Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

49ers will only go as far as Colin Kaepernick takes them

Al Sacco
Apr 2, 2015 at 8:33 AM17

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During the majority of the Jim Harbaugh era, the 49ers managed to maintain a level of success few franchises could compete with.

Harbaugh's Niners went 36-11-1 from 2011-2013, and appeared in three straight NFC Championship games as well as Super Bowl XLVII. They did this in a very different manner than most teams would in the NFL during this particular era, in that they didn't have elite play at the quarterback position.

Consider that in the AFC, 12 of the last 14 teams to make the Super Bowl had either Tom Brady, Peyton Manning or Ben Roethlisbrger behind center. In today's pass happy NFL, an elite quarterback can make all the difference in the world in terms of a team's success rate.

The way San Francisco bucked this trend was by having a roster that was talented, deep and balanced at almost every position. They won games by running the ball and playing excellent defense, while getting good, mistake free play at quarterback.

From '11-'13, the 49ers finished eighth (2044), fourth (2491) and third (2201) in total yards rushing, all while throwing the fewest amount of interceptions in the league during that time frame (21).

On the other side of the ball they ranked second twice (2011, 2012) and third once (2013) in total defense, and allowed the fewest rushing yards overall in those three years.

How was San Francisco able to maintain such a talented roster? Good drafting and smart free agent pick ups had a lot to do with it, but they were mostly able to keep balance because they didn't have to pay their quarterback a large percentage of the cap, and could allocate the funds elsewhere.

As the Harbaugh era ends and the Jim Tomsula era begins, the franchise finds itself in a different predicament. The roster has turned over, and many of the mainstays from the recent run are gone or aging. Most of this didn't come as a surprise to general manager Trent Baalke (sans the Patrick Willis and Chris Borland retirements) and the team was prepared for the roster turnover.

Being prepared on paper and getting results on the field are two different things however, and players like Brandon Thomas, Carlos Hyde, Jimmie Ward, and Tank Caradine are unproven. It's also unknown how veteran additions like Darnell Dockett and Torrey Smith will fit in.

That's why much of the 49ers' future success will depend on one player: Colin Kaepernick.

For starters, while his deal is team friendly in the sense that it's basically a year-to-year contract, Kaepernick is still getting paid big bucks. He'll count over $15 million towards the cap in 2015, and that number will only increase as the years go on. He's being paid like an elite passer, and has to start performing like one.

Kaepernick's story is well documented at this point. He took the league by storm in 2012 after taking over for Alex Smith in week 11. His meteoric rise helped the 49ers make the Super Bowl that year, and came within 5 yards of winning it all.

As expected with any young quarterback though, Kaepernick was up-and-down the following season. He went into a funk from Weeks 2-11, averaging 154 yards passing a game while only completing 53.7 percent of his throws. He did turn it around late in the year though, and upped those totals to 232 and 61.8 over the final six weeks. Ultimately, the 49ers would return to the NFC Championship game, but three late turnovers by Kaepernick put the team in a hole they couldn't overcome.

After the late surge, many expected a breakout year from Kaepernick in 2014. Unfortunately, the season was largely a disaster. Outside distractions from the Harbaugh/Jed York fiasco no doubt played a part, but Kaepernick largely regressed as a passer.

He seemed to struggle to see the field and often broke the pocket too early. In turn, his team couldn't score points as he led the starting offense to only 29 touchdowns all year.

The offensive line was partially to blame, as poor pass protection was often the norm and Kaepernick seemed skittish possibly because of it. The 49ers allowed a sack percentage of 9.6, which was the third worse in the NFL. That number shouldn't be overly shocking though, as it was near the bottom of the league in every season under Harbaugh. They were sixth worst in 2011 (8.9 percent), third worst in 2012 (8.6 percent) and fourth worst in 2013 (8.6 percent). Still, with Daniel Kilgore and Anthony Davis returning to full health, as well as a full training camp from Alex Boone, the unit should be much improved next year if healthy.

Another issue was the fact that even though the 49ers had brand name players at wide out in Anquan Boldin, Michael Crabtree and Stevie Johnson, they were all kind of the same receiver. Each is more of a possession guy, and defenses were never worried about the deep ball. In turn, San Francisco was forced to play offense in a box, without any real threat of the big play.

