Back in June, when we reported that Colin Kaepernick had signed a six-year extension with the 49ers, it seemed that the 49ers had found their first semblance of stability at the quarterback position since Jeff Garcia.
Now, thanks to several consecutive pedestrian performances from their quarterback, 49ers fans are hearing that all-too-familiar whisper yet again: is Colin Kaepernick really the future for this football team?
The writing is all over the wall now for Jim Harbaugh, whose 2014 tenure with the organization has been battered by storm front after storm front ever since it was reported that the team considered trading the coach to the Browns back in February. Thanksgiving’s Seahawks loss — which signified the 49ers’ lowest point since hooking Harbaugh in 2011 — has brought on yet another wave of thunder from insiders who say the team could either deal their maniacal play caller for draft picks, or outright fire him, after the season is done.
But let’s put aside Jim for just a minute; what about his quarterback? 2011 was all about Alex Smith being Harbaugh’s guy, and how abruptly did the tenor of that conversation shift when Smith went down with a concussion in 2012, allowing Kaepernick to debut against the Bears and take the NFL by storm?
His freakish physical build forced the most rigid quarterback geeks to rethink their stance on quarterbacks that thought run-first, and if Kaepernick could ever demonstrate an ability to mold in the pocket and go through his progressions properly, he had the potential to be one of the NFL’s best signal callers.
Now it’s all falling apart. It’s likely Harbaugh will be gone when this season comes to an end (probably at the end of January rather than in early February, as many of us thought over the summer), and with all indications being that Kaepernick is Harbaugh’s guy, his job may not be as stable as we thought.
Let’s look at the raw numbers. Granted, Pro Football Focus’s advanced statistics aren’t completely objective, but they are a baseline for judging individual play:
In 2012, Kaepernick played significant snaps in 11 games, including playoffs and the Super Bowl. The quarterback finished with an overall grade of +22.9, a passing grade of +22.1, and a rushing grade of +2.6. He had a completion percentage of 62.1, went for 8.8 yards per attempt and suffered 22 dropped passes in those 11 games (2 per game). His quarterback rating was 99.0 (114.8 without pressure and 53.2 under pressure).
In 2013, Kaepernick played significant snaps in all 19 games, including the playoffs up to the NFC Championship game. He finished with an overall grade of +6.2, a passing grade of -0.1, and a rushing grade of +8.3. He had a completion percentage of 57.8, went for 7.6 yards per attempt and suffered 30 dropped passes in those 20 games (1.5 per game). His quarterback rating was 88.7 (98.3 without pressure and 62.5 under pressure).
In 2014, Kaepernick has played significant snaps in all 12 games. He currently has an overall grade of -7.9, a passing grade of -5.3, and a rushing grade of -1.4. He has a completion percentage of 61.2, has thrown for 7.3 yards per attempt and has suffered 29 dropped passes in those 12 games (2.4 per game). His quarterback rating is 87.8 (93.4 without pressure and 72.6 under pressure).
To summarize, in order from 2012-2014 and with the low points in bold:
- Overall grade: +22.9, +6.2, -7.9
- Passing grade: +22.1, -0.1, -5.3
- Rushing grade: +2.6, +8.3, -1.4
- Completion percentage: 62.1, 57.8, 61.2
- Yards per attempt: 8.8, 7.6, 7.3
- Dropped passes per game: 2, 1.5, 2.4
- Quarterback rating: 99.0, 88.7, 87.8
I can’t go any further without conceding that this season — a season in which Kaepernick’s receiving weapons were supposed to be drastically improved — he has suffered an alarming number of dropped passes. Kaepernick leads the league in dropped passes, because despite being tied with Andrew Luck with 29, he has made 115 fewer attempts.
I’ll also concede that the more concrete analytics (yards per attempt, completion percentage, etc.) have only dropped marginally from year to year, and to this point in 2014, his completion percentage is up slightly.
However, Kaepernick’s status in the quarterback herd has always been one based on his potential and the point at which he realizes it. At this stage, the high point of his career was 2012 — not 2013, 2014, or (it appears) any point in the future, as many of us expected.
You hate to give any credence to the old men in the NFL world yelling at clouds that running quarterbacks are just another trend that this league will discard because their style of football isn’t sustainable. I’m not sure that’s necessarily true, primarily because people fail to mention that white quarterbacks can be mobile too, and Blake Bortles, Andrew Luck, Aaron Rodgers and Alex Smith occupy the 4-8 spots on the NFL’s top-ten rushing quarterbacks this season.
But mobile quarterbacks must show an ability to be polished pocket passers as well, and Kaepernick has several other factors going against him to this point in his career: his inability to develop touch on his passes, his long legs hindering his ability to make subtle adjustments in the pocket, a molasses-slow release and an inability to go through his progressions make you wonder if Kaepernick will ever actually turn into the quarterback we thought he would be.
The quarterback’s contract is pay as you go, so they can cut him at any time. That’s not to say that they will (although I’m sure people will read that last line and go directly to Twitter to attack BASG because they thought he wrote this article, rather than @Ruthless_Sports, the actual author). But if the 49ers decide it might be smart to go in a different direction, they constructed a contract that allows them to do so. If it’s true that Jim Harbaugh is gone at the end of the season, will Kaepernick be on the hot seat too? His performance has certainly warranted the conversation, and he’ll need to get better really quickly if he doesn’t want his job security to come into question.