Colin Kaepernick burst onto the scene in his second year as a pro (2012), completing 62.4 percent of his passes for 1,814 yards in 13 games (seven as a starter), throwing 10 touchdowns with just three interceptions. He added another 415 yards and five touchdowns rushing.
The season was a huge success, ending with a loss to the Baltimore Ravens in the Super Bowl.
The next two years were solid — both over 3,000 yards passing, 500 yards rushing and at least 20 total touchdowns — in large part due to Kaepernick’s ability to turn lemons into lemonade via the read option.
The read option, according to Bleacher Report’s Matt Bowen, uses “zone-blocking techniques on the offensive line with the quarterback “reading” the unblocked edge defender through the “mesh point” (quarterback-running back exchange) out of a variety of personnel groupings and alignments.” It relies on the quarterback making the correct read and being able to scramble for yardage if the defense provides the opportunity. Kaepernick rushed the ball 104 times for 639 rushing yards last season, second among quarterbacks to Russell Wilson of the Seattle Seahawks.
However, the 49ers want to change his approach under center and turn him into a more traditional pocket passer. Per Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee:
The 49ers’ strategy this offseason has been to boost [Blaine] Gabbert’s confidence after an ugly 2014 exhibition in which he threw two interceptions, completed only 46.8 percent of his passes and was booed by the home fans. And in that regard, the team has succeeded.
The plan with Kaepernick: Take him out of his comfort zone.
He’s capable of the same rollouts that Gabbert has performed and the read option likely will be significant part of the offense this year just as it has been in previous seasons. But Jim Tomsula said he and his staff have wanted to see both Kaepernick and the offensive line in front of him in more drop-back situations.
I am not sure more dropbacks are a good thing, even if Kaepernick did work on his mechanics this offseason with former NFL quarterback Kurt Warner.
Of the 577 dropbacks Kaepernick took in 2014, he was sacked on 52 of them. All but six of those occurred when he held the ball for longer than 2.6 seconds. His average time to throw: 2.96 seconds per the game charters at Pro Football Focus.
When faced with pressure, he saw his passer rating drop from 94.4 to 64.8.
There are reasons to abandon the read option, the most compelling being how much better defenses have gotten at defending it. But not playing to Kaepernick’s strengths could set him on a path for failure, not unlike what we saw in Washington with Robert Griffin III.
Griffin, too, was a mobile quarterback who used his legs to win the 2012 AP Offensive Rookie of the Year. But the team wanted him to become a more traditional passer, and that led to many sacks, injuries and benchings to the point that Kirk Cousins is now the starting quarterback for the 2015 season.
Griffin, like Kaepernick, took more than 2.9 seconds to throw the ball and saw his performance suffer the longer he remained in the pocket.
Kaepernick’s passer rating doesn’t suffer as much, but his completion percentage took a big hit the longer he holds on to the ball.
Perhaps Kaepernick is able to improve his ability to read the field and connect with his receivers, but he ranked 18 out of 27 quarterbacks for accuracy percentage (72.6 percent), which takes into account dropped passes, throw aways, spiked balls, batted passes, and passes where the quarterback was hit while they threw the ball. And his accuracy on deep passes, those targeted at least 20 yards downfield, was tied for 17 out of 25 qualified passers last season (33.3 percent).
Plus, the early returns from the preseason are not encouraging for Kaepernick: 5-for-13, 40 yards, zero touchdowns and three sacks, one for a safety.
“There’s not any concern on this team,” Kaepernick said. “That’s what the preseason is for, is to work those things out and see who we have in different positions. So that’s what we’re doing and we’re working to make sure we’re ready for the regular season.”