As Rushers Rule, Kaepernick Creeps Closer

Oct 2, 2012 at 4:27 PM

After the Niners' deflating loss, the beat became much louder, more urgent. Reflecting a harsh reality, intensified by our preseason hopes. Winning with running and defense—winning by "imposing your will"—might be impressive, but eventually you're gonna need more. So now with a notch in the loss column, the biggest question was asked again.

Where's the explosive passing game?

Despite the additions of Moss and Manningham, Jenkins and James, the O had remained more efficient than explosive. Until Minnesota, that is, where the O indeed was decidedly neither.

The issue now put front and center, the strange statistics started to fly. Alex Smith's deep throws wouldn't fill one hand. Moss and Manningham were stuck at roughly 10 yards per catch. Manningham was questioning the playcalling, while Moss was questioning his playing-time. Oh, and Jenkins and James? They hadn't played at all.

What's the big deal, I hear you ask. After all, Jim Harbaugh's version of ground-and-pound—with occasional bursts of explosiveness—almost won us the Super Bowl. The key word, though, is "almost." In the NFC title game, we needed one explosive play—just one more explosive play—and yet we couldn't summon it. Offensively, we were playing virtually one-handed, and we couldn't take that chance again.

This wasn't just a view expressed by a couple of obstinate fans (and writers). Despite Harbaugh's well-known love of will-imposition, he was well aware of the need for explosiveness. Indeed, explosiveness was our offseason obsession. When Trent Baalke drafted Jenkins and James—who, again, have yet to play—he couldn't have made his plan more plain: he was trying to add "explosiveness to this offense."

An explosive offense was the Niners' plan. So it only made sense to ask, where is it?

Maybe it was waiting for us in New York. With Darrelle Revis out, the Jets' secondary seemed ripe for the picking. But there was something else too. Perhaps to a fault, Harbaugh knows what his critics are saying, and he loves nothing more than shutting 'em up. Last year, when the press had saddled Smith with the dreaded title of "game manager," Harbaugh promptly unleashed a pass-heavy scheme. That game, against the Giants, established Smith as a good QB. Now, it seemed, with the same doubts flying, the time was right for the next step.

But this time around, things went differently.

The headlines, of course, belonged to the running game. Deploying all their creative schemes, the Niners ran the ball 44 times for 245 yards and 3 scores. With our D destroying the Jets' terrible O, this was more than enough to win in a rout.

Ground-and-pound, though, was not the Niners' exclusive plan. As noted above, Revis was out, and of course we sought to exploit his replacement: Kyle Wilson, in his first start. On our opening play, Smith threw a deep pass that drew a flag on Wilson—so far, so good—but the tactic went downhill from there. At least three times, Wilson was torched, but Smith overthrew his receiver each time. Instead of racking up three long scores—now that would've been an explosive O—Smith's longest pass-play was 26 yards, in another uninspiring show.

And when the O showed any explosive potential, Smith was not even on the field.

After a Jimmy Raye Special on yet another opening drive—run, run, pass, punt—Colin Kaepernick came into the game. He ran the ball for 17 yards, looking again like the biggest, fastest man on the field. It seemed like just a gimmick appearance, as he immediately went back to the bench. But later on in the drive he was back, throwing a 50-yard bomb at Moss. It maybe wasn't the brightest throw, with Moss in triple coverage and all, but still it seemed significant. For two reasons, actually. One, it was a throw at Moss, the only throw at Moss all day. And two, its sheer aggressiveness was so out-of-character for this offense, it was literally breathtaking. Once Kaepernick ran the ball again for our first touchdown—the only one in the first half—there was almost no other way about it.

Our offense is more explosive with Kaepernick.

Of course, this doesn't mean that Kaepernick should start. Though Smith's efficiency has dropped in every game since the opener, it should still be enough to win most games, as long as our running game looks like this. But as to that crucial offseason question—whether Smith can run a consistently explosive O—the answer's more in doubt than ever.

Something clearly isn't right. Between Smith's accuracy issues and the screamingly obvious absence of chemistry, the passing game lacks even a rhythm, much less a shot at consistent explosiveness. A quarter of the way through the season, in terms of yards and in terms of rank, the passing O is worse than last year. With the organizational commitment to improvement, the lack of progression is incomprehensible.

A long time ago, Bill Walsh played Joe Montana in spurts, inserting him only to run a couple of well-practiced plays, usually near the opposing end-zone. The goal was to build Montana's confidence even though the Niners stunk. Today, the Niners are a Super Bowl favorite, and a quarterback platoon is not the ideal, not even close. But they can't afford to wait anymore. Without the threat of a deep pass, they won't run for 245 yards every week. Eventually, they'll simply need explosive plays. And Harbaugh seems to have come to an almost inevitable realization: Kaepernick is the one to make 'em.

