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It has been a wild two years for former 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick. The once fan favorite quarterback has turned into a sort of pariah among the football world over the 9 months since he chose to exercise his right to protest in a way most deem inappropriate. It's over a month into free agency and he still remains unemployed, despite, as this article will show, the argument that he can still play the position at a high enough level to win a team some games.
The main narratives surrounding Kaepernick this offseason are that 1) his protest and social justice are preventing teams from taking a chance on him and 2) that he's regressed severely as a passer.
Mike Freeman of Bleacher Report recently published an article where he stated that
"...some teams fear the backlash from fans after getting him. They think there might be protests or [President Donald] Trump will tweet about the team. I'd say that number is around 10 percent. Then there's another 10 percent that has a mix of those feelings."
Around 20% of teams "genuinely believe that he can't play. They think he's shot." And what do the rest think?
Third, the rest genuinely hate him and can't stand what he did [kneeling for the national anthem]. They want nothing to do with him. They won't move on. They think showing no interest is a form of punishment. I think some teams also want to use Kaepernick as a cautionary tale to stop other players in the future from doing what he did."
Another told him that he considered Kaepernick to be "an embarrassment to football."
As I've previously written, he is a quarterback with flaws that were often masked by a coaching staff highlighting his strengths. As will be detailed here, he is also a quarterback with many strengths and a quarterback who improved on many of his flaws. But in order to see the good and bad, fans must divorce themselves from their fandom if they wish to truly see the marked improvement over previous years and place his 2016 season in the context of the entire offense.
There are 3 prevailing narratives surrounding Kaepernick's on-field play that critics use to justify why they think he's terrible: 1) that's he's a quarterback who can't read progressions or defenses, 2) that he can't be a pocket passer, and 3) that he can't throw with touch or throw deep. None of these are true, unless you view quarterback play and performance in a vacuum absent all other mitigating factors that contribute to an offense's performance over the course of the season. This doesn't excuse where Kaepernick needs to improve and is not to say that he isn't responsible for the outcome of the play in certain situations, but the fact that he had his best season last season on a 2-14 team should dispel the myth that he isn't good. Very few quarterbacks are capable of willing their teams to victory week after week.
MYTH 1: A QUARTERBACK WHO CANNOT READ PROGRESSIONS OR DEFENSES
Perhaps the worst narrative one can attribute to a quarterback is that he can't read a defense or go through his progressions. There are few quarterbacks who you can definitively attribute this to because certain things show up on film like the quarterback's tendency to lock on to one receiver and telegraph passes, like Blaine Gabbert blatantly does. The 49ers had a quarterback the last 3 season who did that, and his name wasn't Colin Kaepernick. Before we get into the idea that Kaepernick can't read a defense, we must first briefly cover what types of reads quarterbacks make.
A progression read in a given pass play has the quarterback looking at two, three, four, or five choices to whom to throw the ball. The quarterback will diagnose the pre-snap coverage as best as he can and should know where to go with the ball based on the timing of his drop. By the time he hits the top of his drop, he should be keyed in on the first receiver in his progression, the second receiver on his hitch step, and the third receiver after he resets his feet or takes another hitch while scanning. Very seldom do quarterbacks get to their third or fourth read in the progression unless their offensive line gives them at least three seconds or more to throw. And very seldom do quarterbacks have the time to make full-field reads. Most quarterbacks are only making half field reads based on the pre-snap look.
In a coverage read, the quarterback is surveying a particular defender to determine where to throw the ball. Passing concepts are designed around taking advantage of where the defense is not. It is best explained by the "if-then" statement: If the defender covers Player A, then throw to Player B; if the defender covers Player B, then throw to Player A. Coverage reads give the quarterback the benefit of looking off defenders while taking away the tendency to stare down a particular receiver as in a progression read.
From his pre-snap read, Kaepernick is working the bunch progression to the left running the "smash concept" reading the corner route to the curl or crossing route. We can never be sure of the exact progression in any sequence but we can get an idea based on how quarterbacks progress through their reads. Kaepernick hits the top of the drop and sees that the cornerback drops deep in cover 3 to take away the corner route. The corner route is likely the first read because it is a timing route designed to be thrown in rhythm at the top of the quarterback's five step drop.
Both types of reads have their advantages and disadvantages but it should be noted that coaches want their quarterbacks to throw to the primary read every single play if he is open. If the quarterback is able to hit his primary read in rhythm, then it is a sign of healthy offense. That was not the case for the 2016 49ers, whose receivers often had trouble getting open and were second in the league in dropped pass rate (4.9%) with 24 drops (though it definitely seemed like more). Contributing to the woes was the offensive line. Pro Football Focus ranked the 49ers offensive line as 28th in the league, while Football Outsiders ranked it 32nd in run blocking and 30th in pass protection.
This would seem to explain why 49ers quarterbacks on average had about 2.5 seconds to throw the ball. In an email message I received from Pro Football Focus' 49ers analyst Jeff Deeney, 49ers quarterbacks were getting the ball out on average 2.5 seconds or fewer from snap to release. Hardly enough time to survey anything beyond the second read. Kaepernick's time from snap to release this season was 2.68 seconds (28th in NFL) and as I will show, this was largely due to an improved pocket presence as well as his natural ability to extend plays with his legs.
