There isn’t a player on the 49ers facing more scrutiny than Colin Kaepernick. It may not be fair, but such is the byproduct of a decision as radical as Jim Harbaugh’s quarterback switch. This season’s bar was set at winning a Lombardi Trophy, and many felt that with this defense, Alex Smith was serviceable enough to do it. What Smith lacked in explosiveness he seemed to make up for in “management” abilities. He had a great understanding of the offense and displayed complete control at the line of scrimmage.
But is the latter true? People have been nit-picking at Kaepernick’s pre-snap troubles, especially after last week’s game against the Dolphins. The quarterback wasted four of the 49ers’ timeouts over the course of three quarters, and though the 49ers didn’t end up needing them, the game was close enough to warrant some alarm.
Are the 49ers doing any worse in that department since Kaepernick took over? I took a look at every game this season to see how both quarterbacks did managing timeouts and the play clock. I watched every timeout called on offense and accounted for them, excluding those called to stop the clock for time management purposes.
Vs. the Packers – Two timeouts burned in the third and fourth quarter. Smith called one, Harbaugh called the other.
Vs. the Lions – Two timeouts burned in the first and second quarter. Smith called one, Harbaugh called the other.
Vs. the Vikings – No timeouts were burned, but Smith was called for one delay of game penalty.
Vs. the Jets – Two timeouts burned in the second and fourth quarter. Smith called one, Harbaugh called the other.
Vs. the Bills – One timeout burned in the third quarter. Smith called it, but there were seven seconds on the play clock and it appeared to be due to the defense he was facing.
Vs. the Giants – No timeouts were burned, but Smith was called for one delay of game penalty.
Vs. the Seahawks – One timeout burned in the first quarter. Harbaugh called it, but this was a result of Smith’s helmet earpiece malfunctioning.
Vs. the Cardinals – Two timeouts burned in the first and second quarter. Smith called both of them. He also incurred two delay of game penalties.
Vs. the Rams – No timeouts burned or delay of game penalties.
Vs. the Rams – Two timeouts burned, both in overtime. One was called by Kaepernick, the other by Harbaugh. The latter appeared to be due to the defensive formation because there was plenty of time left on the play clock.
Vs. the Bears – Two timeouts burned in the first and fourth quarter. Both were called by Harbaugh.
Vs. the Saints – One timeout burned in the first quarter. The timeout was called by Kaepernick. He also incurred two delay of game penalties.
Vs. the Rams – Four timeouts burned, two in the fourth quarter and two in overtime. Harbaugh called two of them while Kaepernick called the others, but they were all due to low play clock.
Vs. the Dolphins – Four timeouts burned, one in the first quarter, one in the second quarter and two in the third quarter. Harbaugh called the first three, while Kaepernick called the last with 10 seconds on the play clock.
Smith – 10 TOs in 9 games (1.1/game) – 6 by Smith, 4 by Harbaugh, 3 delay of game penalties
Kaepernick – 13 TOs in 5 games (2.6/game) – 5 by Kaepernick, 8 by Harbaugh, 2 delay of game penalties
While Smith wasn’t completely avoiding these play clock snafus, he was better at getting the ball snapped than Kaepernick has been. I kept track of how many timeouts Harbaugh called to account for each quarterback’s awareness. The coach has called eight timeouts in Kap’s starts – that’s twice as many as he called when Smith was starting. This is all part of a young quarterback’s learning curve, and it’s collateral damage that the 49ers will have to sustain in exchange for a serious physical upgrade.
It’s not all on Kap
One key to the problem is actually something the 49ers have received a lot of praise for this season: their unique formational constructs. There are so many moving parts and so much pre-snap motioning that it sometimes takes as many as 10 seconds to get all the players in their correct positions. What’s more, there appeared to be very little urgency getting back to the huddle on the plays where the 49ers called timeout. Once there, the play took several seconds to be called, and the quarterbacks had an average of about 10 seconds to snap the ball once the line of scrimmage was set. That may be plenty of time for a normal team, but not nearly enough for an offense as complex as the 49ers’.