For Kaepernick, The Honeymoon’s Over

Feb 3, 2014 at 12:04 PM63

When the Seahawks, whom we should've beaten, went on to just destroy the Broncos, it was easy to think, for the third year straight, just how close we seem to be.

But as I review these last two weeks, I wonder just how close we are.

Two decades ago, Joe Montana sat in a meeting room, watching film with his receivers and an offensive coach. The coach was focused on getting the receivers to run their routes with total precision, making the play look the same on the field as it did on the chalkboard. For example, the coach noted an issue with the way they were running a double-post; the receivers were getting too close together, allowing one corner to cover them both. Finding a play where they were able to keep the proper distance, the coach nearly squealed with delight. "That's a pretty picture," he said.

Montana, of course, had nothing against running perfect routes. After all, his legend was chiefly the product of a system that placed precision above all else. Nevertheless, he didn't think that the coach's focus was necessarily in the right place. To Montana, what mattered wasn't so much the "perfection" of a receiver's route. What mattered, instead, was the receiver's position in relation to the corner. In other words, if the receiver had to choose between running the route as the coach designed it, and opening up a passing lane, the receiver should screw the route and just get open. "Because if you're shoulder to shoulder with the cornerback," Montana said, "I'm gonna have to come off you."

Though Montana was the game's closest thing to a superhero, he knew that his job was much simpler than that. In the West Coast Offense, he understood, someone somewhere would always be open. Montana's job was simply to find him. So that was what he told his receivers. It doesn't matter who you are; what matters, instead, is whether you're open. If you are, I'll throw to you. If you're not, I'll move along.

As you might recall, with his last play against Seattle, Colin Kaepernick threw a deep pass into the end zone, intended for Michael Crabtree. As you might also recall, the pass was tipped and intercepted, costing the Niners the Super Bowl. In the aftermath, the pass was analyzed a hundred different ways. Some questioned the play-call, noting that we didn't need to be so aggressive. Some questioned the match-up, noting that Crabtree was up against Richard Sherman, the league's top corner. And some questioned the pass itself, noting that it was underthrown.

But the central issue was something else, much simpler and much worse.

Crabtree was covered, and Kaepernick just didn't care.

Crabtree, indeed, was "shoulder to shoulder with the cornerback." (Actually, that's saying it generously; Sherman was slightly ahead of Crabtree, as well as inside him.) The passing lane was impossibly small, if it even existed at all. Montana, then, would've come off him, looking for that open man. (And, indeed, he would've found one.) But Kaepernick threw it anyway, and that's the central issue here.

When Kaepernick made basically the same mistake, in basically the same situation, at the end of the previous Super Bowl, I forgave him immediately. Sure, in a way, the Super Bowl was much more egregious; naturally, the stakes were higher, and Kaepernick tried to force it to Crabtree on three occasions, not just once. But there was plenty of mitigation; Kaepernick was a virtual rookie, going against a seasoned defense, and each of those throws would've drawn a flag from any other officiating crew.

So what mattered wasn't so much the mistake, as painful as the mistake might've been. What mattered was, he needed to learn.

Shockingly, Kaepernick didn't. And to make matters worse, he still hasn't.

A week after the Seattle game, Kaepernick asserted that his only mistake was the underthrow. As for the decision to throw it at all, he didn't show a trace of regret. He showed, instead, a stubborn defiance: "I'm going to take Crabtree every chance I get on a one-on-one matchup." No matter whether Crabtree is covered—no matter who else might be open—he "would do it the same way again."

To be fair, Kaepernick spoke at least partly for show, defending Crabtree against Sherman's postgame incoherence. But nevertheless, Kaepernick merely confirmed what these last two seasons seemed to suggest. When the stakes are highest, Kaepernick is throwing to Crabtree, no matter what.

How many times must this policy fail, before he starts to consider a new one?

Crabtree's a solid top-receiver, but he's not Jerry Rice, whom Kaepernick makes him out to be. (Indeed, if he were that great, wouldn't one of these passes have worked?) But that's not even the point. Montana had Jerry Rice, and even he didn't just assume that Rice would win every one-on-one. Sometimes, Rice was covered; and if Rice was covered, Montana moved on.

He didn't just throw it up into coverage. That's how you throw away championships.

This offseason, Kaepernick's contract will be a hot topic. And it's amazing how one play can change your perspective. Before that play, I would've thrown the world at him. Physically, he was—and still is—the most spectacular quarterback ever. And he did produce a spectacular season, making me say, going into the playoffs, "Colin Kaepernick isn't the issue." But this franchise isn't about spectacular seasons; it's about collecting Super Bowl titles. And with that in mind, after that play, I can't deny the simple truth.

