Rob Ryan walked into a New Orleans bar Sunday night and was serenaded with the chant, “Defense!” The Saints’ defensive coordinator proceeded to slap down $200 and buy a round of drinks for the house.
It would have been more appropriate last season, when Saints defenders played like they had the worst hangover in Mardi Gras history. Now they are clean, sober and the last thing Colin Kaepernick needs to see.
A year ago this week, his fairy-tale ride began when he took over as the 49ers quarterback. Now some fans are whispering two words you’d never thought would be missed around San Francisco.
Smith has been the model of dull efficiency in leading Kansas City to a 9-0 record. San Francisco is 6-3 heading into FOX’s Game of the Week on Sunday at New Orleans. And Kaepernick has been the model of inflated expectations gone flat.
He had 91 yards passing, no touchdowns and a Mark Sanchez-like 42.0 quarterback rating in last week’s 10-9 loss to Carolina. That sparked a fresh round of QB angst around the Bay Area.
“We don’t think anything’s wrong with Colin,” Jim Harbaugh said. “We feel like his progression’s been good. He’s played winning football for us, and that’s what we expect.”
Winning football is not throwing as many interceptions (six) as touchdown passes in the past eight games. Fans are debating whether Harbaugh has foolishly turned the once-trendy 49ers into a plodding East Coast offense. They fret that defenses have figured out Kaepernick:
Contain him in the pocket, apply a little pressure and take away his primary receiver. When it comes to reading defenses, Kaepernick looks more like a kid out of Nevada-Reno than a Super Bowl veteran.
None of that should be too surprising. Kaepernick is a third-year kid out Nevada-Reno. He’d never started an NFL game until replacing Smith last year. The ensuing dash to the Super Bowl was so scintillating that a lot of people thought Kaepernick’s quarterback growth would be pain-free.
Nothing appeared more painless than this week’s game. You knew the Saints would be better once Sean Payton got out of Bountygate Prison. Nobody foresaw what Ryan has done with the worst defense in the league.
It has gone from No. 32 to No. 7 on the NFL charts. Opponents are averaging 317.6 yards a game after racking up 440.1 last season. No team in the Super Bowl era has allowed 100 fewer yards than the previous season.
It all starts with the silver-haired Ryan, son of Buddy, brother of Rex. He has the family’s trademark defensive fetish. It’s daring, aggressive and can discombobulate almost any quarterback.
Tony Romo looked like a freshman at Nevada-Reno last week. Dallas managed only nine first downs in the 49-17 wipeout. The Cowboys were 0-for-9 on third-down conversions.
Meanwhile, Monte Kiffin’s defense gave up a franchise-record 625 yards. It was extra sweet for Ryan, who was fired as the Cowboys’ defensive coordinator in January.
“He’s happy,” linebacker Victor Butler said after the game. “This one was a little more personal.”
Over in the Dallas locker room, Jerry Jones second-guessed another brilliant personnel move.
“We thought it was best for us to go in the direction we are in,” he said. “That doesn’t look good right now.”
The good news for Kaepernick is that Ryan has never been fired by San Francisco. The bad news is Drew Brees and the Saints are averaging 29.4 points a game. And that Ryan has developed a post-game habit.
He drops by Ms. Mae’s, a classic Big Easy dive where drinks go for $2. When he walks in the door, the yelling begins.
If it happens again this week, 49ers fans might really start clamoring for Alex Smith.