfair choice between his arm talent and Frank Gore's inspired running.
While I expect the 49ers to run the ball productively under Chip Kelly, I have concerns about Kaepernick's ability to succeed in this aspect of his game. His downfield accuracy has decreased as his throwing mechanics have become less consistent. His decisive downfield confidence appeared to waver dramatically last season. While a successful running game will provide larger intermediate windows, the deep throws and outside throws will still require Kaepernick to read multiple defenders, and his time to do so will be diminished when the play-action fake requires him to turn his back to the defense. When he turns back to face his receivers and their defenders, seeing anything other than a receiver running open could result in the same deliberation that has caused him to miss open receivers in the past.
At the risk of coming across as the ultimate contrarian, I found that many of Kaepernick's characteristics that have experts dooming him to fail under Chip Kelly should allow him an opportunity to succeed in this system. Likewise, the most explosive aspect of his game to this point may be the area where he is challenged most frequently in this offense. With training camp now underway and preseason games looming nearer on the horizon, do not be surprised if Colin Kaepernick looks comfortable and dangerous in Chip Kelly's offensive attack.