Chris Keane/Sports Illustrated/The MMQB
Chris Keane/Sports Illustrated/The MMQB

Random Acts of Quarterbacking

The 49ers have a freelancing playmaker with a rocket arm who’s taken them to two NFC title games—but Colin Kaepernick’s eagerness to improvise could ultimately be the Niners’ undoing

By
Andy Benoit
· More from Andy·

The NFL game is set up for great pocket passers to flourish. Case in point: on Sunday, this generation’s best two pocket passers, Peyton Manning and Tom Brady, will appear in the AFC Championship Game for the fourth and eighth times, respectively. But in the NFC title game the quarterbacking ticket of Russell Wilson and Colin Kaepernick evokes a familiar but fascinating discussion that has heated up over the past two years: Can an NFL team enjoy sustained success with a run-oriented quarterback?

So far this discussion misguidedly has focused on whether the read-option will revolutionize the NFL. But schemes don’t revolutionize sports—players do. Every scheme derives from a coach trying to highlight players’ strengths, mask their weaknesses or combat opposing players’ strengths or weaknesses. Read-option is just another schematic tactic.

So can a team sustain success with a quarterback who’s wired to run as much as throw? We’ve learned from guys like Seneca Wallace, Tim Tebow and Terrelle Pryor that a quarterback who can run but not throw doesn’t work. And we learned from Steve Young, Donovan McNabb and Steve McNair that a quarterback who can run and throw does work—really well, in fact.

But Young, McNabb and McNair never had to run; they could work deep into their progressions from the pocket. And they didn’t have otherworldly speed and agility—they were just very capable scramblers who could fully capitalize on opportunities with their legs. Russell Wilson falls into this class; Colin Kaepernick does not. Kaepernick has the long strides, acceleration and burst to create game-changing opportunities with his legs. And being a primitive field-reader, he often has to.

A quarterback like this is rare, but we’ve seen it before—most recently in Michael Vick in Atlanta. Like Kaepernick, Vick had a rocket arm but, being inconsistent in progressions reads, he relied heavily on his surreal running prowess. We never got to see if Vick’s style could truly thrive. Being 6-foot, 215 pounds and not knowing how to avoid or absorb hits, he couldn’t stay healthy enough to become a stable franchise quarterback. (And he went to prison at the height of his athletic prime.)

In five career playoff games, Kaepernick is 4-1 with 377 rushing yards and a 9.43 yards-per-carry average. (Simon Bruty/SI)
In five career playoff games, Kaepernick is 4-1 with 377 rushing yards and a 9.43 yards-per-carry average. (Simon Bruty/SI)

There have been concerns about Kaepernick’s exposing himself to hits, but through 37 career games and 197 career runs, the 6-4, 230-pounder has had no significant injuries. For discussion’s sake, let’s say Kaepernick remains relatively the same player for the foreseeable future. (Which very well could happen.) That means he’d be a sensational athlete with unrefined mechanics (particularly footwork), but he’d still have good accuracy thanks to an innate sense for ball location (something Vick didn’t have). It also means Kaepernick would be a limited field-reader, often needing play structures with defined reads and no more than two progressions per dropback.

Can this work?

Kaepernick is one game away from his second Super Bowl in two years, so it’s easy to say, “Of course it can!” But we’re talking long-term here. Right now the Niners are one of the few clubs that have all the other pieces in place. Their running game is stalwart, their offensive line is monstrous, their defense is formidable and their special teams are stable if not spectacular. That’s great, but such across-the-board excellence is nearly impossible to maintain under the NFL’s salary-cap structure. At some point Kaepernick will have an average supporting cast, like Tom Brady has in New England. How effective can he be then?

Brady’s stability and football IQ allow the Patriots to build great systems with middling players. Kaepernick’s best work is done through improvisation which, almost by its very definition, is something you can’t build around. If a coach doesn’t know where his quarterback will go on a given play, how does the coach create plays that form a cohesive game plan? And how do the other 10 guys on offense practice and perfect the nuances of their craft? Randomization can’t be mastered.

Jim Harbaugh and offensive coordinator Greg Roman have done a brilliant job working around these factors. Armed with the talented resources surrounding Kaepernick, they’ve constructed the NFL’s most creative power running game. In the passing game, they’ve managed to highlight Kaepernick’s skills through shrewd yet simplified designs. Even then, Kaepernick still can randomize things. Here’s a great example:

NFC-Graphic-A

What does Harbaugh tell his young QB when studying this play on film? Obviously, it was a great run, but Kaepernick ignored the essential timing and mechanics that quarterbacks and coaches work on so diligently. Does Harbaugh remind Kaepernick that, while running worked this time, he can’t count on it regularly in similar situations? (There have been plenty of occasions in which Kaepernick has left open receivers on the field to scramble for negligible yards or throw a late incompletion.) Or does Harbaugh just pat his young star on the back (likely a tad too hard—just ask Jim Schwartz) and implore him to do it again?

