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Can Colin Kaepernick be the next Alex Smith?

Al Sacco
May 20, 2016 at 8:41 AM21

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After the final game of the 2010 regular season, a reporter asked then San Francisco 49ers quarterback Alex Smith if there was any chance he'd return the following year. The question to the soon-to-be free agent seemed absurd. After all, Smith had just endured one of the more tumultuous, embarrassing stints with an organization in recent memory, and it seemed like a divorce was the best thing for both parties. Smith hadn't performed well, but it was doubtful anyone could have succeeded considering the circumstances. Smith was forced to play in (multiple) systems that didn't fit his skill set, and when the square peg didn't fit in the round hole, his coaches routinely threw him under the bus. Not ideal.

Then a funny thing happened. San Francisco went out and actually hired a head coach who wasn't only capable, but also a big fan of Smith. Jim Harbaugh made it known from the get-go that he liked Smith as a player, and wanted him back in the fold. Somehow, he convinced the once maligned signal caller to give it another shot with the 49ers, and the rest is history. Smith went from a punch line to becoming a very respectable starter in the league, posting a 19-5-1 record in his 26 starts under Harbaugh. He also led the team to a 36-32 divisional round win in the playoffs, capped off by a game winning drive that would have made even Joe Montana proud. The only thing that derailed Smith was an injury in 2012, which opened the door for a talent that had too much upside to be denied. Smith was benched (and later traded) and Colin Kaepernick was given the keys to the car.

Fast forward to the present day, and we may be in a situation where history is about to repeat itself. This time it's Kaepernick who's maligned and looking like a punch line, but it's possible that's all about to change. Let's get caught up to speed.

After Kaepernick replaced Smith in 2012, he took the league by storm and fell just short of bringing San Francisco it's sixth Lombardi trophy. He did some pretty amazing things that year, like going into New England and blowing the doors off the Patriots, gaining 444 total yards and scoring four touchdowns in the playoffs against the Green Bay Packers, and bringing his team all the way back from 14-0 down to win the NFC Championship.

Kaepernick was inconsistent the following season, but seemed like he'd eventually turned a corner. In games 2-10, Kaepernick would only complete 53.7 percent of his passes and average a league low 154 yards passing a game. He threw seven of his eight interceptions on the season during this span and only hit on eight touchdown passes. Most importantly, the 49ers record in those nine games was 5-4. Games 11-16 would show signs that Kaepernick had made adjustments, as his completion percentage jumped to 61.8 percent and his yards per game to 232. He threw 10 touchdown passes and only one interception as the 49ers finished the season on a 6-0 run.

He was solid in the playoffs as well, until everything came unraveled in the fourth quarter of the NFC Championship game, when three late turnovers by Kaepernick put the team in a hole they couldn't overcome.

After the late surge in 2013, many expected Kaepernick to follow that up with a breakout, MVP type campaign. 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 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).

After a Harbaugh exit, the 49ers could have gone ahead with the hiring of a true offensive mind in Adam Gase, but instead opted to stay in house with defensive line coach Jim Tomsula. In turn, the 2015 season was a complete disaster across the board (If you're wondering, their sack percentage was 9.2 under Tomsula, worst in the NFL).

Kaepernick's career had already started it's free fall prior to Tomsula's promotion to head coach. From Week 13 of 2014 through his final game before being benched this past season, Kaepernick had gone 3-10 as a starter and was held to 174 yards passing or less in nine of those 13 games. He looked lost, indecisive and you could make the argument that he might have been the worst starting quarterback in the NFL.

After ditching Tomsula, San Francisco did what it should've done a year earlier and hired an offensive minded head coach in Chip Kelly. Say what you will about his one-year stint as a personnel man in Philadelphia, but Kelly still proved he can coach in the NFL. He lead the Eagles to back-to-back 10 win seasons in 2013-2014, and took below average quarterbacks and made them look like viable starters. For example, with Kelly, Nick Foles completed 62 percent of his passes with 46 touchdowns and 17 interceptions. He also averaged 241 yards passing a game. Without Kelly, Foles' completion percentage dropped to 56 percent, and he struggled with seven touchdowns and 10 picks. His yards per game also dropped to 187.

But even the arrival of Kelly didn't do much to quell to storm of dysfunction, as Kaepernick still demanded a trade this offseason, apparently feeling like too many bridges had been burned with the franchise. While it looked like a divorce was close, nothing ever came to fruition and Kaepernick remains a 49er. The question is now, can he find redemption the same way Smith did?

While he hasn't seen much of the field yet because of his rehab from injury, Kaepernick still seems to be making an impression on his new coaching staff. Per Bob Hotlzman of ESPN:

Colin Kaepernick asked to be traded, but still has made quite a first impression on his new 49ers coaches. "Works his butt off in rehab, great with the coaches, learning the offense quickly, I like him a lot" is what one coach told me. It would not surprise me if Kaepernick is the 49ers starter week 1.

