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Colin Kaepernick played well against the Buffalo Bills.
There. I said it. He read the field, made quick decisions, took care of the football, and generally took what the defense gave him. He also blew apart the Bills' players brash statements that they made no adjustments to him and simply dared him to throw the ball. They certainly made it obvious that they were more scared of his legs in the first half, when they played primarily man coverage with one high safety and an inside linebacker constantly spying Kaepernick for scrambles, but they got out of that frequently in the second half, using four different coverages (that's called a halftime adjustment, Coach Ryan) after Kaepernick put up a QB rating of 144.1 in the first half.
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After the Bills decided to dare Kaepernick to run in the second half by releasing the spying ILB into coverage or sending him to blitz, Kaepernick made them pay with his legs, racking up 47 of his team-leading rushing yards. That's smart football for a player with his obvious gifts. He beat them with his arm in the first half, when they sacrificed coverage to contain him as a running threat. He hurt them with his legs when they shifted their focus to stopping him through the air by mixing in Cover 2, Cover 3, and Cover 2 man-under with the Cover 1 man they started the game in.
Kaepernick's stat line in the second half was ugly, but I counted 6 drops in the half, and only the 3rd down incompletion to Jeremy Kerley at 7:59 in the 3rd quarter may have been affected by a defender. If those passes are complete, Kaepernick completes over 65% of his passes, and that jumps to 70% if he isn't accountable for the two hopeless throwaways he had to make when no one was open and pressure closed in. If half of those passes are completed, he's over 200 yards in a game that featured swirling 30 mph winds. To be fair, he got some gimme yards and completions, primarily in the form of the two shovel passes to Quinton Patton on jet motion that tallied almost 30 yards. Jeremy Kerley's numbers were down, primarily because Kaepernick didn't release the ball as soon as Kerley, often running the shallowest route, came open. On numerous occasions, Kaepernick waited a moment longer to complete an intermediate pass to a deeper receiver. That tendency only bit him on one obvious occasion, the sack fumble with 10:10 remaining in the game. Kaepernick chose to wait on Torrey Smith to win his post route (which he did) rather than to dump the ball to Davis in the flat while he rolled away from a pass rusher. The pass rusher ran him down and got the ball loose before Smith could snap his route to the inside and win deep.
The part that stands out to me is that he really only made 3 bad decisions on the day, and threw one particularly bad ball. He forced two balls into coverage in the end zone on the final 4th quarter drive, and he should never have tried to fit a WR screen into Kerley that was covered and dead from the snap. The bad ball was an apparent slant and go to Kerley that he tried to fit between a safety and cornerback, but he threw short and inside when Kerley was winning deep and to the sideline. That's it.
I can forgive the rest of his incompletions because they were all smart. He missed to his receiver's leverage on all of them. When he missed Torrey Smith on the deep post in the first drive, he missed him deep and inside by a yard, because the defender was beaten deep and to the inside. When he missed Smith again on a deep post, with 28 seconds left in the 3rd quarter, he missed him sort and inside, because the defender was over the top of the route and to the outside. He's trying to give his receivers a chance to make a play on the ball by throwing away from their closest coverage and allowing the receiver to attempt to go get it. The decision-making is generally solid. The precision on those throws should improve with repetition, as Kaepernick realizes he doesn't always need to throw so far away from coverage to grant his targets sufficient leverage on the ball. Some of his completions limited his receivers' yards after the catch for the same reason: he led them to the ground to keep the ball away from coverage. His 53-yard TD throw to Torrey Smith was similarly thrown short and slightly outside of where Smith's deep corner route was taking him, primarily to protect the ball from the safety dropping deeper and inside of Smith. Again, he gave his receiver more leverage than was necessary, but he did so with the apparent intention of protecting the football, and he can refine his margin for error with repetition.
He'll have some reads that he'll want back, as he passed up single coverage away from the concept side when that receiver ended up winning, but that is still growth for him. Too often in years past, Kaepernick would routinely ignore the concept side to attack the single receiver side, which presents a much easier read. Choosing to read the crowded concept side reveals growth in confidence as a quarterback, but he'll have to mix that confidence in with savvy when the single defender's alignment hints at an easy win for the single receiver, as it did on a handful of plays in Buffalo.
Kaepernick has certainly not done enough to prove that he's back as a star, or even an established starting quarterback in the NFL, but he looked better than he has in years, and with a lot less help. He'll need to do more, and he'll need more help to do it. He had to move around the pocket frequently while avoiding pressure, but he generally did so with his eyes downfield. His WR's struggled at times to win against man coverage, which left Kaepernick without anywhere to throw the ball at times. When that man coverage wasn't accompanied by a spying linebacker (and on occasions when there was a spy), he gashed the defense on the ground. Eventually, the 49ers must respond to the increase in man coverage by incorporating mesh concepts, described as man coverage beaters, which use crossing routes ("rub routes") to cause collisions between man defenders and spring a receiver open. Eventually, his receivers will need to run routes with enough crispness and acceleration to separate out of their breaks and give him reliable targets.
He is still occasionally a formidable weapon in of himself, as he showed by shrugging off a safety and running for a first down in the third quarter. In my notes for that play I wrote, "NOT a baby caribou!" Like herbivores in the wild who are eventually tracked down when a predator closes on them and makes contact, NFL quarterbacks often surrender when they feel contact from a pass rusher. Colin Kaepernick fights, and that often affords him the opportunity to make a spectacular play. On his 29-yard scramble, he stumbled evading a tackler, which allowed the last available defender to catch him and bring him down. That exciting 29-yard scamper could have easily been a 78-yard touchdown. He'll need to know when to fight and when to protect both himself and the football, but the instinct to fight is a plus.
As Kaepernick refines his footwork, accuracy, and decision-making, he'll polish other aspects of his game, hopefully, to include riding the mesh point on zone reads a tick longer to further stress defenders who try to determine whether he will give or keep the ball. That should help delay the pursuit on zone reads, regardless of who ends up with the ball.
Rust is real, and Kaepernick was still clearly the best quarterback on the roster while knocking off a year of that rust. Rest assured, Colin Kaepernick demonstrated growth, poise, and confidence in this game, and he is not nearly firing on all cylinders yet. The immediate future of the 49ers remains troubling, but the pieces are there for Kaepernick to find his way as a difference-maker at the quarterback position in the NFL.