*This is the Colin Kaepernick chapter from the Pre-Snap Reads Quarterback Catalogue. It was originally published in April.*
2016 was arguably the best season of Colin Kaepernick’s career. He spent half of it on the bench amidst suspect reports about his health that became even more suspect when the 49ers reworked his contract before moving him into the starting lineup. The suggestion was that Kaepernick couldn’t be a dual threat quarterback because he had lost weight. This was a suggestion that makes a lot of sense if you are incapable of seeing the difference between Cam Newton’s running style and Kaepernick’s running style. Kaepernick has never been someone who breaks tackles. He is a sprinter who takes advantage of the space that appears in front of him.
Maybe Kaepernick’s lack of body mass was impacting how he threw the ball? That would have been a salient point if Kaepernick hadn’t played in the preseason and if Blaine Gabbert wasn’t the team’s preferred starter.
Gabbert’s complete inability to function as an NFL player eventually wore the coaching staff down and forced Kaepernick on to the field. The first couple of weeks were rough. He was accurate on 61.54 percent of his passes in his debut against the Bills in Week 6 and just 68.96 percent the following week against the Buccaneers. His deep accuracy was particularly poor in Buffalo. Those two games and a Week 13 game against the Bears were Kaepernick’s worst games of the season. In truth the Bears game was played in such poor conditions that nobody on the field could really be evaluated. Snow fell throughout, making the field like slush and the ball as slippy as a bar of soap. Kaepernick only attempted five passes and completed only one. The Bears didn’t complete a pass until there was less than two minutes remaining in the second quarter. It was just that kind of game. Once Kaepernick settled into his new scheme, he played consistently well. He wasn’t thriving to the point that he was one of the best quarterbacks in the league, but he showed off growth in his skill set.
When Kaepernick was at the peak of his success under Jim Harbaugh, he was widely considered one of the best young quarterbacks in the league. Not everyone stole the headlines like Ron Jaworski did, but the general consensus was that he was one of the best young quarterbacks in the league with the potential to alter how offenses were run. In reality he was never that guy. Kaepernick’s success was built on finding a perfect fit. Harbaugh used a run-heavy offense where the passing game was built off of the constant threat of play-action passes. Diverse formations and play designs made use of Kaepernick’s athleticism, while his ability to make precision throws to different levels from outside of the pocket was emphasized. It was still early in his career, but the former Nevada prospect proved adept at making half-field reads and diagnosing coverages on well-designed route combinations.
During Harbaugh’s final year, he and offensive coordinator Greg Roman decided to test the weaker areas of Kaepernick’s skill set. Instead of calling plays that exclusively played to his strengths, Kaepernick was expected to take more straight dropbacks while diagnosing the coverage without routes that worked off of each other. Having not been asked to do that to that point in his career, it was no surprise that the results were disastrous. The lowest point came the year after Harbaugh left, when Kaepernick threw four interceptions against the Cardinals in Week 3 of the 2015 season. Those struggles in specific areas made Kaepernick’s fit in Chip Kelly’s offense a concern. His athleticism would open up the running game, but Kelly requires his quarterback to sit in the pocket and make reads. He wasn’t going to put his quarterback under center and let him make hard play fakes to throw the ball into distorted coverages. The play fakes Kelly relied on were subtler, designed to slow the second-level defenders down rather than completely draw them out of position.
This is where Kaepernick grew. His movement in the pocket while executing Kelly’s scheme in 2016 was a drastic improvement over what he had shown the previous two seasons. Even when he was struggling to throw the ball in Buffalo at the beginning, he was making subtle movements in the pocket that he hadn’t before. Midway through the third quarter, Kaepernick caught a shotgun snap and took three steps backwards. His heels didn’t touch the ground before he reached the top of his drop. While Kaepernick was reaching the top of his drop, his left guard was being physically overwhelmed past his outside shoulder. In the past this would have likely resulted in Kaepernick breaking down and sprinting out of the pocket. Kaepernick didn’t always play on his toes, so when he got to the top of his drop he would make rash movements to react to pressure. On this play Kaepernick stepped his right foot forward to move slightly forward and to his right. That gave his left guard leverage against the defender who had previously beaten him. There was pressure coming from Kaepernick’s right side, so he shuffled his weight forward into a small pocket of space from where he could throw the ball. The play only gained five yards when Jeremy Kerley caught an accurate pass between two defenders over the middle of the field, but the five yards were less significant than the poise and technique shown by the quarterback.
Your feet and your eyes are always tied together as a quarterback. Improving your footwork in the pocket helps you to keep your eyes downfield because you are more comfortable adjusting to the pressure that inevitably comes. Kaepernick’s eyes would drop early in his career and they’d rarely go back up. This was especially true when he broke into the left flat.
Kaepernick doesn’t square his shoulders or feet to the line of scrimmage when he is forced to move left. It makes it very difficult to throw the ball. That never really mattered previously because his eyes stayed down regardless. This was another area where he showed growth in 2016. No play highlighted that growth more than his touchdown pass to Shaun Draughn against the Buccaneers in Week 7. That play began on the Buccaneer 17-yard line late in the first quarter. Joe Staley at left tackle allowed his defender to get around the edge quickly while the left guard inside of him was pushed too far back into the pocket. Kaepernick made a quick decision to bail on the closing pocket, finding space between Staley and his left guard to escape through. His eyes stayed downfield at all times and even though he released the ball without squaring his shoulders, Kaepernick was able to hit a window that was barely bigger than the ball itself from 22 yards away on the sideline. Any suggestion that his arm was no longer strong became laughable when he made that throw with a defender arriving in his face, moving left without good mechanics.