Something here is seriously wrong. Contrary to popular belief, Kaepernick isn't a one-read QB. But when the stakes are highest, he becomes one, with disastrous results.

After his Super Bowl heartbreak, Kaepernick was given that rarest of gifts: an honest-to-goodness second chance. The fact that he did the same thing again—that he didn't learn from that awful pain—is almost literally unbelievable. And now, after we've been through the three most gut-wrenching consecutive playoff defeats in the history of the game, he's got the sheer audacity to say, if he's lucky enough to get a third chance, he's just gonna do the same thing again?

What on earth is wrong with this kid?

It's interesting, what heartbreak will do. For me, Kaepernick was love at first sight. It wasn't just his physical skills; it was also his utter indifference to fear. But fearlessness, though crucial for success in any pursuit, can all too easily morph into recklessness. And though fearlessness might take you right to the end, recklessness will strand you there. Recklessness will break your heart.

The season just ended, but next season's story is already here. For Kaepernick, the honeymoon's over. The benefit of the doubt is gone. He's gotten us tantalizingly close, but to get us over this awful hump, he must adjust his big-game approach. At this point, I'm not sure that he can. But after all, he's got no choice.

He just can't break my heart again.
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.


  • chantos
    Jeff, when are you writing again?
    Feb 20, 2014 at 1:49 PM
    Response: I usually chill out 'til the draft, Chantos. Thanks for missing me, though.
  • Rafiki cruz
    CK7 is a Good quarterback, but he needs a Good WR, Crabtree is not the option and Boldin is too expensive for the niners. 2014 is the last chance for CK7 and all the team.
    Feb 11, 2014 at 7:42 PM
  • Lucky Phil
    First day off in three weeks. So of course I go back to Kaplan's Comments Board. Had to respond to Psinex' comments over my morning coffee. First, I can't bash Kap. He had a bad game in two playoff games, losing both to the Ravens and Seahawks. His fault, gross overconfidence in Crabtree that he will win every 50-50 ball in one on one coverage against anybody. I can't defend this thinking. However, I think it's wrong to bash Kap for this poor decision. He is a smart, hardworking, incredibly talented athlete, I don't want to shake this young QB's confidence. I want him to grow as a player and learn to make better decisions and quicker reads. He will grow as a QB, he has the work ethic, talent, and drive to be great. But the one thing I want him to understand and everybody else, Crabtree is an overrated possession receiver, stop forcing balls to this guy. Kap is the guy that will win us the Superbowl, Crabtree is the guy we need to replace.
    Feb 10, 2014 at 8:59 AM
  • louie
    It's coaching. When a team with this much talent (time is running out) has problems in the Red Zone time after time after time, it's coaching. Discipline and play calling can be corrected if the coaches know how.
    Feb 10, 2014 at 8:38 AM
  • Joe
    I think your read of Kaepernick, which mirrors my own, is correct. He has awesome physical talent, but his grasp of the art and science of quarterbacking seems lacking at the most fundamental level. Rule # 1 for a QB (stated by QB coaches worth their salt, including Coach Jim Harbaugh himself): Protect the football. INTs and lost fumbles will kill your team. Colin was singularly responsible for three turnovers, throwing two INTs and losing one fumble. You cannot score if you don't have the football. It's really that simple. Good QBs never leave good throws on the field. A good throw is any throw that advances your team towards a score. Kaepernick often ignores the short dump-off (the type of throw Alex Smith learned to find in his last two years with the 49ers) and will take the long shot. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. But the point is, ignoring the open man means you lose the chance to gain yardage. Every positive yard gained adds up to a scoring possession. In contrast, every incompletion and turnover adds up to a lost opportunity to move the ball forward. Kaep needs to improve dramatically if the 49ers are to hoist the Lombardi Trophy again.
    Feb 8, 2014 at 7:05 PM
  • AZ9er
    I think you are right. Kap has physical gifts that make GMs drool. Hey, he ran for 200 yards on GB. Then threw for 300 yards on GB. Kap seems to play indecisively and inconsistently. Not knowing to run or pass. Might have been due to line play. Could have been OC play calling. Kept putting Kap in tough situations. Still, he doesn't trust some guys yet. He's got to be like Brady, keep throwing to them anyway. Newton seems calmer in the pocket. Wilson is shorter and probably slower than Kap. But he's smarter with the football. According to Wilson makes 500k. Kap makes 1 mil. Wilson should ask for a raise. GMs can take a wait and see approach. Like the Ravens, Flacco got close, but not elite. Except, he won the SB, got 100 mil. He's not worth it. So probably better to set salary now. Tannehill makes 10 mil. Luck and Griffin make 20 mil. Those guys were first rounds. So they should get more. Kap should get 7-8 mil for 3 yrs.
