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The Kaepernick Dilemma: to Do Run Run Run or to Don’t Run Run

Dec 4, 2014 at 6:36 PM

Of all the possible solutions to recent 49er woes, fans clamor for this one the most. Our offense struggles, while the most dynamic player on the squad seems pocket-bound. We remember the bullet speed, the defenders leapt at a single bound, the superstar in the making. We remember big chunks of yardage. We remember defensive coordinators quaking. Where have those plays gone?

Some, former 49er quarterback Steve Young among them, think that Kaep should spend more, not less, time in the pocket. They lament the fact that Colin has not yet mastered the art of pocket passing, and insist that he should study the intricacies of the position instead of dashing headlong into defenses. Mr. Young even recalls the bygone days of Bill Walsh and Sid Gilman. This line of thought makes sense, but leaves out a few things. First, the 49ers' staff has already spent countless hours coaching the lad up. Second, Bill Walsh and Sid Gilman are no longer around to draw up plays, and if they were, might very well concoct some fresh running plays for Kaep, since the old ones have gone somewhat stale. Third, comparing contemporary pro-offense gurus to Gilman and Walsh is like comparing contemporary political leaders to George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. While reminders of excellence help to elevate aspirations, the overall comparison is a bit too one-sided to yield much insight. As for Young's assertion that Sid Gilman once tied Steve's legs together so he could not run from the pocket, I doubt the bondage took place during actual games.

Yes, Colin Kaepernick does need to read defenses better. And, yes, he does need to continue improving as a pocket passer. But that pocket-sized Colin Kaepernick may never exist. Right now, and for these next four games, much of his value, like it or not, still inheres in his ability to run. Gilman may have physically hobbled his quarterbacks; the 49ers, meanwhile, may have psychologically shackled their one-time star. Understandably, especially considering his backups, the Niners do not want Kaep to incur an injury while cavorting through linebackers. But, given the decline in his offensive line, shy of pass-blocking abilities even in their prime, might not the young QB risk injury anyway when forced into scrambles?

Jim Harbaugh abhors risk, and his conservative approach wins a lot of games. But that overly cautious approach may have backfired with regard to his young signal-caller, and I don't just mean the X's and O's. Early in the season at his post-game press conferences, Colin seemed overly sensitive to his perceived shortcomings, occasionally even blurting out the pre-snap coverages he had recognized during the game, as though he had to prove his competence. The 49ers quickly channeled his responses back to Harbaughesque vagueness, but now Colin has begun to lightly season that blandness with dribs of diffidence and drabs of frustration. After all, from his point of view, he should concentrate on leading his team, not answering endless scapegoating questions or fending off the ire from fans.

Last week on the NFL Network, Brian Billick, an analyst with former 49er ties, said he was "worried about Colin Kaepernick." Mr. Billick did not elaborate, but 49er fans have already done so. We have seen our young would-be prince begin to battle his own demons as well as the opponent. We have watched our once-and-future king throw yet more hapless passes in the direction of Richard Sherman. And we have witnessed the ebb in his confidence, the downcast demeanor, the throttled voice, the waning of his enthusiasm. We would perhaps do well to remember, amid our teeth gnashing and our frenzy to blame, that no one feels the disappointment in his performance more keenly than does Colin himself. Yes, he gets paid the big bucks, and, yes, quarterbacks do take more blame than they deserve. But this young man has dedicated his life to his profession. He does his best.

And Colin Kaepernick's best includes running the ball. Face it. He will probably never read defenses as well as Payton Manning. Few do. And he may never be as accurate as state-of-the-art Tom Brady. Few are. He may never measure up to our ideal. But he is the quarterback we have, and that quarterback excels at hell-bent runs. Not at scrambling to find an open receiver, not even so much at reading read-option options, but at pitting his speed against the defenses on plays when he bursts past the line of scrimmage with enough steam to outflank the designated QB spies and pick up chunk yardage. Defenses fear Kaepernick most on broken plays. To confine him too strictly to the pocket takes away the one thing he does best, the one thing Manning and Brady cannot do: shred defenses with his fleet feet.

Maybe, at this, he will fail. Maybe defenses will shadow him with not one, but two, spies. Maybe defensive fronts will consistently maintain containment discipline. But at least he will fail doing what he does best. Even the mere attempts may bolster his confidence and help to rekindle the feeling that he can contribute meaningfully to the team on those dread days when his accuracy falters and defensive disguises confound his reads. At least he would look more like a football player and less like a baffled calf.

