Simon Bruty/Sports Illustrated
Simon Bruty/Sports Illustrated

Delicate Footwork

Colin Kaepernick’s electrifying legs have carried the 49ers into the divisional round, but can he avoid critical missteps against the Panthers’ formidable D?

By
Robert Klemko
· More from Robert·

GREEN BAY, Wis. — How long can you teeter on the edge of a cliff before falling off? How much longer can Colin Kaepernick and the 49ers keep on living dangerously?

Consider San Francisco’s 3rd-and-8 play late in the fourth quarter at Lambeau Field on Sunday. Kaepernick dropped back from Green Bay’s 38-yard line, needing a first down and a score to break a 20-20 deadlock and eliminate the Packers from the playoffs for the second year in a row. Cornerback Jarrett Bush crashed off the left edge, only to be neutralized by running back Frank Gore as Kaepernick put the brakes on his arm mid-throw, the same way a young Tiger Woods would halt his colossal downswing at the distracting chirp of a spectator.

Kaepernick was targeting Michael Crabtree despite blanket coverage on a slant route. But once Gore knocked Bush off his path to the quarterback, Kaepernick took off running without a second’s pause. He bolted toward the 49ers’ sideline and around limping linebacker Andy Mulumba for 11 yards. Five plays later Phil Dawson kicked a football that felt like a frozen turkey for a 33-yard field goal to send the 49ers on to the divisional round.

Kaepernick’s game-changing play happened in a frenzy, but it wouldn’t have been possible without the foresight of a coach. Bush had blitzed in similar fashion earlier in the game, spinning inside and away from Gore’s lunging chip block. On the sideline, running backs coach Tom Rathman told Gore to be more patient when Bush is the one blitzing. “Let him come to me and push him in,” Gore said, recalling the advice.

When the stakes were at their highest, when Gore’s lungs felt on fire from inhaling the frigid air, he followed those instructions. Bush stutter-stepped to the inside, and Gore pumped his hands and caught him in the chest, pushing the cornerback further inside and springing Kaepernick, whose seventh and final carry helped net him a season-high 98 yards—his most since setting an NFL QB record with 181 in last season’s divisional-round win over the Packers.

TK (Simon Bruty/SI)
Simon Bruty/Sports Illustrated

His lungs seemingly immune to the arctic chill, Kaepernick remains as electrifying as ever in his second year as San Francisco’s starter. But there’s still a risk-reward element to his game. He wings it farther, harder and more accurately than most other QBs, and he runs so swiftly and with such decisiveness that using a linebacker to spy him is a laughable notion. And yet, he always seems to be on the brink of making a wrong decision. What would have happened had Rathman not picked up on Bush’s blitzing tendency? Would Kaepernick have forced the ball to a well-covered Crabtree, the first and only receiver he appeared to consider? Probably.

If not for Dawson fitting his kick just inside the right upright as time expired, we could be talking about the comeback magic of Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers and the tempestuous play of Kaepernick. The latter dazzled with a pinpoint, 28-yard touchdown pass to Vernon Davis in the fourth quarter, but he also made you scratch your head with a wounded-duck of a pass in the second quarter that Tramon Williams intercepted in the red zone, a pick that led directly to a Green Bay score.

We tend not to scrutinize so closely because Kaepernick is able to compensate with his legs. But will they be the same kind of weapons next weekend against the Panthers, who have the league’s second-best defense? Or perhaps in two weeks against the Seahawks, who have the league’s best? Even the Saints have a top-five defense, unlike the Packers, who rank among the NFL’s worst (24th in points and 25th in yards) and went into battle on Sunday without linebacker Clay Matthews.

Kaepernick still has a fatal flaw, which Packers backup QB Seneca Wallace could see from his vantage point on Green Bay’s sideline. “He’s a playmaker. You look at their big plays, he extended them with his feet,” Wallace says. “But he’s got to fix his footwork.”

In Wallace’s eyes, the breakout star of 2012 and the losing QB in Super Bowl XLVII played with more maturity in last Sunday’s 23-20 victory than he did a year ago in the playoffs, when the 49ers beat Green Bay, 45-31, in San Francisco. But is Kaepernick’s game polished enough to carry San Francisco to the Lombardi Trophy this season?