While defenses fear Kaepernick’s running, they also know exactly how to make him uncomfortable: by keeping him in the pocket. Inevitably, there will be crucial situations in which Kaepernick has to make plays strictly with his arm. The Niners learned this the hard way at the end of last year’s Super Bowl. With the Ravens often using an all-out blitz in the red zone, San Francisco had to ask its quarterback to make quick, tight-window throws. Kaepernick did not come through.

NFC-Graphic-B-2

NFC-Graphic-C-2

So should Harbaugh and Roman keep catering to Kaepernick and hope that it continues to work well enough? (They’d be the first modern-era team to prosper with this style over a long period.) Or do they spend their finite time and energy helping Kaepernick add more fundamental quarterbacking attributes to his repertoire?

Really, this question is more for the offseason. In the postseason, coaches do whatever gives them the best chance to win. For now, that means having Kaepernick run wild.

* * *

(Chris Keane/Sports Illustrated/The MMQB)
(Chris Keane/Sports Illustrated/The MMQB)

More on Kaepernick from The MMQB: Peter King profiled the San Francisco sensation as he prepared for his second season. And Robert Klemko found another potential flaw in the QB’s game after the Wild Card win over the Packers.

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103 comments
Cartesian
Cartesian

Davis wasn't really wide open, not unless the pass is thrown pretty accurately across the field. McDonald was, though.

Boo-urns
Boo-urns

Andy, normally love your stuff, but when you start off your column by lumping Steve Young alongside Donovan McNabb as QBs that "didn't have otherworldly  speed and agility—they were just very capable scramblers who could fully capitalize on opportunities with their legs," you lose all credibility.  Steve Young was clearly one of the (if not the single most) fastest and most agile QBs of the 1980s and 1990s, and before he ever became a pocket QB, he was a wickedly fast and quick runner who could singlehandedly change the course of a game with his legs.  A closer comparison to Kaepernick than you are acknowledging.

davidhd
davidhd

I hate Kaepernick as much as any Seahawks fan, but he has brought his team back to an NFC Championship after making the super bowl last season. You have to respect that, no matter what video clips or individual stats you want to cite. I wouldn't be surprised to see him have another mediocre or bad game in Seattle too, and I'm hoping for that, but Drew Brees couldn't do anything in Seattle either, so what does that prove? 


Yes, Kaepernick gets too much credit when the 49ers win, and probably too much blame when they lose. So does every QB. Russell Wilson has been getting trashed in the media all week, after posting the best numbers in his first 35 games of any quarterback in the history of the NFL, save maybe Peyton Manning and/or Dan Marino. Both these guys play on teams with great running games and even better defenses. They are only given around 25 passing attempts per game, yet are compared statistically to guys like P Manning who have twice as many attempts. I would much rather have a complete team than a mediocre team relying on hall of fame level QB play every week. Just ask Saints fans which formula they prefer, or Green Bay fans. 


Kaepernick might be the next Michael Vick or the next Steve Young. I hope he's the next Vick, but it's way to early to say what will happen. He's played like Vick at times, and like Young at other times in his short career.  




Ken14
Ken14

Against Carolina, Kaepernick remained in the pocket and went 15/28 for 198 yards, one TD, and no INTs.  He only ran eight times for 15 yards---one of those rushes was for a touch-down where he went in basically un-touched. The difference in the Green Bay game WAS Kaepernick’s legs, where he ran for 98 yards on seven carries, and two crucial rushes for first downs.  He also threw for 227 yards and had a 88.8 QBR, compared to Aaron Rogers’ 177 yds and a 57.6 QBR.  I wonder if Mr. Benoit can name the last time he saw a quarterback rip off a 42 yard run IN A PLAYOFF GAME or saw such balance in both running and passing to defeat the Packers in their own park---in 9 degrees, (or colder), weather.


Where I believe Mr. Benoit makes his mistake is by his description of Kaepernick’s running primarily as a “read-option”.  The Forty Niners haven’t employed the read-option as a primary play for Kaepernick all season---a smart move to prevent their prize QB from being beat up at the end of the season, or end up like RG3---something Paul Maggard, (and Mr. Benoit), don’t seem to acknowledge or comprehend.


Kaepernick does still leave the pocket too soon, yet as the season progressed, he stayed in the pocket longer and the dividends have paid off.  And unlike Paul Maggard’s insistence that Kap will get hurt, (in the long run), he’s done a great job of avoiding the big hits that “will” eventually take its toll.  RG3, Vick, and a few others chose to run head-on into their opposition.  If you follow the Niners “Faithfully“, (as I have since the 60’s), and throughout this season, the read-option, and Kaepernick running with reckless abandonment is not prevalent.  But, when he does choose to run, he’s generally burned the opposition better than any QB in the NFL. It’s wishful thinking that his legs won’t play a huge part in this Championship Game. In fact, I'm expecting it!


Go Niners!