Of course, the 49er coaches know this, and last year, during the playoffs, they did unshackle Kaep the caperer. This season, considering the 49ers' current record, the must-win games may have already arrived. Yes, Kaepernick must continue his grind to become a better pocket passer. But the entire offseason lies ahead for that, and future regular seasons as well. And, yes, injury risk always abides, although the Niners appear to have schooled Kaepernick well in "slide before they hit you" theory. But Kaepernick may be in his prime now, not later. Perhaps he has already peaked. And maybe we should all put aside our pipe-dreams of a perfect quarterback for a while and accept the fact that the actual quarterback we now have does possess demonstrable flaws. Alas, just like the rest of us, he's human. But he also possesses demonstrable strengths, among them his extraordinary foot speed.

No, Kaepernick runs alone cannot reboot entirely a stumblebum offense. But a couple of chunk-yardage plays per game may goose it back into relevance. And, while they're at it, the 49ers might consider letting Kaepernick do the other thing at which he has excelled: the medium-deep passes where he can utilize his laser arm. Yes, this may risk interceptions, but the Niners need some strike plays. The dink-and-dunk passing attack, when combined with the diminished running game, actually increases the chances for mistakes, because the resultant long drives require more plays. And, in part because of poor special-teams play, the Niners this year have faced more long drives than they should, despite their strong defense.

Admittedly, it goes against Coach Harbaugh's maize-and-blue grain to take chances. But, sometimes, refusing to take chances has its costs, in this case the risk that such rigid control may permanently damage a young QB's mind-set and undermine his game. And football, as well as being a multi-billion dollar business, is still also a game, and can be played as such. Restore the young man's joy. Revive his verve. Set the lad free. It's not as if the converse has worked out so well. If the 49ers do go down, at least they will have gone down Kaepernicking.
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.