    Feb 7, 2014 at 10:28 PM
  • Toby
    I think the article places too much emphasis on the student while completely ignoring the teacher. Montana had Walsh who many say was the greatest QB coach ever. Also, Montana accounted for at least 3 turnovers in the 1981 Championship game ("The Catch"). Prior to "The Catch" Walsh called timeout, calmed his young, STRUGGLING QB down, and then Montana made an incredibly difficult pass to a WR who made the play. To me, Kaep could have benefited greatly from leadership and poise from the Coaching position. However, it was absent and Kaep was left to his own devices and, yes, he failed.
    Feb 5, 2014 at 12:28 PM
  • Marty
    Kap is not the accurate QB Montana was, but i disagree that he failed to learn given just two seasons. Montana wasn't as gifted athletically, so he had to rely on accuracy and good decision making. Kap is still a young QB, and to have reached the SB and won more road playoff games than Montana or Young, he's extremely talented. Hope his "success" hasn't blinded him. If the Niners draft a featured WR like Sammy Watkins or Mike Evans, or make a blockbuster trade for Josh Gordon, then the WR corps will be much more balanced, and he wouldn't just have to bank on Crabtree alone...
    Feb 5, 2014 at 9:55 AM
    Response: That's no excuse. Boldin, Davis, and Patton are very good complementary receivers. Kaepernick's persistent banking on Crabtree alone is his own fault.
  • Chantos
    I agree that CK made a huge mistake throwing the ball to crabtree, but I also put a good part of the blame in the horrible timeout management by JH. First and ten with 47 or so seconds, call a timeout!! Reorganize your playcalling and go back to the field with less time pressure! There was also an offside by aldon smith that RW saw and knowing it was a free play made the throw to the endzone which gave the SH the advantage!! Anyway, CK needs to start acting like a franchise player, inside and outside the field!
    Feb 4, 2014 at 10:28 PM
  • T
    Isn't it partly the coaches' fault for not telling him it was the wrong read? Maybe the coaches don't want to hurt his confidence and put the blame entirely on him. I think you're correct though, I'm sure Pete Carroll would take that throw and match-up every time.
    Feb 4, 2014 at 9:03 PM
  • niner
    tough business. remember when brady and kurt warner took over. what??? who???? but they went on to prove it. right now Kap is no better than mike vick level. maybe he can get to favre level but so far he has not shown the steve young potential. but that may be too much to ask, young and bill walsh and shanahan. Our wco roots however have been lost. a team with more probowlers than Montana or young cannot be last in passing. Its clearly the coaching or lack of. The doubts have to be placed on Harbaugh not Kap as Alex had similar problems in the second half of the Giants championship game. Harbaugh is right, his brother is the better coach. (just hired Kubiak and the wco for the Ravens)
    Feb 4, 2014 at 8:11 PM
  • Nathan
    Kap's problem - and the team's offensive problem - is the gimmicky Greg Roman offense whose complexity only serves to exhaust timeouts and confuse itself. I eagerly await his departure. Second, this offense has considerable talent but lacks dedication to detail, focus & hence perfection. It causes the team to stutter and start for drive after drive (the entire first half in the case of the Ravens SB). There are times I'm just hoping they can all get to the line and even snap the ball - let alone run a play properly. A long way from a Bill Walsh symphony!
    Feb 4, 2014 at 4:47 PM
  • Frank
    Kap has started less than two NFL seasons...and in that time took his team within 5 yds of a SB win and a couple of inches from winning the NFC Championship. Who else has done that? Nobody, that's who. Nobody will outwork Kap, nobody. He'll learn from his mistakes and get better. That's what you should write about.
    Feb 4, 2014 at 2:01 PM
  • Mike D.