Frozen In Time | Photographs by Simon Bruty | Sports Illustrated/The MMQB


“As a quarterback that is very mobile, you think you can do things differently instead of just playing the position and using your feet when you drop back,” Wallace says. “You’re like, ‘Oh, I’m so athletic I can just do this.’ When his footwork is on time, he throws a pretty good ball. But when it’s not, he doesn’t always get it there.”

It’s not just hard feelings coming from the losers’ locker room; the dichotomy was on full display. On that second-quarter interception, Kaepernick got lazy despite having time to throw. He neglected to plant his back foot, he wobbled, and so did the ball. (He then took an unnecessary risk, meeting the weaving Williams head-on with a helmet-to-helmet tackle.) At one point in the fourth quarter, Kaepernick dropped back with the precision of the Marine Corps marching band, hitting Davis in the numbers as two Packers converged. But on 49ers’ final drive—on a play destined to be forgotten because of what came after—Kaepernick rushed his read and unleashed his anvil of an arm, the ball slipping through the hands of Packers defensive back Micah Hyde on an intended out-route.

It might seem like piling on, because Kaepernick got thisclose to the Lombardi Trophy last season, and (forgetting his near interception) he engineered a 14-play, 65-yard drive to keep the 49ers alive in these playoffs. But the margin for error suddenly gets smaller against the Panthers, whose formidable defensive ends, Charles Johnson and Greg Hardy, will force Kaepernick to make even quicker decisions while taking away escape valves around the edge. They anchor a defense that held San Francisco to a season-low 151 yards of total offense in a 10-9 win in Week 10. Kaepernick had his worst game of 2013, completing 11 of 22 passes for 91 yards, zero TDs and one interception. He was sacked six times for a loss of 45 yards; he ran just four times for 16 yards.

But that was on Nov. 10, so give credit where it’s due. Kaepernick has another game next Sunday, and whether it turns out to be a stepping stone to something bigger, or a season-ending stumble, will largely depend on his footwork.

themmqb.com

32 comments
aznturbo
aznturbo

I used to look forward to MMQB the past few years, but now have also found the new columnisst disengaging, wrong with their own opinions, or just want to make a "splash" with negative information.  I call out Klemko for actually coming out of your shell and defending some of our criticism.  

thegbinsider
thegbinsider

"Fatal flaw". Like much of the criticism for Kaepernick this season, my first reaction to reading this was “duh”. Kaepernick is inconsistent in certain aspects of playing QB and has a long way to go, but he makes up for it with his arm and legs. He could be more accurate, but it’s not as if he’s throwing the ball like Tebow out there. I can only think of a handful of QBs who wouldn’t trade their arm strength and speed with Kaepernick.


I’ve been a fan of Peter King’s writing, but I’m not a fan of this new MMQB website. It’s filled with a bunch of writers trying to serve as analysts. They write speculative pieces like Harbaugh to Texas to get views. The only piece of “evidence” in that piece was a quote from Seneca Wallace. The people who break down every snap of every game (PFF) have given Kap a +9.8 grade since Crabtree has returned (not including last week). I’m not the biggest fan of their grades because I think they ignore context in the effort to be “objective”, but it’s a good starting point. He’s in the top 10 of just about every advanced metric you can come up with.


I could write a piece about how Tebow can’t throw the football, a piece about how Peyton Manning has no mobility, or a piece about how Kaepernick is inconsistent with his mechanics. It’d all be the same- something quite obvious if you just watch football, and something that is only one piece of the puzzle if you avoid hyperbole and exaggeration.

A.F.Davis
A.F.Davis

All I know is, much like the first meeting between the 49ers and the Panthers, it is going to be a slugfest and one hell of a game!


I am a 9ers fan, so I might be a little bias, I admit it!  But I think SF wins because of the defense playing absolutely on fire!  Carolina and SF are very similar teams, young, strong, and mobile QB's, solid running game, stingy defense that rush the passer extremely well.


Ultimately, I think SF wins because of the edge in playoff experience.  Some people think that experience doesn't matter, but those people are 100% wrong!  Experience gives you knowledge you wouldn't have had you not gone through it, so the slight edge goes to Kaepernick & Co. for having made a playoff run to the Super Bowl together last year!


But only time will tell...


GO NINERS!!!

