I’ll never forget the moment when the 2012 San Francisco 49ers changed drastically. They became another team, with a new leader, and took a path that would lead to a Super Bowl berth and Alex Smith getting traded to the Chiefs.
No one knew what to expect from Colin Kaepernick and the 49ers offense in the second-year quarterback’s first start on a Monday night against the Chicago Bears. Most observers agreed going in that with another backup quarterback starting for the Bears in Jason Campbell, points were going to be tough to come by for both teams.
Kaepernick completed five of his first six pass attempts, including a 22-yarder to Vernon Davis in the 49ers’ first series, which ended in a David Akers field goal. Holding a 3-0 lead and facing 3rd-and-7 from their own 40, Kaepernick dropped back and, with seemingly no effort at all, tossed a pass over the right shoulder of Kyle Williams, who had lined up in the slot against Kelvin Hayden. Hayden was beaten from the jump, and could not catch up to Williams, who was finally dragged down by safety Chris Conte at the 3-yard-line. Williams accumulated 24 yards after the catch on a pass play that went 57 yards in total.
The reaction in the press box was a loud, “WHOA.” I don’t know who was more surprised, the media contingent from Chicago that had come to expect great things from a supposedly dominant Bears defense, or the local reporters and columnists who had no idea what to expect from a quarterback known more for his legs than his arm. These were not the 49ers we were used to seeing. And after over a decade of complaining from 49ers fans about the lack of a deep threat, San Francisco suddenly seemed to have one in Williams — with Kaepernick throwing the ball, anyway.
Jim Harbaugh almost looked as if he’d seen a ghost during the postgame press conference. He was there, but he wasn’t there. After that, I found it impossible to envision a scenario where the 49ers gave the starting job back to Smith. Harbaugh’s dream offense was fully realized. There was no going back.
But this isn’t a post about Kaepernick, it’s about the man who caught that throw down the right sideline. Because that pass wasn’t just a symbol of what the 49ers’ offense and Kaepernick could be, it was also a symbol of Williams’ unrealized potential as a deep threat, the kind of player who can stretch defenses.
The speedy wideout played with Smith for about 8.5 games in 2012, and a little over two games with Kaepernick. Smith targeted Williams 16 times, resulting in nine receptions for 113 yards. In about a quarter of that time, Kaepernick targeted him seven times, with Williams catching five passes for 99 yards.
Williams’ season was cut short less than a week later. On a Sunday afternoon in New Orleans, he tore his ACL and Kendall Hunter tore his achilles on the same play. That’s why even though the following announcement didn’t make headlines a week ago, it could have a lot to do with how the 49ers draft in a few weeks, as well as who Kaepernick targets in 2013:
There has been a lot of talk about Tavon Austin, and for good reason. Many people who are much better at projecting collegiate football players than myself think he’s the same kind of explosive offensive weapon the Seattle Seahawks gave up a significant amount in both picks and money for. Not that Austin will be as good as Percy Harvin, but in the can-you-top-this world of NFC West transactions, it would seem to make sense that the 49ers responded to Seattle — except the 49ers would probably have to trade up into the top half of the first round to get Austin, and they drafted a wideout in the first round a year ago.
To say Williams has had an up-and-down career would be putting it mildly, but with modern medicine being what it is I wouldn’t be surprised if that “#speed” hashtag he used in that tweet above came true sooner rather than later. In a very small sample size, Williams and Kaepernick seemed to work together quite well, something one couldn’t say about any wide receiver other than Michael Crabtree. The Austin pipe dream is fun to contemplate, and many wonder if the 49ers’ offense is set up to succeed with Crabtree and Anquan Boldin, two possession-type receivers, and no one to stretch the field. But what if San Francisco already has a deep threat on its roster, rehabbing and preparing for his last year before becoming an unrestricted free agent?