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The Regression of Colin Kaepernick

Al Sacco
Aug 30, 2016 at 8:52 AM7

Colin Kaepernick started his career under ideal circumstances. The second-year signal caller was inserted midseason into a stacked San Francisco 49ers roster that was under the instruction of a top-notch coaching staff. Operating in a league that didn't know how to defend him, the initial results were astounding as Kaepernick used his gazelle like strides and rocket arm to lead his team to a Super Bowl appearance. As dominant as Kaepernick looked initially though, it was certain that he would have to continue to improve in all aspects of being a quarterback, as defenses would inevitably make adjustments to stop him. That's just life in the NFL. However, despite all his natural ability, Kaepernick hasn't been able to do this. In turn, his career has nosedived almost as fast as it ascended.

The regression of Kaepernick as a quarterback really comes down to one thing: his inability to throw from the pocket. Former head coach Jim Harbaugh knew it was essential to make plays as a traditional passer in order to maintain long-term success, which is why he tried to adjust Kaepernick's game (which was largely non-traditional). Actually, he tried to do this very early in Kaepernick's career, but the results forced a change in philosophy.

In Week 1 of the 2013 season, Kaepernick torched the Green Bay Packers for 412 yards and three touchdowns. The performance, combined with the small but extremely successful sample from 2012, had the football world gushing over Kaepernick's potential, even prompting one prominent analyst to say he could be one of the greatest quarterbacks ever. Harbaugh seemed to buy into this as well, and centered the offense around Kaepernick the next two weeks. The decision was a disaster.

While the 49ers had been a run-first team under most of Harbaugh's tenure, Weeks 2 and 3 of '13 were dramatically different as San Francisco attempted 55 passes while only handing the ball to a running back 27 times. The results were back-to-back losses, 277 passing yards, four interceptions, and 10 total points. The next week Harbaugh shifted gears and went back to revolving his attack around the ground game and Frank Gore, but the passing woes continued. Overall, in games 2-10, Kaepernick would complete a mere 53.7 percent of his throws, and average a league low 154 yards passing per game. The 49ers went 5-4 during that stretch.

Kaepernick did turn it around towards the end of the year though, suggesting his season long funk may have just been growing pains. He would lead his team to six straight wins to close the campaign, completing 61.8 percent of his throws, and upping is yards to 232. Kaepernick also threw 10 touchdowns to only one interception during that stretch. He would go on to play well in the playoffs as well, before his three turnover meltdown in the fourth quarter of the NFC Championship Game.

Despite the rough ending to the the season, the arrow still appeared pointed up for Kaepernick heading into 2014, and the 49ers went out and added veteran receiving depth in Stevie Johnson and Brandon Lloyd to go along with Anquan Boldin and Michael Crabtree. Things didn't go as planned however, as Kapernick's regression truly began.

In his first 23 regular season starts from '12-'13, Kaepernick averaged 26 attempts and made 30 throws or more just five times overall. He would attempt 30-plus passes eight times in 2014 alone, and the more it seemed he was asked to do, the worse the team got. The pattern with Kaepernick was often the same. He would drop back, hold the ball, break the pocket, and try to make plays on the fly. Sure, there was a big gain here and there, but overall the offense was non-functional. The 49ers would only score 30 offensive touchdowns in 2014, and lose 4 of their last five to finish 8-8 and miss the playoffs for the first time under Harbaugh. While some of the collapse could certainly be attributed to Harbaugh's toxic relationship with the front office, Kaepernick's play didn't help matters.

Kaepernick averaged 137 yards passing in those last four defeats, and seemed more lost than ever. It was a trend that would continue into 2015 under Jim Tomsula, as the quarterback would ultimately go 3-10 over his final 13 starts and fail to break 174 yards through the air nine times. The 49ers were the lowest scoring team in the league over that stretch. Were there other issues? Sure, but to say Kaepernick even played average despite them would be giving him too much credit. He was bad, plain and simple.

Not much was different during his first action of 2016, as Kaepernick's play in Week 3 of the preseason looked eerily similar to what we saw the past two years. In addition, recent surgeries have left him thinner, negating the size/speed combination that may have been the one part of his game that was still a threat to defenses. Some thought that new head coach Chip Kelly and his offense would be a natural fit for the maligned signal caller, but that may not be the case since Kaepernick rarely makes quick decisions with the football (something that's essential in Kelly's passing game).