T. Jefferson
T. Jefferson

The Panthers only won 10-9 when the Niners were without Crabtree and were only part time with Vernon Davis and Aldon Smith.  Logic tells me that the full time presence of those three would more than overcome that measly one point margin.  On top of that the Panthers are coming off a bye week and the young team is lacking in playoff experience.  The big question will be how the Panthers come off the blocks with that week off against a team that already has a running start with the win over the Packers in a freezer box.

philpap
philpap

ugh i hate 'what if' articles.  You realize you could say that about anything right?  WHAT IF Rodgers hadn't been able to escape Peppers in Week 17 to hit Cobb for the TD?  We'd be discussing how he was too injured right now.  Kaep makes some mistakes but it's laughable for Seneca Wallace's commentary to be seen as holding any weight here.  Kaep is 6'4, 240, Wallace is 5'11 200, and Kaep is a superior passer.  It's a totally different game for the two of them when it comes to both passing and running.


Also, you think maybe ones footwork might be a little less textbook in 5 degree cold? Maybe?  True he's unorthodox, and while some of what you say is correct, it's not close to as meaningful as you're presenting it to be.

t12ix7er
t12ix7er

I'm a Niner fan and I have to agree with the article's main point, although not the headline. It does appear that when Kaep struggles, he rushes his throws without setting his feet correctly (you can even see it in the pic above). He trusts his arm strength to get the ball into tight windows without setting his feet, kind of like a pitcher who throws with his arm instead of using the power in his legs and torque in his hips. That said, when his mechanics look good, man oh man. He's still young and with a coach like Harbaugh, who focuses on mechanics, he'll work on it in the offseason and come back even better next season. But for this season, he's still good enough to win a Superbowl, and that should be a scary thought.

thomasoverley
thomasoverley

oh no the media did not write the constant praise for this guy and people are upset. 

Andrew21
Andrew21

And why did they have Davis last time? Because the Panthers knocked him out! Literally. It's the same huge difference that propelled them to a last second 3 pt win over a .500 team from the worst division in football. 

kmac360
kmac360

Great take Klemko.  Couldn't agree more.

BillDeMartini
BillDeMartini

Big difference between the last time the 49ers and Panthers played.  The 49ers didn't have Vernon Davis, Michael Crabtree, and Aldon Smith.  They had KYLE WILLIAMS at receiver…  HUGE difference without those 3 players.  

StewartKerrBrown
StewartKerrBrown

What an extremely negative article…Kaepernick may not have the footwork of a Joe Montana…only Joe Montana does funnily enough….but he doesn't have to…but the whole assumption for the article is wrong…Kaepernick is a pass first QB…and I would like to point something out…this Seattle are missing Percy Harvin…they have never had him play to miss him yet….

E Money1
E Money1

So when Rodgers rolls out and makes a play he is amazing (considering there was no holding call). When Vince Young and Vick would do it, they were electrifying. When Cam and Russell Wilson do it, it is a "heads up" play. Kaep is still learning the position, he will make mistakes, but I don't call it living dangerously. Not when you consistently win.

Ron5
Ron5

Kap has played just one full season as a starter. His footwork will improve. He's still a kid and still learning.

aznturbo
aznturbo

A pessimistic article from an ill-advised, uninformative writer on this site.  If you're basing your article on a backup QB's (Senecca Wallace) quotes, you might as well blog on your own personal site.  Hey Klemko, were you even covering the 49ers during that Carolina game?  The 49ers had no Crabtree and lost Vernon Davis in the 1st quarter.  Oh yea, they also had a limited Aldon Smith in that game as well.  If they had all those weapons, San Francisco would've won by 2 touchdowns at the very least.  KLEMKO: don't write an article for the sake of being negative.  It'll give you more credibility for future posts.

aznturbo
aznturbo

@BillDeMartini With all the weapons back, a defense playing better than ever, and coming off a win in Green Bay...Yeah we're favored to beat Carolina.  Even Vegas agrees.

schmitty42
schmitty42

@StewartKerrBrownI don't see it as a negative article. Kap can get sloppy with his footwork, lots of young players do that. If he is going to become great, and consistent he needs to be better. Pretty amazing what he's been able to do even with his uneven play at times.

aznturbo
aznturbo

@E Money1 You hit it right on the dot.  Klemko seems to think that Kaepernick is some reckless young QB.  If you watch the 49ers this season, their offense is pretty conservative with Kaep basically managing that team.  But when he runs and succeeds when his team needs him most, you quote Senecca Wallace out of all people about footwork?  Was that the only Packer that was willing to speak with you that day Klemko? 