    All of you who keep saying he's young and this is only his 3rd season!!! If you were among those who said that Alex Smith is a bust, you have no credibility!!! Alex Smith never had that! The 49ers were signing WR's off the street who were past their primes such as Johnny Morton. Remember that VD was drafted a year later and couldn't go out for passes because the 49ers were rebuilding the entire organization and drafting for Offense and Defense. And at that time the O-line was garbage!!! Kap has had the same playbook (which Alex Smith taught him after he paid for him to fly to SD for the quote/unquote camp Alex), same coaching staff, and the same players to work with since being drafted including VD and Crabtree!!! If Kap wants to be great, why does he go to the sideline after making a bad play and put his baseball cap on and fold his arms over his chest in disgust, instead of going over the still photos of that drive and seeing what other choices he had on said play? Like PM, TB, DB, I've even seen Russell Wilson do this on a regular basis and he was ONLY in his 2nd NFL season!!! Stop making the "he's young give him some time" excuses!!! And for those who have problems with the writer comparing Kap to Joe Cool & Steve Young, I have a better comparison for you!!! How about "Big" Ben Roethlisberger, who won the SB in his 2nd season, which was his first season starting with a SB ready team and they won it all because he spread the ball around and didn't just throw it to Hines Ward because he was his best WR!!!! You all sound just like Kap & Harbaugh acting like he shouldn't be criticized for his mistakes like anyone else!!! Especially for a guy who's had way more stability & continuity than the player he replaced!!!! Q: Did Alex Smith lose that playoff game for KC? Did Colin Kaepernick lose the NFCC game for the 49ers? P.S. KAP said it was his fault for the 3 to's which led directly to the 49ers losing that game after having the lead until those to's happened!!! Sorry for being so long-winded!!
    Feb 4, 2014 at 1:57 PM
  • E
    Alex had nowhere near the year Kap had. Their numbers were nearly equal, expect for advanced metrics (DVOA, WPA, ESPN QBR) where Kap was way better than Alex. Then you look at the schedules. Kap played against 8 defenses that were better than a single one Alex played against. That's half a season's worth of superior opponents.
    Feb 4, 2014 at 12:53 PM
  • Steve
    Jeff, Always a fan but boy, you've really flip-flopped yourself with this article. I cautioned in a comment a while back that "Kaepernick most certainly is a part of the problem." Now that hindsight has deemed that valid, you're preaching the same. Solid writing but when things are good, you're too effusive in praise and when the chips are down, you're too overdramatic in outlining the flaws. The true tale is somewhere in the middle, and the problem is partly Kap and largely Greg Roman.
    Feb 4, 2014 at 11:49 AM
  • Avi8ter
    It's hard for him to learn from his mistakes when he comes to the sideline and gets patted on the back by his coach after a horrible decision. The problem is way further up the chain of command. Kind of scary when "I'll take that matchup every time."
    Feb 4, 2014 at 10:09 AM
  • Lexington Michaels
    What an overdramatic article. Almost Skip Bayless esque! I understand your heartbreak over the whole scenario, after all it is gut-wrenching, but I remember a time in the early '90s when Steve Young took over at the helm. Niners won a single title in almost a decade stretch. Kaepernick is much younger and less skilled as a passer. You should be happy that we have been this successful. Remember 2003-2009?
    Feb 4, 2014 at 9:22 AM
    Response: I truly hate this kind of thinking. We're the NINERS, for crissake. We should be winning Super Bowl titles, and we shouldn't "be happy" with anything less.
  • Sweathappens
    The real problem is that the 49ers are unable to run against the Seahawks. When they figure that out they will be able to beat them. That's assuming that the Seahawks don't get better which is a big assumption. Hopefully Lattimore is a star. Gore is still good but not quite good enough. You run effectively in that NFC Championship game and the Niners win assuming that the secondary doesn't give it all away. Good luck Carlos!
    Feb 4, 2014 at 8:12 AM
  • SouthOfNoNorth
    I don't understand why people can't deal with the fact that each of the following statements can be at the same time true (N.1 doesn't rule out N.2!): 1- Kaep was the best 49er offensive player in the NFCCG. 2- If Kaep keeps thinking that throwing to Crabtree covered is a better choice than throwing to Boldin open, the 49ers may have a HUGE problem in the next years.
    Feb 4, 2014 at 7:36 AM
  • Kerwin
    Jeff, I wholeheartedly agree with your analysis. U can't leave the huddle predisposed to who you are going to throw it to without considering coverage. I said I thought he was anointed QB a year too soon. Aaron Rodgers is who he is because of having 3 years to grow. Like it or not, Alex Smith had a better year than Kap. But I thought this year would the year Kap supplanted him. It's time for Kap to deliver and I think he will, but he has to become more accurate, and read defenses quicker.
    Feb 4, 2014 at 6:13 AM
  • Ron Michaud