With Smith now in the fold (and Vernon Davis presumably healthy), that won't be the case in 2015. For the first time in recent memory, the Niners have a legitimate deep threat, a tight end that causes mismatches, and someone to move the chains underneath in Boldin. They also have a versatile weapon in Bruce Eillington that can allow offensive coordinator Geep Cryst to get creative.

Something else that you could say hurt Kaepernick was the team's reluctance to throw to their running backs. Per Pro Football Focus, the 49ers attempted five screen passes to their running backs in 2014 (although I can't remember any of them) and the backs had 44 receptions totals.

With Reggie Bush now in the fold to go along with Carlos Hyde and Kendall Hunter, it would appear that using the running backs in the passing game will be something the team will look to do this upcoming season. Taking a check down can only help in Kaepernick's development, as 2nd-and-5 is much easier on a quarterback than 2nd-and-12.

The long and the short of it is, while some of the faces have changed, and more young players will begin to be worked in, Kaepernick still has a lot of talent around him. If he develops as a passer, there's no reason the 49ers can't be playoff team in 2015. As the years go on though, he'll have to continue to get better or San Francisco could be in trouble.

The 2016 season could bring even more transition if Boldin and Vernon Davis are no longer with the team. If younger players take their spots, they'll need a reliable veteran quarterback to continue to move the offense. Kaepernick doesn't have to be Tom Brady, but he will have to elevate his overall game to a Pro Bowl level.

Here's some food for thought though...if Kaepernick plays in 2015 the way he did last season, will he even be the quarterback in San Francisco come 2016?

Al Sacco has covered the 49ers for various sites over the years. He's been a guest on multiple podcasts and had his work used on ESPN NFL Insiders. Follow Al on Twitter @AlSacco49
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.