While Holtzman's report allows for some optimism, Kaepernick himself still needs to make strides for a renaissance to happen. For one, he has to show that he's as committed to the film room as he is to the weight room. Also, it's been reported that he withdraws himself from teammates, which is something he will need to improve upon. Communication is key for any quarterback, and Kaepernick can't expect to operate in a vacuum and be successful. Smith, for example, was very well liked by his teammates, and even organized workouts during the lockout in 2011, despite not being officially with the team.

Kaepernick should consider himself lucky in that he now plays in a very quarterback friendly system, and just has to buy into Kelly, his teammates and where the organization is headed. Kaepernick has more talent than Foles, Mark Sanchez, Sam Bradford or any other quarterback Kelly has had, and will have every opportunity to regain he 2012-2013 form.

Only time will tell if redemption is in the cards for Kaepernick, and if he can overtake Blaine Gabbert to reclaim the starting job. The other alternative is the bench, and mostly likely a fade into obscurity. If anything, it'll at least be interesting to see it all unfold.

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 by ESPN NFL Insiders and USA TODAY. 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.


  • Rideaducati
    Kaepernick does NOT have more talent than ANY of the QBs that Chip has worked with in the NFL. He MIGHT have better measureables, but far less "talent". Kaepernick has ZERO touch, poor footwork, can't read a defense or make it past his first read after staring that first read down, and has an awful throwing motion. Kaepernick took the NFL by 7torm only because of his running ability. Once teams took that away, Kaepernick was just a below average QB. The niners were winning games in spite of Kaepernick's poor play, so he didn't think he had any issues he needed to work on. When the team around him took a step back, he finally realized he actually DID need to work on some issues. He was conceited enough to actually believe he could fix all his issues in ONE six week period of ONE off-season. Kaepernick is basically a sixth year player with the exact same issues he had as a rookie. Good luck with thinking he actually has talent. He has shown to be uncoachable, arrogant, lazy and unable to self evaluate, all while having many many issues with everything required to be an NFL QB. At least his measureables are off the chart.
    May 27, 2016 at 9:35 AM
  • Sdaddy101269
    It's REALLY simple. If Kaep has protection and we commit to running the ball he'll play well. If he doesn't he won't. We've all seen him be SPECTACULAR with some talent around him and time to throw. Despite what some fanatics think you don't do what he has done in the NFL by accident. He's shown himself to be a playmaker, a fact that should never be discounted because there are very FEW of them in the league.
    May 22, 2016 at 11:38 AM
  • don
    After watching the replay of the 2013/2014 NFC Championship game on NFL Network, Kaepernick will be lucky to become the next Josh Freeman.. He lost the game... Five picks thrown... . Final four drives: three-and-out, sack-fumble, interception, interception. Horrendous performance..
    May 22, 2016 at 5:58 AM
  • Mikecortese
    This writer has a lot of faith. I don't think that Kaepernick is done in San Fran. Her are my reasons why, First and foremost ego. Kap has a huge ego and wants to prove himself. Second, he knows that if he goes somewhere else it means that he feels he won;t be around much anymore. lastly, Chip Kelly is no fool and knows at this point his best option is a quarter that fits his system. There is one very glaring concern......the niners only have one deep threat in Torrey Smith, that's it.
    May 21, 2016 at 9:28 PM
  • Todd Ryder
    The thing holding back Kaepernick and for the matter Gabbert is Baalke. This collection of receiving at their disposal would force any quarback out of the league. Neither one of those Quarterbacks can realistically outlast Baalke, especially Kaepernick.
    May 21, 2016 at 6:35 PM
  • J
    Lol, KC fans aren't exactly thrilled to have Smith as their QB. If kap starts next year it would be more of a knock on gabbert than good things kap is doing. Kap isn't the long term QB solution in SF, hopefully we get somebody who is.
    May 21, 2016 at 6:04 PM
  • Frank
    Yes and No. Yes that he will get traded like Smith. No, Kaep will be sold low since he's a damage good. A one trick pony QB that was exposed by other teams. A prima dona who only cares about his brand. Doesn't have the QB instinct ,didn't develop and not a leader. Unlike Smith who has continue to develop, although just a game manager, has been a student of the game,has the leadership to lead a team and continue to improve as a QB.
    May 21, 2016 at 10:46 AM
  • don
    Needs work. Head and feet are disconnected meaning he is not sure what he is seeing out there.. No touch, innacurate.. He shouldn't be even thinking about anything but fixing his stuff. Otherwise he is out of the league quickly..
    May 21, 2016 at 9:36 AM
  • ART@49er