    Kap had run for over 130 yards and had taken some Nasty hits in that last game. That's what makes this entire subject a catch-22. Without those runs the Niners aren't even close... But with those runs Kap gets winded and roughed up to a point that his decision-making process is compromised. Bottom line, he must learn to use his legs as a tool the defense must respect, but ultimately... Championships can't be won by a quarterback running all over the place and Kaplan's point is well taken.
    Feb 4, 2014 at 6:06 AM
  • Kassandra
    When you're given a limited amount of time to correct your mistakes or learn from them, nothing is going to change. You are going to keep making those mistakes. There is no assurance of when things will be right. The only time we know that we have finally corrected our mistakes & learned from them is after it happens; when we face that same situation again but the outcome is different. So it's not fair to judge Kaepernick's entire NFL career based on a mistake he made either last year in the SB or 2 weeks ago in the NFCCG. Give him time to grow, to get experience as a starting QB because it is only his first full season after all... & most of all give him time to build a reputation. Montana didn't build his off of his first season did he? With plenty of mistakes come a lot of knowledge. So give him the time he needs & don't be too quick to point out his flaws and all as if no other QB in the leaque has any. But all in all, this was an excellent article!
    Feb 4, 2014 at 5:36 AM
  • jill
    It truly amazes me how jealousy brings out the worst in people. And how "eloquently" these people "think" they are masking it. Colin is an incredible QB, especially for just the two years he's started....and at 26...come on!!!!!!!!! Hmmmm, took the 49ers to a superbowl then the championship game the very next year? I'd say....kudos to Kap! He's only gonna get better from here and that's what these green-eyed insecure men are scared of....!
    Feb 4, 2014 at 4:05 AM
  • paul from oz
    Youre kidding right? The game shouldnt have come down to one final drive. The defence allowing wilson to land 2 long passes one of which was a TD is just as much to blame. Letting Lynch stroll through the guts of the defencive line. The refs' incorrect call on the low shot on the kicker. Blaming the best offensive player on the team is ridiculous.
    Feb 4, 2014 at 12:47 AM
  • KE
    I did learn something from this article... some 49er fans are as dumb as most raider fans. It's sad really. Go Harbaugh, Kap and Niners!
    Feb 3, 2014 at 10:16 PM
  • Psinex
    Phil: Think your attack of Crabtree is a bit off-base. Who is the one distributing the ball to receivers? Crabtree only runs his routes and tries to put himself in a position to make a play. Kaepernick was the one pulling the trigger on all of those fateful passes to Crabtree. He didn't go through his progressions, he just went straight to Crabtree as if he only had eyes for him. If Joe Montana had the same mentality in going to Rice, he would have never seen John Taylor get open for a TD to win the Superbowl against the Bengals. At some point, everyone has to acknowledge that Kaepernick is making poor decisions, rookie, 2nd or 3rd year more excuses. Foolish is foolish. We can only hope that next time he encounters what has become Kaepernick's Kobayashi Maru he tries a different approach. Maybe try passing underneath instead of out of the back corner of the end zone for a change.
    Feb 3, 2014 at 9:50 PM
    Response: I'm not ashamed to say that I caught your reference.
  • Zach Ameen
    Kap needs to learn pocket passing and must learn to deliver balls with timing. He lacks timing and often gets panicked. If he doesn't improve his passing game, he may not be able to keep this position for very long.
    Feb 3, 2014 at 9:31 PM
  • Sjsudb
    I have said the exact same things for the last 3 seasons but I disagree with u saying he had a great season. Look at his individual game stats, they were terrible, if it were not for our defense our record would have been a lot worse. Part of this may have to do with the fact that the coaches don't take pressure off of him by using more offensive sets. They need to use more screens or draw plays and not be so predictable in their playcalling or allow more checkdowns in run sets. We have underutilized the speed that we have on our team and need to be more aggressive on both offense and defense if we want to beat the aggressive teams in our division or the league.
    Feb 3, 2014 at 9:19 PM
  • Sdaddy101269
    You ask any NFL QB and when they have a one on one with their #1 WR they are going that way regardless because it's advantage WR. Smh at this 'writer'
    Feb 3, 2014 at 8:59 PM
    Response: I'll just say it again. Crabtree was covered. HE WAS COVERED! With the Super Bowl on the line, Kaepernick ignored open receivers and threw to one who wasn't. And you don't have a problem with this?

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