Smith, no stranger to drama like this, professed to be unthreatened by Kaepernick's instant injection of life. "He can help this team," Smith said, "so it's fun to see him get out there and have success." Kaepernick, though, saw this as the start of something big: "I'm hoping they'll use me more and more as the season goes on."

As a desperate fanbase savors the prospect—a consistently explosive O, our first in more than a decade now—Kaepernick is not alone.
The opinions within this article are those of the writer and, while just as important, are not necessarily those of the site as a whole.


  • one more time
    A.S. had no takers as a free agent, what does that mean? how much more can you people delude yourselfs? you need help. just as I predicted, this is sick.
    Oct 18, 2012 at 4:56 PM
  • stevenking57
    I have been a defender of A.S. since the beginning. I have felt that he was screwed by lack of coaching and a supporting cast, BUT I don't think he has the ability to throw the accurate, long pass very often. When he has thrown it in the past, it's usually a sideline route so that it's either out of bounds, incomplete, or caught. I think A.S. has grown some confidence this season as he will now throw up the ball and trust his receiver to fight for it and catch it. In the past, if the receiver wasn't wide open he'd throw elsewhere, throw it away, or take the sack. I think we have to play to A.S.'s strengths. Run the ball, set up the pass, and throw it short to medium range with the rare bomb. If he throws short/medium accurate passes, he'll be O.K. Hey, didn't Joe M. do just that too?
    Oct 15, 2012 at 12:47 PM
  • JHarbaugh
    Really? You want to pretend to be a journalist? Then dig deeper. Have some insight. Instead of pedestrian observations. Since you don't know anything about football, thats plainly obvious, how about interviewing people, doing research, actually asking people that knows football. Try that for a change.
    Oct 9, 2012 at 8:55 PM
  • dIABLO
    Oct 8, 2012 at 9:30 PM
  • EVBeezee
    Perfectly timed commentary as always, Jeff. Hilariously perfect.
    Oct 8, 2012 at 12:58 PM
    Response: I'm gonna go with the theory that the Niners saw my point and made a concerted effort to alleviate my concerns. Yeah, that sounds good.
  • Knee Jerk?
    Looks like the DESPERATE fan base of the 49ers can breathe easy for another week! #Drama #Kneejerk
    Oct 8, 2012 at 12:35 PM
    Oct 8, 2012 at 10:40 AM
  • Chris P.
    I can't help but chuckle. Yet another knee jerk article written by Kaplan about the lack of explosiveness in the offense, capped by a few more digs at Alex Smith. A few days later here we are. 300 in the air and on the ground in a 45-3 rout. What's even funnier is people like Terry B. applaud this guy like he's a good journalist and all Kaplan does is pump out knee jerk reactions like this. Nobody wants to just trust the people that actually know what they're doing like Harbaugh and Roman. Any other thoughts on the offense now Kaplan?
    Oct 7, 2012 at 10:15 PM
    Response: Well, Chris, obviously I've got no complaint; that was a truly awesome display. But I've never denied that Smith and the O are capable of explosiveness in occasional bursts. The question is whether they can do it consistently, especially against strong opponents. (Don't forget, even the JETS put up 48 on the Bills.) I'm tempted to declare that we're now officially an explosive offense, but I'd hate to be accused of a knee-jerk reaction to yesterday's historic performance.
  • Roni
    After all Alex has done there are still people (like the author of this article) that criticize his ability. A few years back I might have agreed to give Kaep the start and see what happens but Alex has proven he can help lead this team to victory. So far Kaep has only shown he has the ability to run the ball. This article says Kaep had a big run but then threw a 50yrd pass to Moss who was triple covered. Where does that show good decision making skills? He is young and needs a lot more work and he might be a good QB in the future. Harbaugh being a QB himself I'm pretty confident he knows who is the better QB right now. Alex has improved greatly under Harbaugh and he rarely turns the ball over. It's time to give Alex a break. He is not the same QB we booed a few years back. Alex is our starting QB and as long as he continues to play like he is he will stay our QB. The 49ers may not be an explosive team with every possession but when they need a big play they have gotten it done. The people that are screaming about wanting an explosive offense seem to forget that with an explosive offense the risk of turnovers increases. Alex has been amazing with throwing very few interceptions. Quit trying to find fault with this team because all teams have weak spots. Just enjoy the ride. I love my Niners win or lose. I have always been a true fan but I question some of the so-called 49ers fans.
    Oct 7, 2012 at 3:08 PM
  • Adrian
    This team will need Alex and Colin...and Frank, Brandon, David, Michael, Patrick, Aldon, LaMichael, etc... It is a team game Faithfuls. Be happy we have players that are ultra effective in all phases of the game!!
    Oct 6, 2012 at 9:32 AM
  • Tom