    It was a stupid question from the start. 49er should not replace Alex Smith with Collin..who? period. We should have won Superbowl if Smith played QB.
    May 21, 2016 at 1:46 AM
  • RishikeshA
    You can look at stats and the changeover in coaching in analyzing Kap's downward spiral. The one thing that hasn't changed is his pocket awareness. After opposing teams saw enough tape Kap hit the wall. Coach Harbaugh almost stole a SB before Kap was figured out. The Zone has so many dedicated fans that have seen top QB's over the years. The footwork, lack of sensing the pass rush and an inability to find second or third receivers on a play are things that show up every game. You are born with those instincts. They don't materialize after years in the league.
    May 20, 2016 at 5:45 PM
  • JTP
    No comparison; one QB (Alex D. Smith) was/is humble and always strived to get better. Moreover, he kept a positive, can-do attitude always, is cerebral and studies his butt off the other is just the opposite (Kaepernick).
    May 20, 2016 at 3:22 PM
  • Keith Travers
    Big difference between what Harbaugh and Kelly inherited when they arrived in San Francisco. When Harbaugh arrived, the roster was stocked with talent. With Kelly's arrival, not so much. With such a brutal schedule, It'll take a lot of smoke and mirrors just to win 5 or 6 games.
    May 20, 2016 at 2:01 PM
  • Ben
    They both suck start Jeff driskel lets see what happens
    May 20, 2016 at 1:43 PM
  • Dallqas Niner Fan
    No Kap won't be the next Alex Smith, because Chip Kelly is no Jim Harbaugh and because Kap is not happy being a Niner. If he had a choice he would be somewhere else. He is not a happy camper right now.
    May 20, 2016 at 1:33 PM
  • Todd
    Unfortunately with the 49ers we will never know how good Kaepernick can be anymore. This is his last shot and the 49ers have supplied him with the worst collection of Wide receivers in probably the last 50 years of NFL football. Passing takes 2 players being in sync and the receivers could make Joe Montana and Steve Young get benched.
    May 20, 2016 at 12:17 PM
  • Akfanster
    I think it's Gabbert, not Kaep, that fits the Alex Smith scenario. Can Kelly turn a flop/bust into a respected starting QB that can run the offense and take care of the ball.
    May 20, 2016 at 10:33 AM
  • Jon D
    "Kaepernick has more talent than Foles, Mark Sanchez, Sam Bradford or any other quarterback Kelly's had" --Define talent. Is he consistently accurate enough? Can he go through a progression quickly and hit his 3rd or 4th option? That's talent too, and he hasn't displayed this yet. Without it, it doesn't matter how hard he throws or how fast he runs. He's a pitcher, not a point guard
    May 20, 2016 at 9:55 AM
  • mbniner
    Yes he can make a marked improvement under Kelly if he is willing to seize the opportunity. That means grasping and buying into the offensive scheme and putting in the hard on-field work to master the timing, quick reads and improved accuracy required of that offense. It also means connecting with his team-mates in the locker room and showing positive leadership. The problem is that Gabbert has a big head start on him and, even if he makes strides in preseason, he will probably begin as the back-up. Gabbert is also a big talent, which most people dismiss due to his stint in Jacksonville, and will be hard to displace. I look at Gabbert's early career as being close to what Steve Young went through at Tampa Bay.
    May 20, 2016 at 9:51 AM
  • Edd
    To aspire to be Alex Smith is indeed setting the bar low. Let's rather hope Kaep can return to his peak form.
    May 20, 2016 at 9:28 AM
  • Steve
    Firstly, I'd like to qualify my below statement to say that I don't care who wins the starting QB job for the niners, as long as it's the player that gives us the best chance to win games. That said, I think it's Gabbert that has the chance to succeed more in Kelly's offence, and is the most like Smith coming into this season. Like Smith, Gabbert has had a different OC every season he's been in the league, played injured and was thrown under the bus by the organisation he was playing for. Last pre-season, he looked the best QB and coming in for Kap last year he took his chances in the most insipid game plan this side of Jimmy Raye. He has better mechanics than Kap and a quicker release (ideal for Kelly's offence). Right now I think the job is Gabbert's to lose, but Kap has so many physical skills it'll be difficult to overlook him. I think though it will come down to command of the offence and right now Kap doesn't have command or the respect of his team mates after asking for a trade and imploding last year. It's going to be intriguing this training camp and pre-season.
    May 20, 2016 at 9:26 AM
  • Tim
    How can he be the next alex smith? He already has outproduced by a wide margin what smith did in his first three years as a starter.
    May 20, 2016 at 9:11 AM
    Response: Not in terms of production Tim, but can Kap be the next Alex Smith in the sense that Alex was on his way out the door and came back and had a successful stint with the team.

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