  • Rick
    This is the best thing I've read regarding the 49ers , Kap , and the coaching staff in a long while. Start running and I believe we'll start winning and then we can put to rest the BS about trading Harbaugh and finding a new QB. Just run Kap. Just run.
    Dec 5, 2014 at 7:35 PM
    Response: Thanks for your comments, and sorry about their belated posting. As with the other comments, I didn't get them until several days after the original article was posted.
  • jk
    Find it hard to take any writer seriously that in 4 years he hasn't even learned our QB's moniker. You haven't even learned it is Kap? Who the heck is Kaep?
    Dec 5, 2014 at 3:20 PM
    Response: Sometimes it's best not to take oneself too seriously. Thanks, and sorry about the belated posting of your comments, but, as with the others, I didn't get them until several days had passed.
  • spoon
    What this Mr. Owens fails to recognize is that; other than trying to save someone's job or finish a season plagued by injury strong, there is no reason to jeoprodize kaep's health or progression.... And there has been progress; he reads better and has started to move through his progressions instead of desperately finding a place to run... As fans we all want to win, but if Kaep is gonna reach his seemingly endless potential, we need to allow the coaches to do their job (which is next to impossible with a running qb) even when we think we know better lol
    Dec 5, 2014 at 2:14 PM
    Response: Thanks for the comments. Sorry, as with all the others, that they weren't posted earlier, but I didn't get them until several days after the original article was posted.
  • Alex Espinza
    WELL WRITTEN!!!! And I totally agree!! And as for Steve Young he was also a runner not just a pocket QB!!!
    Dec 5, 2014 at 11:37 AM
    Response: Sorry about the belated posting of your comments, but I didn't get them for several days. Thank you.
  • Paul
    He used to be dangerous. The threat of him running opened up the running for the running backs and the pass game. He has zero rushing tds this year. I looked at his stats and he averages more runs per game this year, but it doesn't seem like it. You need to allow him to play to his strengths while working on his weaknesses.
    Dec 5, 2014 at 11:31 AM
    Response: Thanks for the input, and sorry your comments weren't posted earlier. Glitch in the system.
  • mbniner
    My God! A column that is rational, doesn't rely on personal attacks or rants, or splashy controversies. Yes, this is the reality of the present situation with our QB and your suggestion of returning more to his running roots is sound. You'll probably be drummed out of the bloggers club for writing it.
    Dec 5, 2014 at 10:23 AM
    Response: Appreciate the comments, and sorry they weren't posted earlier, but I got them several days late.
  • Aubrey
    Nice piece, D.C.
    Dec 5, 2014 at 9:40 AM
    Response: Thank you, and sorry about the belated posting of the comments. Glitch in the system.
  • Tim
    I had this brilliant idea... stick with what works and let kaepernick develop at his own pace. Best article I have read so far detailing his struggles...
    Dec 5, 2014 at 9:25 AM
    Response: Sorry your comments weren't posted earlier, but I didn't get the comments until several days after my article was posted. Thanks for reading.
  • Diana Goodfellow
    You said it let the Lad Go Kaepernick is a running Quarter back he needs to play the way he knows how otherwise there season will be OVER. I love the Niners always have. Hes not Joe Montana, but for god sakes .. LET HIM PLAY THE WAY HE KNOWS HOW... And we Might just make it to the Superbowl.. Go KAP Go Kap Go Kap... LET HIM PLAY A QUARTERBACK..........................
    Dec 5, 2014 at 7:46 AM
    Response: Thank you. I didn't get the comments (including yours) until several days after the article went up ... my apologies to all.
  • Chas
    I agree. Trying to make Kaepenick a pocket passer would be reinforcing failure. He should have been learning that in High School. 49ers need to maintain or improve an excellent defense, fix and add depth to the O line and find a solid young power running back. Then they can rely on the Defense to keep them in games, control the ball with the running game, and be opportunistic in the passing game. Oh and let Kaep run. All these things would help mitigate the 49ers biggest weakness and that is what is between Keaps ears. I am not a Kaep hater, 49ers can win with him but they can't force that square peg in a round hole.
    Dec 5, 2014 at 7:40 AM
    Response: Thanks for your comments, and sorry I didn't get the comments until several days after the article was posted.
  • Ausome
    I was with you until we started talking about mid to long passes. I believe we need to build some rythymn on offense. The Seahawks game we went 20 plus yards on throws several times in the first couple possessions. The throws were inaccurate because in my mind Kap was pressing. Success builds confidence. A confident Kap can do anything. First play of the Seattle game was a run up the gut for 7 to Gore. We continue to do that until we have the Seahawks all in the box, then we start working the short perimeter to draw their corners up. Then we can take a shot downfield to keep them honest. Our play calling seems to have the goal of fooling the defense. I would like the play calling designed to build some Kap confidence. Just my two bits.
    Dec 5, 2014 at 6:54 AM
    Response: Thanks for the comments, and sorry that they were posted so late, but I didn't get them until several days after posting the article.
  • JMathews
    Very well said!
    Dec 5, 2014 at 6:20 AM
    Response: Thanks. Apologies for belatedly posting your comment, but, due to a glitch, I didn't get the comments for several days.
  • Tom
    The NFL is littered with the burnt out carcasses of "running QB's" unless he actually learns how to play the position he is never going to get the team where it wants to go
    Dec 5, 2014 at 1:33 AM
    Response: Thanks for the comment, which I didn't get until several days after the article was posted ... sorry about the delay.
  • MartyOne
    Long story short - set Kap free, and let him run! Let him run 10 to 15 times a game (design runs, rollout plays, bootleg, or read options). By doing that, that will keep the opposing defenses honest... and then you can do the med-range dink-and-dunk passes for 15 to 25 yards.
    Dec 4, 2014 at 10:08 PM
    Response: Sorry your comments weren't posted earlier, but I didn't get them until several days after the article went up. Thanks for reading.
  • Shannon
    I totally agree with your article! I've been telling people for weeks that the 49ers need to let Kaepernick run. I loved your article, thanks!
    Dec 4, 2014 at 9:27 PM
    Response: Thank you. Sorry about the late posting of your comments, but I didn't get the them until several days after the article was posted.
  • 35yearfan
    Finally a well balanced honest article. It's better to face reality and work with what you have. You have to play with the cards you're dealt, that's the game. It's also a pleasure not to read another hate Kapernick, hate Harbaugh, hate Roman screed...I honestly don't get this whole "hater" syndrome. No team is perfect, get over it and get ready for the next game. Go Niners!
    Dec 4, 2014 at 9:26 PM
    Response: Thank you. I didn't get the comments until several days after the article went up ... sorry about the late posting.
  • ReB
    The news last summer of Kaepernick's activities in Miami Beach where he was "weight training" doesn't inspire hope in future study habits, despite his image of total commitment. I suspect the man at his age is mature and we won't be seeing much more than what we see now. A quarterback running is of a very limited life. Young's concussions in a limited career as a starter is ample evidence. If Kaepernick can't depend on more than an incidental run for his future I hope he studies harder. I'm not hopeful as celebrity status and $ isn't helping.
    Dec 4, 2014 at 8:51 PM
    Response: Apologies for the late posting of your comments, but I didn't get then until several days after the article went up. Thanks for reading.
  • Jerry
    What a great article. Thank you so much for such an intelligent actual football related article. I completely agree. It is doubtful in my mind that Kap ever becomes a better than average pocket passer so let him do what he does best. It would be fun to watch and it can't be any less successful than what he has been doing. I agree that he is a very earnest young man who is not having any fun. Turn him loose and let what ever happens happen. Neither he or the team have much to lose at this point. More articles like this PLEASE.
    Dec 4, 2014 at 7:27 PM
    Response: Thanks. I didn't get the comments until several days after the article went up ... sorry about the belated posting.
  • Christine
    I love this article. Completely on point. Good job.
    Dec 4, 2014 at 7:22 PM
    Response: Thanks. Sorry about the belated posting of the comments, but, due to a glitch, I didn't get them till several days after posting the article.

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