    Geez, get over yourself. It's just a game. As Steve Young once said. For some fans it will never be enough for the team to just win, they have to do it with style points as well. As to Jenkins and James do you really think given all of the personnel groupings they use on offense that if these two were ready to play they wouldn't be on the field? Quite frankly it is hard for me to imagine James being better than Hunter right now and I suspect Jenkins is being groomed to replace Crabtree who I don't see returning after his deal is up.
    Oct 5, 2012 at 9:34 AM
  • Patrick
    I don't think the writer of this article was asking to bench Smith in favor of Kaepernick like a few of you posters seem to think. His point that the offense could use Kaepernick injected here and there for some explosiveness is valid. It's also good for his development - like Montana was given early in his career. For all we know the throw by Kaep to Moss when he was triple covered may have been what he was asked to do. This is Randy Moss and when he doesn't catch the ball he is great at keeping the defenders from getting it. It's possible he was told to throw to Randy regardless of coverage. Enzo hit it on the head in an earlier post about Smith. He is slow to go thru reads and throws high and long often. I won't be surprised if this season ends like last with Smith at the helm. We are STACKED at WR now. We should be able to throw for more yards.
    Oct 4, 2012 at 9:01 AM
  • Nate
    I want to see more of the 1st drive in the detroit game...we have that kind of potential...1:12 4plays 67yrds explosiveness as promised...and then nothing. We have not seen that kind of drive since.
    Oct 4, 2012 at 5:39 AM
  • Lucky Phil
    Jeff, you have made a valid argument, the niners still have not made an improvement in explosive plays after the first four games of the season. Which is very surprising since our first two draft picks and Moss and Manningham were acquired to specifically improve the passing game. However, I don't fault A. Smith. I blame Harbaugh and Roman: our first two draft picks have not been activated to play, Moss is sitting on the bench, and Manningham our most versatile receiver is slowly being incorporated into the offense. If James is the second coming of Sproles which I assume Baalke believes he is, de-activate Ginn (he's worthless) and get him out there. Same goes for Moss, if the coaching staff does not believe in Moss put AJ Jenkins out there. We have had a great deal of success with conservative decision making. But the real downfall of the niners this season will be their inability to convert on 3rd down and throw TD's. And both these problems are one and the same. Roman needs to learn when to be more aggressive in the passing game, we have all the weapons.
    Oct 3, 2012 at 8:26 PM
  • Rey
    The throw by CK to Randy Moss was short. Deep pass? CK should just be a running back instead of being a QB.
    Oct 3, 2012 at 8:05 PM
  • Johnny
    Jeff does have a point in this article. Where is the explosiveness?? We've had enough to be 3-1 through the first quarter of the season but eventually it needs to show up. Especially against NE, NYG, and all the divisional games coming up. Kaep shouldnt start, that is for sure, but the offense has to find something. The "wildcat" is a cute gimmick and it worked once but it doesnt win championships, period. Teams just need to take a page from Belichick VS. Tebow and you can stop the wildcat offense. Im ok with a little Kaep wrinkle in the offense to catch the D off guard. Alex was wildly inaccurate on the deep balls against the Jets and that has to be corrected. The plays were there to be made and he missed them all. The play calling has been just fine in my book, we arent executing thats all. A 34-0 win is always great, especially against NY Jets im sorry. But looking ahead to the upcoming opponents, we need to cash in on the big play opportunities when they are available. I think Alex Smith is going to improve his chemistry with the receiving corps and hes due for a BIG game very soon (320, 3, 0)....soon.
    Oct 3, 2012 at 7:43 PM
  • Ughhh
    Another article about how the grass is always greener with the backup QB. Move along...
    Oct 3, 2012 at 5:05 PM
  • 49ernickname
    Why don't you go write for the cowboys who have a qb more to your liking and you can applaud his throws into the teeth of the defense, and singlehandedly lose games? You would be so happy....
    Oct 3, 2012 at 2:41 PM
  • Annoyed
    Really?!? The Niners can't afford to wait anymore?!? For an unproven, raw, inaccurate (you call Smith inaccurate? What about Kaep?!?) passer who ran the Wildcat in college? Your dramatic writing style hardly masks a rather ill-founded, reactionary piece.
    Oct 3, 2012 at 11:02 AM
  • Ironhawk86
    Harbaugh's line of reasoning was that getting away from the run is what cost them in Minnesota so reestablishing the ground game was priority #1. Kap's just another Kordell Stewart at this point and while thrusting him into a starting role may produce more big plays, it will also result in a lot of turnovers. The OL was drafted as a power-running group so it's best to play to that strength for now.
    Oct 3, 2012 at 12:43 AM
  • Nick S.