ConradPoohs
ConradPoohs

@aznturbo  Y'know, I think I'll take the observation of a backup (and former starter) who has played this game for well over a decade than a SF homer who needs to clean the Cheetos dust from his T-shirt.  


And Klemko isn't wrong.  Kaepernick is very talented, but he hasn't yet learned (or is just too stubborn) that mobile quarterbacks need to not go run first, pass second.  Russell Wilson only looks to run when all other options are exhausted, look how well that works.  Newton made great strides when he learned to stay in the pocket longer. 


Also, case in point, Wilson has had no Sidney Rice or Percy Harvin for most of the season, and all he did was elevate Golden Tate and Doug Baldwin; no one's idea of all-pros.  Kaepernick's good, but he doesn't elevate his receivers.  Yet.

anon76
anon76

@aznturbo @E Money1 


The living dangerously comment wasn't about the run, it was about the almost-pass to a well-covered Crabtree that Kaep was contemplating.  This isn't that critical of an article, all things considered.

schmitty42
schmitty42

@ConradPoohs@aznturboNo Kaepernick isn't elevating practice squad receivers to NFL starters. Neither is Wilson. Tate and Baldwin are quality NFL players, Marlon Moore not so much (he was Niners #2 to start the year). Kaepernick is as much of a pass first player as Wilson is.

The article wasn't about staying in the pocket, it was about his footwork getting sloppy. That's not a running QB thing, it's a young QB thing. Wilson and Newton's footwork are no where near Brady either.

aznturbo
aznturbo

@ConradPoohs Lol and I bet your team is still playing right? Why don't you pick up the cheetos I left on the ground and eat it .  If you haven't watched the games, Kaepernick does look to pass first before he runs.  Shoot, if I had a better chance gaining more yardage running as a 2nd option- wouldn't you take it?  Especially if you're the best running QB in the NFL...


Newton making great strides?  The guy was barely producing at a high level in the first half of this season.  If it wasn't for his defense, he wouldn't be in the playoffs period. I can say the same about Wilson.  Wilson is even less spectacular.  Talk to me again in 5 years to see how these QBs fare.  It'll be Kaepernick and Luck as the best ones in this decade.


CoradPoohs and Klemko:  Accept greatness when you see it.  Kaepernick just showcased why he is something special.

kmac360
kmac360

@schmitty42 @ConradPoohs @aznturbo You're insane if you think Kap is as much of a pass-first QB as Wilson.  If his primary is covered, Kap almost always runs.  He can't get through a progression without a ton of time.  My knock on Wilson is that he is too hesitant to run a lot of the time.  He extends plays by running in order to pass.  He has often left yardage on the table by not tucking the ball and running.  And by the way, the article wasn't about Newton and Wilson.  But if it was, it would say that their footwork is far more refined and technically sound than Kaepernick's.

aznturbo
aznturbo

@AdamLindner @aznturbo  Enjoyed your responses.  To sum it up, it's tough for me to compare Kaepernick to Michael Vick or anyone else in history, as everyone develops differently.  I'm not worried about Kaep's development.   


"Good luck this weekend. Carolina's front 7 is beastly."- So are the Niners' O-line :)


If you haven't figured it out yet I won't rooting for you.  -Go Hawks ;)  - Good luck as well.  

AdamLindner
AdamLindner

@aznturbo@AdamLindner That's me!  The credibility police :) Here to make your SI comments section fun, informative and super credible.  Shoot, I could write for ESPN with the knowledge I throw out.   


I like the Steve Young comparison (if you throw out '86 in TB, that was just...bad).   You have to go to year 5 before he maintains 60% completion.  He was also a great "running" qb.  Multiple years with over 400 yds on the ground.  Which shows that, yes, Kaepernick can improve his footwork and increase his comp %, it's just not a given. 


Rodgers started in year 4 and completed 63.6% of his passes.  And has never been lower.  Regression to the mean implies that at his worst, he'll complete no less than 60+ percent of his passes.  That's why he's so freaking good.  


Brees, in 12 seasons as a starter, has only dipped below 60% once.  Broken 70% twice.  He's a remarkable accurate qb for someone who can't see over his O-Line (short joke!)  And go check out his rushing stats.  Total Dual threat.  That's where the comparison to Kaep isn't really (wait for it) Credible!


