49ers Film Room: Assessing Colin Kaepernick’s 2013 season

49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick. Mandatory Credit: Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick. Mandatory Credit: Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

This is the 1st part in a 3 part series examining San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s 2013, 2014, and 2016 seasons. 2015 was covered in an earlier post here.

Colin Kaepernick has had an up and down career highlighted by an early Super Bowl run in 2012 to being benched in 2015 to taking over as the starter from an abysmal Blaine Gabbert in 2016 and so far not winning a game (though wins aren’t solely dependent on the QB).

In 2014 it became apparent that Jim Harbaugh’s staff had either stopped working on developing their quarterback or had not really been doing it all. Harbaugh was excellent at masking his quarterback’s flaws by not putting him situations that asked him to be a traditional quarterback. So much so that teams began to adjust their game plans accordingly and became skilled at detecting the 49ers offensive tendencies.

But when did these adjustments start?

The traditional narrative is that once teams figured out how to play the zone read, that quarterbacks with Kaepernick’s skill set became limited. While that is somewhat true, it doesn’t explain why certain quarterbacks or teams still have relative success running the ball with their quarterbacks. The only explanation can be that the 49ers lack of success with the zone read after 2012 was highlighted by Kaepernick’s deficiencies as a passer.

Those deficiencies have always existed. But they were not given much attention due to the tremendous success the 49ers had in 2013, finishing 12-4 and losing a close NFC championship game in Seattle. It’s ironic that the final intercepted pass intended for Michael Crabtree highlights one of Kaepernick’s major flaws in 2013.

Kaepernick’s flaws follow the same trajectory from 2013 until now. In 2016, he has remedied some of his earlier poor decision making but it his progress in that area is blunted by his inability to throw an accurate pass.

The focus of this will be his 2013 season.

In 2013, the focus of the 49ers passing was Anquan Boldin and Vernon Davis, who totalled 1,179 and 850 receiving yards respectively, 63% (2,029 of 3,210) of the total passing yards accumulated, and 20 of Kaepernick’s 21 touchdown passes.

It’s no secret then that Boldin and Davis frequently lined up on the same side of the formation and gave Kaepernick his primary route combinations. Very few times did the 49ers come back the other way to look for other options.

And yet, in numerous instances, Kaepernick even failed to see one or the other of his primary options.

What does the film show?

In 2013, his two main flaws were 1) a lack of field vision (inability to read through his progressions) and 2) frequently running out of clean pockets.

His best game of 2013 was week one against the Green Bay Packers. Still, out of 40 qualifying plays, he threw to his first read 33 times. It’s worth noting that being an outside observer means that we are not able to discern with 100% accuracy what a given quarterback progression is on a particular play but simple clues are able to tell us generally what they should be.

If a quarterback gets to the top of his drop and throws immediately while looking a certain way, it’s generally their first read. A hitch step means the quarterback has progressed to his second read. A double hitch his third read, and so on.

In the play below, the Packers are in a standard cover two shell and the 49ers are running three vertical routes with a check-down route in the flat.

By the time Kaepernick hit’s the top of his drop, he immediately looks to Davis who’s bracketed by the safety and the middle linebacker dropping into the deep middle. At the same time, Boldin comes open at the top of the still frame running a streak to the endzone and fullback Bruce Miller running open into the flat vacated by the corner.

At this point, Kaepernick properly takes his hitch step, a sign he’s progressing to the next read, but feels phantom pressure around him and looks to escape the pocket. Boldin is still open as Kaepernick draws most of the attention.

Instead of throwing to Boldin at this instant, he scrambles further toward the sideline and throws a difficult pass for Boldin in the back corner. The play results in an incomplete pass.

When Kaepernick is pressured, he also tended to come off too early from initial reads. Instead of sticking with them, he’d seek to scramble and if he couldn’t make a play with his legs, he try to make play downfield. This is not a bad thing unless a quarterback is not confident he can make the throw. In the play below against Seattle, there is no reason why a quarterback with his arm strength cannot make the throw to the open receiver.

Kaepernick’s initial read here is to the two-receiver side to the right of the formation. The routes criss-cross with the outside receiver running in, up and across, and the inside receiver running and out and up. As Kaepernick hits the top of his drop, that crossing route will start to come open and it’s here where Kaepernick should be throwing that ball with some anticipation.

Instead, pressure up the middle forces him out of the pocket to his left.

The crossing route goes with him in the middle of the field and is wide open. With his arm strength, there is no reason to not pull the trigger.

His lack of anticipation throwing causes breakdowns in pass protection because it causes him to hold on to the ball too long. The play below perfectly illustrates Kaepernick’s lack of confidence in his receivers and in his own lack of anticipation.

The play design is similar to the play above from Seattle. Two receivers cross, one breaks on a dig route into the middle and one runs up the sideline. From a perfectly clean pocket, Kaepernick should theoretically be able to step into a throw here to the dig by Boldin.