One of the hallmarks of a being a consistently good pocket passer is the natural ability to scan the field, read the progressions, and know when to reset your feet in search of the next progression. Kaepernick's natural tendency in prior seasons was to move off his first read and scramble out of a perfectly good pocket (though this was an issue this season as well, as I will highlight later). The level of comfort he displays here against the Saints pass rush is one that consistently shows up this season.
We can get a good sense of Kaepernick's progressions by watching his head movement and the way he resets his feet. Upon moving off his first read, he hitches twice (reads one and two), resets his feet, squares to his target on the opposite side of the field and throws a strike to Patton for 19 yards.
When the pocket conditions are less than superb, Kaepernick still looked comfortable when he appeared to be throwing from the inside of a phone booth. As the offensive line immediately collapses around him, the ability to keep his eyes scanning enables him to make a subtle move to climb the pocket and come back to the next receiver in his progression.
The beauty of this play is that it epitomizes his improvement as a progression reader under less than ideal circumstances. On the final drive of the game against Miami, Kaepernick shows off an improved situational awareness not seen in past seasons. Pressure up the middle forces him off his spot as he reads his progressions to his left.
As he climbs the pocket scanning for an open receiver, he knows that within the structure of the play he has Torrey Smith on a crossing route. He smartly senses Ndamukong Suh (#93) looking for the quarterback run and hits Smith in stride for a first down keeping their chances alive.
Kaepernick's ability to progress through his reads this season is largely the result of his improved ability to create subtle movements in the pocket to avoid the rush, keep his feet moving, and his eyes up toward his targets.
MYTH 2: A QUARTERBACK CAN'T THROW FROM THE POCKET
One of the more persistent and annoying criticisms is that Kaepernick cannot throw from the pocket or be a pocket quarterback. This is also false. According to analyst Cian Fahey's Presnap Reads Quarterback Catalog (and also of Bleacher Report's NFL1000 and Football Outsiders), of Kaepernick's 36 sacks, only four were avoidable. Fahey's data also tracks whether or not on those that could be avoided, the quarterback ran into a sack or missed an open receiver. Still don't believe he can play from the pocket? Read on.
In complete contrast to his previous seasons, Kaepernick showed off improved footwork. Whether he had a clean pocket or was reacting to pressure, he doesn't waste motion by running into sacks or looking for an escape route to run. In the above play, a majority of the offensive line holds decently well until left tackle Joe Staley gets beaten by Bills edge rusher Jerry Hughes.
Kaepernick keeps his eyes up scanning his progressions and notices the pocket to his left collapse. He resettles his feet after his reads appear not to be open, makes a nice move at the last possible second to avoid Hughes and throws a strike to Patton. The throw isn't perfect but Kaepernick doesn't really have time to resettle yet again before throwing. If he wanted to, he could have easily just tucked it and ran for a nice gain.
This next series of plays came on the same drive and epitomizes the improvement apparent in Kaepernick's ability to play from the pocket.
A quarterback must have the ability to quickly diagnose the rush and move to resettle his feet, all the while looking for someone to whom to throw. He is by no means an elite pocket throwing quarterback, but the above gif shows the type of movement we haven't really seen out of him.
By the time Kaepernick reaches the top of his drop, his tight end and first read Brent Celek is running the curl over the middle and is not open enough for Kaepernick to settle and throw. Trent Brown is immediately beaten at the snap forcing Kaepernick to climb the pocket while looking for the next progression and he hit wide receiver Rod Streater in stride across the middle while avoiding the Cardinals rush.
In the above gif, the Cardinals pass rush collapses the pocket as Kaepernick takes the snap. He begins by opening up his body for a throw to the right before climbing the pocket, resetting and squaring himself for a throw to the left. Once again, Brown is beaten by an inside move that forces Kaepernick to break the pocket to his right after exhausting his options before hitting Kerley with a strike in the back corner of the end zone.
This play in Atlanta epitomizes an offensive line that continually folded under regular four-man pass rushes. Kaepernick doesn't even get a chance to set his feet at the top his drop before having to climb the pocket to evade the rush. Two Atlanta defenders are sitting waiting for the quarterback run but he just dumps off downfield to Burbridge for a gain of 15 yards and a first down.
No discussion of his pocket improvement would be complete without addressing his ability to be patient and let his routes develop. Against a five-man blitz, he's forced off his spot to move to the left. The success of this play hinges on his ability to be patient and let the routes develop under pressure. Against a five man blitz, he has no chance of standing in and completing a pass to a route 10 yards deep. Instead, he manipulates Miami edge rusher Andre Branch (#50) who drops into coverage by moving him to his right before hitting tight end Vance McDonald.
