Colin Kaepernick has started 37 games in his career (including the playoffs) and he doesn’t appear to be getting any better. He has never been a traditional drop back passer, but his ability to play from the pocket needs to improve for the 49ers to gain any consistency on offense.
When Kaepernick had success throwing the ball in 2012, it was based off of the read-option, which NFL teams had no idea how to defend at the time. The threat of run sucked up linebackers and altered the defense’s pass rush. The voids were wide open in the intermediate levels, and Kaepernick was able to take advantage with his cannon for an arm. Fast forward two years later to today, and you’ll find that defenses have a much better grasp for defending this play. The intermediate-level voids aren’t there quite as often. The 49ers now rarely use the read-option, and Kaepernick has had to play more from the pocket as a traditional passer. He hasn’t shown the ability to do so consistently.
Kaepernick is struggling to decipher what he sees from the defense. In fact, he appears to be reading his receivers more than the coverage. This makes it easier for defenses to use disguise and deception. Last Sunday against the Rams, Kaepernick almost got picked off on one such play (shown below). Truthfully, this wasn’t even that great of a disguise. The Rams have a high tendency for blitz pressure, and as you can see on this play, two of their linebackers are showing blitz vs the 49ers’ empty set.
Right at the snap, it’s clear that they’re coming. This leaves 5 defenders to cover 5 receivers. 1-on-1’s across the board.
To Kaepernick’s right and left, his inside receivers Anquan Boldin and Stevie Johnson are running quick in routes. Based on this look, Stevie Johnson would be the preferred read because he has better leverage against his defender. Anquan Boldin’s defender is sitting inside, waiting for the in-breaking route. Kaepernick doesn’t see this even though it is crystal clear.
An NFL quarterback has to be able to make this type of read. Yet Kaepernick already has his receiver picked out despite the coverage, and it almost ends up in disaster. He throws an incompletion that should have been an interception as you can see below from the end zone view.
Because Kaepernick isn’t great at reading coverage, he normally picks his receiver before the snap, and too often it is not based on what the defense is showing him. This is one significant reason why he is so inconsistent. If he guesses correctly and the receiver he picks is open, he has a play. If he’s wrong, it either ends up being an incompletion, a turnover, a sack, or he runs around and tries to make a play. Sometimes he does. Sometimes he doesn’t.
On Sunday against the Rams (and this is true of his entire career), when Kaepernick’s first read wasn’t there, he moved. And when he moved, he didn’t move to throw. He moved to run. This resulted in potential big passing plays being left on the field. The 49ers had receivers open downfield all day against the Rams, and Kaepernick didn’t see them. He had trouble recognizing blitzes (as we showed above). He had trouble understanding when his protection could pick up the blitzes and when he had to catch the ball and get rid of it immediately because he didn’t have enough blockers. This played a hand in several of the 8 sacks St. Louis was able to muster against him.
Colin Kaepernick might be an amazing talent, but his lack of refined quarterbacking skills has led to erratic play this season. Erratic play from the quarterback position leads to games like this past Sunday against the Rams.