  • zach ameen
    Gary how many coaches can do this? Read ........Harbaugh's Niners went 36-11-1 from 2011-2013, and appeared in three straight NFC Championship games as well as Super Bowl XLVII.
    Apr 12, 2015 at 5:01 AM
  • zach ameen
    gary French. It wasn't a fault of Harbaugh. His QB was the dumbest QB in the league. He can not through Precise passes. He under throw or over throw, he is too mechanical, he can anticipate where his WR, TEs and FBs will be at in 3-5 step count, he can't throw screens so last thing from him to do is to run run run and when he is pressurized he seems to panic 100 of 100 times and his passes get more erratic. Harbaugh was making sure that he just manage game but Kaeperror failed miserably. It will continue. You can improve techniques but cannot change the personality and mind set
    Apr 12, 2015 at 4:59 AM
  • zach ameen
    And.... he will take us no where.. lol
    Apr 12, 2015 at 4:54 AM
  • Gary French
    Kap was handcuffed by the stupidity of Harbaugh and Roman last season. Did anyone see wide receiver screens? running back screens? How about short passing patterns? Nothing to help him develop rhythm. Then they kept him in the pocket to get killed. Don't run, Kap! This season will be far different and he will be in the Pro Bowl.
    Apr 10, 2015 at 8:34 AM
  • Al Wharton
    one thing that might change things is Hyde , he might turn to be as good as Gore or better in moving the ball. Last year our OL did not play good , hopefully this year will help Hyde to open holes for him . Kap , yes he needs to improve but still if we run the ball , we should be ok. not saying that we are going to the playoffs or anything , cuz we don' t have the same experienced coaches we had last year.
    Apr 6, 2015 at 6:48 AM
  • Lucky Phil
    With the team moving forward without Craps this offense will be much better next year. Baalke has the opportunity to move up and take DeVante Parker, the best all around receiver in this class. If we trade V. Davis we can get our CB at the end of the first rd. This is a deep draft there are some good players at WR and OL to be had in the latter rounds. I'm moving on this year and becoming a Texan fan but I'll still pull for guys like Kap, Staley and Bolden the only guys I care about anymore on this team.
    Apr 5, 2015 at 4:30 PM
  • David
    Fantastic article. It was a great read. The title makes it seem kind of "well, duh." But then reading the article, your point is more in depth than the impression that the title gives. You did an awesome job. Thanks for taking the time to write this. I really hope Kap takes a leap forward this year. No matter what issues we have, him doing that would keep us competitive.
    Apr 5, 2015 at 2:21 PM
    Response: Thanks David! Appreciate it
  • Joe Sarao
    It is a make or break year for kap, no doubt. Greg Roman is gone as well as all the blame that was placed on him. If kap can get through his progressions and become a legit pocket passer we will be deadly. Getting to the nfc championship on the defense doesn't seem to be realistic this year.
    Apr 4, 2015 at 11:34 AM
  • steven devault
    I think while kap had his fare share of mistakes he also had to deal with a injury plagued team along with poor play calling and game planning and was humble enough to do a self inventory of hself and see he needed work and took the only route he could take improve and I can't wait to us this season with that over due down field threat we've been needing to streach the field
    Apr 2, 2015 at 8:49 PM
  • RishikeshA
    The impression I've had about Kap is that he's about to turn the corner. That was the case until last year. There was no playoff run and we viewed a QB that could not play from the pocket. The instincts were not there. He's relied on his athletism his whole football life, and the NFL has a way of making you do what you don't want to do. No amount of coaching will give you that "feel" in the pocket. The team has no choice than to stick with him this year. I think we'll see the same Kap this year, some electric plays but more turnovers and hesitation in the pocket. Are we going to see a transformation in 2015 for a 28 year old QB or has the clock struck midnight.
    Apr 2, 2015 at 8:31 PM
  • ninersush
    i couldn't agree more. infact i thought last year the same thing applied. it's kap's team, he needed to put it on his back last year and carry them. he did not. lots of reasons why. but i think with better WR talent and hopefully better schemes/line/etc he can make a turnaround. lots of teams have average to above averge WRs and win because the QB makes them better. this should be kap's last shot at that this year. its sink or swim for him. either he executes and leads or is what we've seen from him. that being he loses it for us in clutch moments and is not worthy. its too bad cause i want to see him succeed cause that means our team succeeds.
    Apr 2, 2015 at 12:05 PM
  • Zach Ameen
    So basically, you are saying that 49ers are screwed for good :)
    Apr 2, 2015 at 11:23 AM
  • wilsonm73
    Razoreater I have thought the same thing about Kap that he'd do great in Chip Kelly's offense because it puts him in the best situation for his abilities. Quick reads and options and not a lot of time for free forming it. He's always played best when reacts quickly. It would also open up running lanes because of how spread out it is. I think its over the top though to put the whole seasons on Kap's back. Tomsula's crew has a lot to prove as does Baalke with a revamped roster. Somebody mentioned Wilson and Luck in comparison. Wilson benefits from a great defense and making key throws at the right time. Luck hasn't been to the SB yet. Yeah he scares people but he can't win by himself or without a better defense. Kap won't win by himself either, nobody does, look at Manning.
    Apr 2, 2015 at 10:54 AM
  • hotpicker59
    I've been paying close attention to Kap ever since he took over for Alex Smith. Yes, the guy can run like no other QB ever, but I haven't seen any threat as a passer at all. He has been in the NFL the same amount of time as Andrew Luck and Russel Wilson. Both those guys are very big threats as Kap doesn't worry any defense unless he runs. I hope the 2015 season shows that Kap has developed in to a deep pass threat, but from where I sit, he is not and I am not optimistic about him at all. And I hope coach Tomsula will have the nerve to sit him out if he starts regressing like he did the past 2 years
    Apr 2, 2015 at 10:24 AM
  • Julio Olguin
    Kapernick WILL improve this season however we need these receivers and tightend to step up along with this offensive line and protect the quarterback. And please please please allow Kap to run if need be don't make him stay in the pocket
    Apr 2, 2015 at 10:21 AM
  • Steve
    Another bonus for Kaepernick will be that the offence won't be so easy to read. There were points last year where I thought Jimmy Raye was our OC again. Roman's play calling was awful last year, and defences saw it coming, When Kaepernick first broke out our offence was unpredictable, Chryst needs to make us unpredictable for CK to be a weapon running as well as passing.
    Apr 2, 2015 at 10:16 AM
  • Razoreater
    Kaepernick must show improvement on reading defenses and the staff can help him by implementing a "2 minute" offensive strategy like the Eagles or Broncos that makes his reads easier by restricting the defenses substitutions. He also needs to learn to take some velocity off of some throws and putting some arc into his trajectory. If he can't do these things, I doubt he'll be a member of the 49ers in 2016....
    Apr 2, 2015 at 8:40 AM

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