MYTH 3: A QUARTERBACK WHO CANNOT THROW WITH TOUCH OR THROW RECEIVERS OPEN
The final myth is that Kaepernick is not a quarterback who can throw with touch or throw receivers open. One of the chief complaints is that Kaepernick "throws a fastball to all levels of the field" because he is late with throws and that it prevents his receivers from catching a rocket. The truth is that excuse for a receiver not catching a pass is weak. No football coach on the planet would ever accept that as an acceptable excuse for not catching a pass. While Kaepernick has shown issues in the past with knowing when to put velocity on a pass and when to back off, that is still no excuse. Even under Gabbert, who only played five games, 49ers wide receivers still dropped nine passes. They just have a problem catching the ball.
This season, Kaepernick was not a terribly good deep passing quarterback, finishing with accuracy percentages of 43.8% on passes between 16-20% (25th in NFL) and 35.5% (27th in the NFL) according to Jonathan Kinsley's Deep Ball Project for the 2016 season (passes are considered accurate whether they were complete or not). It is certainly problematic and there are certainly plays for which this is apparent, but one must also account for receiver error, as this is a mutually beneficial relationship. For comparison, some of the top deep ball passing quarterbacks according to Kinsley's analysis weren't even playoff quarterbacks, further proving that lots of things are out of the quarterback's control. The same could be said for Kaepernick, whose defense played at historically bad levels in the franchise's history.
Overall on the season, Fahey has Kaepernick ranked ahead of 19 other quarterbacks for overall accuracy to all levels of the field (14th in the NFL at 74.92%). He also threw just seven total interceptable passes for an interceptable pass rate of 2.11% (2nd in NFL) and had the most receptions lost to receiver error at 11.78% (1st in the NFL). Here's just a sampling of some of the more puzzling drops:
You can see a bigger sample of drops at this link.
But let's look at some of the better highlights.
It's a play we've seen Kaepernick make so many times as he runs out of the pocket. This pass takes the right amount of velocity to complete and perfect placement to become a touchdown. Any pass that's faster or thrown with more touch risks either being tipped or intercepted, and it's all done while on the run to his left.
This play epitomizes his improvement probably more than any other play this season. As is so often the case with the offensive line this season, it once again let the pass rush in behind it. Kaepernick has the easy throw to McDonald running a deep crossing route but he instead elects to throw the deep post to Patton. There really is no need for Patton to make that leap to catch it. Kaepernick placed the ball perfectly out of reach of the defender's outstretched arm. His pocket navigation is the kind you rarely see quarterbacks develop who haven't usually done that in the past. These are traits that take time to develop, if they ever develop at all.
My best guess on this throw is that Celek was Kaepernick's first read, but as with so many problems the offense faced last season, slow route development was one of the top issues 49ers skill players suffered from. The timing of Celek's route matches up with Kaepernick's drop. Instead, Kaepernick looks off Celek after seeing he was not open and instead fits a nice touch pass into McDonald inside a five yard triangle of defenders. If he puts this pass anywhere else, McDonald would've likely been sandwiched between two Patriots defenders.
There's no good spot to throw this pass and yet Kaepernick found the one suitable spot between his receiver and the sideline due to the defender's placement. Center Daniel Kilgore gets beat up the middle by a swim move from the Dolphins defensive lineman Jordan Phillips, who gets to Kaepernick a second after he throws it. If Kaepernick hesitates or takes another drop back step, that's likely a sack or an incomplete pass.
Kaepernick also had a number of throws like this to receivers in stride. Likely his first read, he leads McDonald away from the safety with an over-the-shoulder throw over McDonald's outside shoulder and hits the tight end in stride.
For even more throws, see this library.
So where did Kaepernick struggle?
Kaepernick's main struggles were with 1) reads and 2) intermediate accuracy and ball placement on some throws he should have no problem with.
Despite Kaepernick's improvement in the pocket, what's holding him back from being a top tier quarterback is still an inability to consistently hit the open receiver in his progression. This play illustrates an issue he must still work to overcome. He starts out with great pocket movement, scanning his progressions but almost immediately takes his eyes away from the field and breaks a perfect pocket. Celek is open on a curl route over the middle in Kaepernick's line of vision but he never sees Celek and instead scrambles out of the pocket and throws to Harris for a measly four yard gain.
Late in the first half he had Jeremy Kerley wide open on an in-breaking route with a lot of room for a nice gain. Kaepernick threw the ball a bit too high for Kerley who had to extend his 5-foot 9-inch frame to even have a chance to catch it. Despite the great pocket movement, Kaepernick still struggled a bit with his ball placement.
And this is the type of play that looks good on paper but doesn't reflect the effort Kerley puts in to catch it.
None of this suggests that Kaepernick is an elite quarterback or even a top tier quarterback. The plays above in this article show the improvement Kaepernick has made despite some of the obvious flaws, which I also highlighted. The visual evidence is there and he statistically had his best season (or was at least on pace to) despite the overall team performance. Kaepernick not only deserves another shot to play for a team, but he deserves a shot to be a starter. He can still be a quality starter in the NFL.
All gifs and images courtesy of nfl.com.
All stats courtesy of Pro Football Reference unless otherwise indicated.