The eye level is what allowed that throw to take place. Against the Seahawks in Week 17, Kaepernick made another play that he would never have made in previous seasons. Early in the first quarter, the 49ers put their quarterback in an empty shotgun set. The Seahawks rushed three defenders after him and dropped the fourth defender so that he was directly in front of Kaepernick’s first read. Kaepernick looked directly at the defender before turning his eyes to the other side of the field. Nobody was open, so he extended the play outside of the pocket to a spot on the field where there were no defenders. Kaepernick was never looking to scramble. He moved his spot to move the coverage. After settling in his stance a few yards outside the pocket, Kaepernick threw the ball directly down the middle of the field to a tight end who had been left wide open when the linebackers aggressively reacted to the quarterback breaking the pocket.
In reality, this growth from Kaepernick isn’t enough to sell him as purely a pocket passer. There were long stretches last season where he was very effective throwing the ball in rhythm. If he gets to the top of his drop and the ball comes out instantly, he delivers the ball with great accuracy and arm strength to hit tighter windows. The longer he holds the ball, much like Andy Dalton or Alex Smith, the more likely he is to miss an open receiver or throw an errant pass. Throwing Kaepernick into an offense and telling him to run an expansive passing game where he has to make 20 difficult throws per game isn’t going to work. Even while he had a very impressive interceptable pass rate in 2016, 2.11 percent (second best in the league), his decision making and processing speed are too unreliable to be put in a “traditional” offense. That is unless you’re happy to have a Josh McCown or Ryan Fitzpatrick level of quarterback.
Kaepernick doesn’t have to play like McCown or Fitzpatrick because he’s a better all-around player than those guys. What makes Kaepernick a top-20 level starter is his combination of passing ability and rushing ability. One of the worst hot take examples against him is an argument that is regularly used against quarterbacks who rely on running the ball as part of their success. It’s the idea that he needs a specific type of offense to excel. That statement is true. The problem is that statement is true of every quarterback in the league. It only gets used with the guys who run the ball. It would be like a team employing Peyton Manning and telling him not to call audibles or a team telling Tony Romo not to hold the ball in the pocket. Put Philip Rivers in a vertical passing game behind the Chargers offensive line and see how well he does. Ask Alex Smith to throw the ball past the line of scrimmage more than five times a quarter and check what his perception would be. Could Joe Flacco live in the 1-5 yard range the way Tom Brady does? Could Kirk Cousins play for Dirk Koetter, running four verticals every other play?
Any team that bristles at the idea of playing to Kaepernick’s strengths likely isn’t adjusting to the skill sets of its current quarterbacks.
You don’t cut off a strength from a player’s skill set just because there is a misguided stigma surrounding it. If it helps you create a more effective offense, you build an offense that highlights it. Any quarterback who succeeds in the NFL succeeds because he is set up to. All quarterbacks need the right guidance, the right scheme fit, and the right supporting cast. Only isolating the guys who run creates an unfair assumption of inferiority that can never be shed.
Scheme-wise Kaepernick proved to be a decent fit with Kelly. He somewhat surprisingly struggled throwing the ball deep (maybe it was the weight loss!), but ranked fourth in accuracy on throws to five yards and eighth in the 1-10 yard range. Kaepernick’s accuracy wasn’t great, but was good enough to rank 14th in the league. Kelly helped to scheme receivers open, but the quality of Kaepernick’s receivers meant he was rarely throwing to receivers who were creating separation on their own. He had to fit the ball into tighter windows because guys like Quinton Patton, Vance McDonald, Garrett Celek and even Torrey Smith weren’t getting open consistently. When Kaepernick did hit those throws he couldn’t rely on his receivers to catch the ball. No quarterback lost completions on accurate throws more often than Kaepernick in 2016. 11.78 percent of his passes were lost receptions to receiver error, one every 8.49 attempts. In his best performance of the season, against the Dolphins in Week 12, Kaepernick’s receivers cost him four completions, at least 48 yards, and at least one touchdown. The lost touchdown was one of his more impressive plays of the game.
Vance McDonald, a serial offender when it came to ruining good throws from Kaepernick in 2016, lined up off the line of scrimmage behind another tight end to the left side of the offense. Both players were tight to the left tackle. The offense was set up at the Dolphins 11-yard line. When McDonald released from the line of scrimmage, he angled his route so he was running directly at a cornerback who had lined up deep off the line of scrimmage. The cornerback was shaded to the outside, and McDonald’s route pushed him wider before he broke back inside. He found space between the cornerback and the single-high safety. As soon as he found that space the ball arrived to hit him in the chest. McDonald let the ball bounce off of his chest for the incompletion. Kaepernick had hit him with perfect timing in that closing window despite facing interior pressure. Ndamukong Suh beat his blocker so fast that Kaepernick’s upper body never settled from releasing the ball forward before it was swung backwards into the ground.
Despite losing so many yards to his receiver’s mistakes, Kaepernick still accounted for more than 400 yards in that game. He had his season high in rushing yards as he mixed timely scrambles with outstanding execution on designed runs. The Dolphins’ lack of speed at linebacker was repeatedly exposed by a quarterback who is still clearly one of the most dangerous runners in the league. One of the tricks we play on quarterbacks is to discount the production they create running the ball. We wouldn’t randomly take away 468 yards from a quarterback’s total passing yards, but we do if you create those yards with your legs. As if those first downs and touchdowns don’t actually count. So long as the quarterback isn’t forcing scrambles when he has wide open receivers downfield, running the ball for a quarterback should be considered a positive.
Kaepernick remaining unsigned for as long as he has doesn’t reflect his quality. It reflects the NFL’s biases against quarterbacks of his style and how NFL owners received his peaceful protest.