As I already stated, I'm not taking anything away from Kaep, but I'm not ready to anoint him either.  He is a 3rd year NFL player.  Rodgers didn't start until 08, drafted in 05.  That didn't make him a first year player in 08.  3 years in an NFL system and patterns start to emerge.  One of them is low comp percentage secondary to improper footwork.  It's not an insult, it's on observation.


Last but not least, how much fun is it to have players on your team that you can argue minutiae about? Not whether or not he should start, get cut, get benched, etc.  But whether or not his footwork can increase his comp percentage 3 points.  That means you're in a pretty good place.


Good luck this weekend. Carolina's front 7 is beastly.


If you haven't figured it out yet I won't rooting for you.  -Go Hawks ;)



aznturbo
aznturbo

@AdamLindner Uh Oh this boy AdamLindler is in town to chime in on whos credible or not- Hello there Adam Lind :)


"He's not a rookie.  He's 3 years in to his career."  -Actually he has played 1.5 full seasons in the NFL.  Rodgers didn't start playing until season 4 and didn't win a superbowl until his 7th season.  


"Even with a great game or two, history shows he will regress to the mean." - I guess you can apply that to QBs such as Steve Young or Brees who didn't peak until their 6th or 7th season in the league.  Don't try to use "history" as a way to downplay what Kaepernick has already accomplished during his young career.


Lastly, I'm not taking anything from Wilson, but until he wins something I'm not going to give him his due.  Regular season numbers don't mean anything.  Go to the super bowl and lets see him perform first.  Quite frankly, I don't see him getting there.

AdamLindner
AdamLindner

@aznturbo@kmac360 Measly Russell Wilson?  Careful, your homer is showing and your credibility is fading.  If you don't like a guy, that's fine.  But at least be objective.  Kap is a freak athlete who can drive a defense crazy.  He also finished 31st in the league in completion percentage this year.  Could that be in large part due to poor foot work and decision making?  Wilson finished with more yards, tds, higher comp%, y/At, y/games all on fewer attempts and more rushing yards than Kap.  That takes nothing away from Kap, but to diminish Wilson just makes you a bad football fan. 


This article brought up great points.  Will Kap improve or has he reached his peak as a passer.  He's not a rookie.  He's 3 years in to his career.  Even with a great game or two, history shows he will regress to the mean.  Show me a successful quarterback in the NFL that routinely completes less than 60% of his passes.  It doesn't happen.


Go look at Michael Vick's stats in Atl.  1st season over 60% comp was in Phi.  He took the league by storm with his athleticism too.  How's he doing now?

kmac360
kmac360

@aznturbo @kmac360 I don't disagree that teams don't want to face SF in the playoffs.  But to suggest that any NFL team would rather face Seattle or Carolina is just plain ignorant.  Seattle has not won a Super Bowl - you're right.  They have won big playoff games.  And what teams have done in the past has almost nothing to do with what they do this year.  I agree - Kaep is a major threat.  But don't suggest Wilson and Newton are less of a threat.  You're wrong.  Also don't suggest Kaep is a better or more well-rounded QB than Wilson.  I think pretty much all non-9ers homers would disagree with you.

aznturbo
aznturbo

@kmac360 I was saying that particularly Newton and Wilson weren't blowing defenses out of the water.  Kaepernick wasn't putting up great numbers- Sure.  But don't claim that Cam Newton or even the measly Russell Wilson are any better than Kaep.  If you ask any team who they don't want to face in the playoffs- Niners and Kapernick will be on top of that list.  No one is scared of Newton and Wilson.  And until Seattle wins a big game in the playoffs (and actually get to a super bowl), don't crown them either.

aznturbo
aznturbo

@ConradPoohsLOL book what? With no stats or even reasonable theory behind this statement.  SF is the better team as I'll take my chances betting on them.  By the way, do those cheetos taste any good?

kmac360
kmac360

@aznturbo @ConradPoohs Who wasn't producing at a high level in the first half of the season?  Did you watch Kaepernick during that same time span?  He was horrible.  Until week 11, he averaged 180 yards per game (with a week one total of 412), threw 11 TDs and 7 INTs.  Not exactly awesome numbers.


Cam: 217.9, 16 TDs and 8 INTs.


Wilson:  213 yd/game, 17 TD, 6 INTs.


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