SAN FRANCISCO — Ever had a conversation with someone who was present in body only? Someone who had a far-off look in his eyes and followed your questions with awkward silence? Someone who smiled and apologized, then did the same thing minutes later?
That was 49ers offensive coordinator Greg Roman last Sunday afternoon outside the team’s locker room at Candlestick Park. The Niners had just outslugged the Packers, 34-28, in a season-opening victory, but within a nanosecond of the clock reaching 0:00 the game was a distant memory in his mind. His focus already had turned to the Seahawks, whom the 49ers will play in a primetime NFC West showdown this Sunday in Seattle.
“A wise man thinks ahead,” said Roman, whose unit has scored just one touchdown in each of its last three meetings with the Seahawks.
What was his first thought when Seattle came knocking at his mental door? A player? A matchup? A particular coverage? A certain defensive scheme? “A little bit of everything,” he said. “But the first thing is that we’ve got to play our best. From today’s performance I know we’ll get better—and we’ll keep getting better as the year goes on. So we’re going to load it up, get prepared and get rolling.”
Roman has proven to be a master chess player in his three seasons running the 49ers’ offense. He doesn’t think one or two moves ahead, he thinks two and three games ahead. His mind regularly works into the wee hours, coming up with new wrinkles as his players sleep. The result is a unit that has ranked in the top 11 in scoring the past two seasons, though relatively few of those points have come against the Seahawks, who held San Francisco to 13, 13 and 19 points in their last three meetings.
But Roman’s creativity could reach new heights this season, thanks to the development of second-year starter Colin Kaepernick. The former Nevada star was a revelation after joining the first team last November, dazzling onlookers with not only the speed to run from linebackers and safeties, but also the arm strength to stretch the field and fit footballs through the eye of a needle. The only obvious weaknesses in his game, according to scouts, was that he had the touch of a blacksmith when delivering the ball, and often was too quick to scramble when he felt pressure in the pocket.
Kaepernick sent shivers through the division, if not the league, last Sunday by showing he spent the offseason working on his game as much as his endorsements. With the Packers daring him—no, forcing him—to beat them as a passer, he showed greater poise in the pocket and a consistency on touch passes that was not there a year ago.
He finished 27 of 39 passing for 412 yards, three touchdowns, no turnovers and a 129.4 rating. The attempts, completions and yards were career-highs, and the touchdowns and rating rank second among his personal bests. While it’s easy to be seduced by the numbers, it’s not so much what Kaepernick did as how he did it.
“He definitely has improved as a passer,” one division scout said after reviewing the Packers game. “This year he’s using his legs to buy himself time and extend plays versus always pulling it down to run. He’s still not very anticipatory, but because he has such a strong arm he can fit it in tight windows. (But he has) much improved touch. He has developed a change-up versus throwing fastballs all the time.”
That was obvious on several key plays, including a 37-yard completion to tight end Vernon Davis, who beat the jam of defensive back Micah Hyde at the line of scrimmage but was bracketed over the top by safety M.D. Jennings. A fastball in this instance would not have worked, so Kaepernick took something off the pass and floated it over the head of Hyde but in front of the approaching Jennings.
Another time he had a clear lane to run when the Packers blitzed him from their own 46. Hyde came from the front side, and Kaepernick, who burned Green Bay for a record 181 yards rushing in last season’s playoff win, took off toward the line of scrimmage. But instead of continuing, he stopped and whistled a dart to Anquan Boldin down the sideline for 16 yards.
They’re only two plays, but they speak volumes about how much Kaepernick has progressed. All the talk that perhaps he was spending too much time at awards shows or shooting commercials and magazine spreads is laughable.
“I think he works harder now than he did before, which is crazy,” says wideout Kyle Williams. “Everybody was expecting all this success to go to his head and for him to be a different guy and be complacent. But he’s not built that way. It’s almost like the success has come and he wants more of it, so he knows what he has to do. His attention to detail now is crazy. He’s like, ‘Coach, why don’t we put this on the backside of this? Why don’t we do this different?’ The coaches are willing to try it because they respect so much that he has put in the work. His input is almost right up there with the coaches.”
Sunday will be interesting in that Kaepernick will return to the scene of his worst defeat as a pro, a 42-13 beatdown last December that felt worse than the score. He threw for 244 yards, but 159 came after halftime, when Seattle was well in control. The Seahawks, who have one of the league’s best secondaries—not to mention its most effective pass rush when playing at home, thanks to the crowd noise—undoubtedly will force Kaepernick to beat them from the pocket. The difference between a year ago and now could be that he has expanded his game enough to meet the challenge, something that has jumped at Seahawks coach Pete Carroll.
“They’re more in tune with his talents,” he said. “They trust him more. They threw the ball down the field a ton in that [Packers] game and hit a bunch of big plays. They relied on their protection to give him a chance. They’re not dinking the ball around worrying about him. They’re giving him a chance to make things happen.”
How to take advantage of that keeps Roman’s mind racing, even during conversations about other matters.