    "Our offense is more explosive with Kaepernick." Like Neil said, Kaep didn't even complete a pass. But boy Jeff, I'm sure you were happy Kaep threw that deep ball into triple coverage to your boy RAAAAAAAANDY. If Alex did that and it was picked, you'd crucify him.
    Oct 2, 2012 at 11:15 PM
  • Kyle
    Great article, couldn't agree more. Dude looked great in the preseason too, hopefully we keep inserting him more and more into the offense because with him playing to his potential we're unstoppable.
    Oct 2, 2012 at 10:54 PM
  • Enzo
    Alex Smith can be great in passing situations when the Offense is orchestrated to suit his strengths or when he can read the opposing defense prior to the snap. But my concern has always been when the opposing team schemes and reads our pass plays which disrupts his first read & the time he takes to process to switch to his next target. Thus, he holds on to the ball to make the 2nd or 3rd read, and when he releases it, it's either too high or overthrown. Yet when he's delivering the ball to VD who most of the time is the intended target he seemed to be fine.... which to my eyes is a good quality of a backup QB by today's NFL Standard. No wonder Harbaugh & G-Ro tinkered and even visited Peyton Manning during the offseason. Just makes you think. Because the explosive offense they've been meaning to put in place requires a QB that instinctively knows how to execute it.
    Oct 2, 2012 at 10:53 PM
  • Matt
    Do people forget that smith won a playoff game?? Kaepernick threw one pass into triple coverage. How is smith supposed to throw good games if we run every single dang play. Alex can do it! Stop with this Colin Kaepernick thing already. Alex is a QB not a wildcat QB.
    Oct 2, 2012 at 9:12 PM
  • K E
    Well I tried to give A.Smith a chance, but win or no win he has a way of giving me acid reflux 3 or so times a game. He just can't seem to connect deep, and that is not Roman's problem. I think Alex is a place holder, until we get a true talent at QB. The great thing is I still think we can win a SB with him.... wait, what the hell am I complaining about? I need some pepsid ac.
    Oct 2, 2012 at 9:05 PM
  • neil
    he didn't even complete a pass... calm down with your hyperbolic statements.
    Oct 2, 2012 at 8:15 PM
  • mikesf
    I totally agree with your insight. The 49ers should have scored more than 34 points against the inept Jets. The 49ers are not going to rush for these huge yards every week and they need to solve the passing game. They continue to be terrible (being nice here) on third downs, red zone, and playing the soft zone. They may get away with the Bills coming up but not against the NY Giants. The passing game must improve if the 49ers are to be serious. The Cardinals and the Seahawks are no pushovers and there is no guarantee that they will win these games. It is time to get the ball in the air or put in Kaepernick.
    Oct 2, 2012 at 7:10 PM
  • Dan
    Be careful what you wish for. QB controversy will all but definitely ruin the potential for a Super Bowl. I like your articles but they are somewhat skewed. If Smith threw that pass into 3 DB coverage you would have scolded him in your writing. But Kaep is a savior? Harbaugh needs to use this platoon carefully. Just like a controversy will kill a SB, so will a divided locker room. Who should we follow will be the question. The gameplan was to run over the Jets, due to tendency and knowledge of Rex Ryan. Each game is different. It just happened that this week they needed to run more than pass. Everybody needs to cool the jets on Kaepernick. (No pun intended.) He has a lot of work to do before he jogs onto the field and ignites the second coming of Joe Montana!
    Oct 2, 2012 at 6:52 PM
  • 9ersRbck
    There is nothing wrong with this column and it doesn't single out anyone good or bad. It only states the obvious, the team's passing game lingers at the bottom of the league yet again. With all the additions on offense, the receivers yet again are not being utilized to their potential. Maybe Kaepernick can bring more or maybe he can't, but one thing for sure is the offensive passing game may not be losing games, but it sure isn't dominating or even winning games either.
    Oct 2, 2012 at 6:21 PM
  • Ceadderman
    I hate to be Debbie Downer here but I like your writing style. The logic is there and if there is one thing I like it's writing using applied logic. HOWEVER... the one Pass that Kappy heaved down the field into Triple Coverage came very close to getting picked off. If Moss didn't knock the ball away the momentum could have very easily given the Jets life. Kappy is nowhere near ready to take over the job. That much is clear. He was running designed plays all game long. Which is great and all but Smith doesn't run that kind of Gimmick Offense. Am I the only person that was wanting Roman to stop being too damned cute when our team Lost to the Vikings? And then sitting there scratching my head wondering if G-Ro is the guy for the job this past Sunday? Don't get me wrong I like Winning and Winning cures everything but 10 points in the first Half? Should have had more than that. And you cannot blame the QB for this because the plays that stalled most of the Drives were RUN plays.
    Oct 2, 2012 at 5:54 PM

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