By the time Kaepernick hits the top of his drop, he realizes Davis is not open up the sideline. He hitches next to Boldin, who is breaking in. The pocket is still clean with little pressure.

It’s not entirely clear what Kaepernick thought process is here but he clearly does not feel confident making an anticipation throw. Boldin is still open coming across but by this time Kaepernick is flailing around in the pocket trying to escape.

He had ample opportunity for throw, even a half second late, and still could have hit Boldin across the chains for a first down.

Later in the same game, Kaepernick looks to hit tight end Vance McDonald in the flat. The Colts are in a cover one (tight man coverage with a single high safety).

Kaepernick sees that he’s covered and looks to come back across to his next read. There is very little pressure again until he looks to run. At the moment he comes off McDonald, Celek is going to break open in the middle of the field.

Instead of using his using his eyes to look off the coverage and deliver a strike to Celek, he takes off to his left and runs himself into a sack behind the line of scrimmage.

Even against a terrible pre-snap look, Kaepernick has a tendency to only look in one direction regardless of how covered his target happens to be or how uncovered other receivers are in other parts of the field.

The Rams are in a single high shell with man coverage to the left of the 49ers formation. The 49ers are running a west coast offense staple to the right, the curl-flat combo with a drag route and “spot” route over the middle.

The pre-snap look shows man coverage to the 49ers left and off coverage to the right. The primary read is the curl route to the bottom of the all-22 angle with the 2nd read being the running back leaking to the flat.

Yet at the snap, Kaepernick immediately looks to the man-coverage side.

As he drops back, he stares down that side of the field until he hits the top of his drop and delivers a pass straight into the coverage.

Fortunately for the 49ers, the defense drew a pass interference penalty.

The late season return of Michael Crabtree helped the passing offense but there were still signs of poor pocket presence and field vision. In week 15 against the Tampa Bay Bucaneers, the problems that stood out early in the season were still evident.

On this particular play, the 49ers are running the “smash” concept to Crabtree and Boldin’s side of the field, the left side, with Davis running down the middle of the field, faking an out route and cutting back across the field to the far post. The progression goes Boldin to Crabtree to Davis.

Kaepernick looks to Boldin first but Boldin draws three defenders his way, leaving Crabtree open on the sideline in the flat. This could be an easy 10 yard play but on 2nd and 15, Kaepernick rightly looks to get the first down yardage.

After Kaepernick comes off Boldin, he looks to Davis who is about to come open by getting a step on the safety. Kaepernick feels pressure up the middle of the pocket, moves up smartly and never settles back down. He drops his eyes and looks toward the flat and by this time, Davis is wide open.

As he leaves the pocket, he realizes that Davis is open down field and shows off his great arm talent by heaving it back across his body. Davis did slightly slow down but only once he realized Kaepernick was scrambling. The throw misses Davis’ outstretched hands.

The last play we’ll look at is probably the worst decision Kaepernick ever made as a starter because of the implications it had on end their season and the turmoil that would follow them the rest of that year.

Fans know this play all too well but it was the last pass in the NFC Championship Game against Seattle that was tipped by Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman and intercepted by linebacker Malcolm Smith.

San Francisco moved the ball pretty well down the field on this last drive. After going no huddle, the 49ers line up with trips to the left of the formation, isolating Crabtree to the right against Sherman. The Seahawks are in a two-high man under shell that converts to cover 3 at the snap.

The trips side of the formation runs a flat (#1 receiver), a seam route (#2 middle receiver), and an out route (#3 inside receiver). Crabtree runs the fade isolated against Sherman.

At the snap Kaepernick drops back, immediately looks to Crabtree’s side and throws a deep pass down the sideline. The pass is too far inside and not in a position where his receiver can make a play.

On the other side of the formation, Kaepernick could’ve come off Crabtree and dumped it off the receiver in the flat or hit Boldin on the seam (though that’s also a risky throw to come back to).

Either way, the ball placement was not great and it should’ve been in a position where either Crabtree can get it or no one can. Jim Harbaugh preached ball security with his quarterbacks throughout his tenure in San Francisco because Kaepernick and Alex Smith were very similar decision-makers.

In Harbaugh’s offense, the risk-reward balance on a given throw for both quarterbacks is always adjusted to avoid as much risk as possible. This kept the turnover ratio down, but also hurt the offense since many opportunities to move the ball were missed.

For Kaepernick to reach the next level in 2014, he would have to become more aggressive at pushing the ball downfield and taking chances or become better at subtle pocket movements to avoid pressure or change how he reads a defense. In the next installment of this series, we’ll look and see where, if any, changes or progress was made in his 2014 season.

All images courtesy of NFL.com and NFL GamePass.

All statistics, records and accolades courtesy of Pro Football Reference unless otherwise indicated.

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