Given what we've seen on the field recently, it shouldn't come a surprise that reports have surfaced signaling the end of Kaepernick's tenure in San Francisco. It's certainly understandable, because if he's not part of their future plans, it makes no sense to keep him around a rebuilding team. Sometimes a fresh start is the best thing for two parties, and that seems to be the case here. The way things have gone (on and off the field), it just might be best for the the 49ers and Kaepernick to part ways.

Al Sacco has been covering the 49ers since 2013, and has had his work used by national outlets such as ESPN and USA TODAY. If you'd like to reach Al with a media request, please contact him via 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.


  • Mark Heatherton
    Here is the problem with Colin Kaepernick . Generally speaking, Kaepernick at the end of every season when his deficiencies were obvious, he has been in some kind of controversy. With the exception of the one post season he went to Kurt Warner's off season camp, he showed is rear end by wearing a Miami Ball Cap or it has been an incident in a hotel with a Defensive lineman and wide receiver from Seattle (Lockett), but it has been precious little to improve his game. He is the Master of Distractions. Now here you go with this National Anthem issue. This is just another Distraction. If he feels so strong about the issue why didn't he go to some of these cities, like Ray Lewis did and present himself as a role model. No he wanted that skyline. I personally have very little use for Kaepernick. When his contract is up I will be happy to see him go. To me he is mediocrity at its worst and I would not care if they had him sit on the sideline in a warm up suit for the whole season.
    Sep 7, 2016 at 7:38 PM
  • Tom
    I don't think regressed is the right word. I prefer exposed. The flaws in his game were there from the beginning. He was able to cover them up for awhile because of this arm strength and athleticism but they were always there. This guy was Fool's Gold from the start.
    Aug 30, 2016 at 11:27 AM
  • GM
    Regress? No. Let's look at the facts and what's missing; the offensive system. The one thing we MUST stop doing with football analysis; stop flattening every team in terms of system and subsequently, player ability. This is what I call the Madden effect; where you can have 4 - 6 general skill category for players and they will perform the same in any system based on that skill score. In reality, human beings have strengths and weaknesses in myriad combinations and just because they're not strong in one area and weak in others doesn't mean they're not talented. Further, because a team is strong in are and weak in another, does that make that team no good? Absolutely not. Every team in history has strengths and weaknesses and can be beat. The most successful teams and even dynasties were masters at dominating based on their strengths; making their opponents play a game based on those strengths while minimizing their weaknesses. Harbaugh knew Colin's strengths and weaknesses; he needs to be paired with a dominant OL and a running game so play-action is always a credible option, and once the deep/big play, play-action options is available, you then have to account for zone read.
    Aug 30, 2016 at 10:37 AM
  • Michael Berry
    I thought this website was supposed to be about the 49ers team. Can we get back to discussing football and the 2016 season? Enough with the Kaep non-issue already!
    Aug 30, 2016 at 10:23 AM
  • Arturo Bradley
    I also think his downfall also has to do with things off the field, which obviously affects what he does as a player in terms of playing the game and practicing. I am no expert and I may be wrong altogether but it seems like his focus is not in football as his heart and mind seem to be elsewhere. He seems to have been active in civil rights and politics, had some drastic lifestyle changes as he has gone vegan, and his girlfriend/fiancee also seems to be a major part of his life and I feel like all those things are taking more precedence than being a football player. Kap could be out of the league soon not just because of his play but also his desire which affects the way he plays and practices.
    Aug 30, 2016 at 9:59 AM
  • Jerry
    Agree completely. The national anthem fandango is just to make it harder to cut him. Eat 12 million and get rid of a divisive influence.
    Aug 30, 2016 at 9:38 AM
  • mbniner
    Al, Your comments mirror what I've been thinking since last year. Kaep is a highly intelligent player and one would not expect him to have problems quickly reading the field. But "Football Smarts" and IQ are not necessarily the same thing. He also seems to have problems fixing the things that he can change; his long delivery, which translates to slow release, his accuracy, and his pocket footwork. His athletic ability is certainly superior which makes it more perplexing. I mentioned in response to your last article that I thought that he should be released, and soon. And this has nothing to do with the flag incident which is way overblown.
    Aug 30, 2016 at 9:31 AM

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