AaronBlomberg
AaronBlomberg

So on the Green Bay play that has to be the dumbest thing I have ever read. First consider the conditions, -10 wind-chill, then consider the success rates of each choice pass lets say 70% chance of picking up a first down. The run had a 98%, slip only way to stop, chance of picking it up given the defensive positioning and a better chance of making a longer play given the only superior athlete was Vernon Davis who had 3 guys in his vicinity. Running was the smart play. The sad thing is this kind of lazy journalism is the norm on Kaepernick these days. I have watched Andrew Luck do the opposite and throw picks or even pull it down and run it to great praise. Watch the game tape of Wilson, Luck and Kaepernick against AZ and let me know who you think threw the best. Also how many serious analysts choose tape from a QB's 10th start on the biggest stage when they have another 18 games of newer tape? The guy gets panned because he is an elite runner with a hose for an arm who actually works on his craft and is 6'4 230 so that Vick reference is offensively stupid.

tommerj
tommerj

That picture of 3rd down with Walker wide open is painful if you're a 49er fan.

PaulMaggard
PaulMaggard

the guy is over rated not nearly as good as you think he is also he does not know how to avoid being hit and that will end his playing days faster then you think like Vick who was injured all the time and also RG3 he too will get injured and then what you do nothing hope he tries to run on the Hawks ET will smash him down like he did last time he tried to run on us maybe Kam will bam him and put him out teach you that running QB's are not there for a reason they can't sustain that kinda brutal hits thats the difference between Kaperdick and Wilson Wilson is always looking for someone to throw to even when he is running and he gets out of bounds or gets down instead of taking big hits with that said GO HAWKS

dbrower
dbrower

As a 49er fan, I'd say Kap reminds me more of Young, and Wilson of Montana (or Garcia.)  Most of us have strong feelings about the Steve/Joe thing.  Pre-back surgery, Montana was a better runner than many credit or recall, but never the threat Young was there;  Young always had a better arm and legs, but needed much more brain work than Montana to thrive.


With some luck, Kap will survive long enough to learn how to play better.  While Wilson is a real deal, it's not clear how much more upside potential he has; he's a lot closer to his peak, I think, unless he turns into Brees.



cwhtudid
cwhtudid

Trent Dilfer was wrong about Kaepernick. He is eating his words and his remedial comment now.

BrianMurphy1
BrianMurphy1

It's called evolution of a QB. They all evolve differently. Most people forget (i've seen it) that Young was a 

run first QB early in his career. Holmgren refined him. If Harbaugh mentors him well he'll be a beast both ways. Let's see.

Bayertoe
Bayertoe

Looked up Benoit's resume, he graduated college in 2009.  Hard to gauge his football knowledge.Probably never saw Joe Montana, Steve Young, Randall Cunningham, Warren Moon, or Dan Marino play.  Hard to take seriously.

KeysSteven
KeysSteven

The best quarterbacks dictate the action and only as last resort dance to the defensive tune.  Kaep is presently a one-trick pony, a soloist.  If quarterback scamper translated into great success, Bobby Douglas would've been a Hall of Famer & hoisted hardware (Bears 70s).  Close-off Colin's run-option (not easy for all (GB)) and he's a 'deer-in-the-headlights (SB47 pre-blackout),' unable & unsure how to buy time, survey the terrain (read) and impose his leadership through thought (pass).


Are Brady & Manning one-dimensional?  In a sense, but theirs is one big dimension.  Elite QB is like a conductor, hands full orchastrating 'mates in a symphony of music (cue, Sam Spence), where complimentary run game adds a key note (Gore / Lynch / Ball-Moreno / Ridley-LeG).  It's pro-ball 101, but today's cut-corner college coach matriculates his QB in a whole different subject: run, Johnny, run.


Good write, Andrew.

respectmyjay
respectmyjay

This article is an embarrassment to SI and The MMQB. I expect this type of crap from Yahoo. Pathetic.

Mood_Indigo
Mood_Indigo

A few points from a 49er fan:


1. It's best not to compare Kap with other QBs. He's an outworldly athlete who has all the tools to be a great QB and is showing all the signs of reaching that status.


2. Over his 2 dozen + game career, he has gradually improved his progression reading skills in the pocket. He goes through his progressions as needed when he has sufficient pocket protection.


3. Harbaugh has done an excellent job at not restraining Kap's athletic edge while allowing him to grow the mental aspect of the game at his own pace.


4. Kap has learned to avoid taking big hits by not taking unnecessary risks in his runs. 



gv49ers
gv49ers

Are you kidding me?  The conditions weren't exactly prime for the passing game in Green Bay.  Why throw the ball and risk an incompletion when you can get a huge gain with your legs?  Talk about grasping at straws.  Also how about a little research? Greg Roman ran the same exact offense with Alex Smith with the limited reads and basic passing playcalling.  I don't hear anyone pretending Alex can't go through his progressions or his poor mechanics.

respectmyjay
respectmyjay

Terrible article. The author uses examples (2nd and 3rd pictures) that are from last year to make his point for a QB that has played 18 games since then. His 1st picture example he uses states that Kap made a "terrible quarterback play" because he didn't throw the ball to Davis or McDonald? At best, Davis would of got 20-25 yards. Kap runs it for 42(!) yards, but that is a bad decision...give me a break. In addition, Andy Benoit says that "there are concerns about Kap exposing himself"...Andy must have never watched more than one Niners game, Kap slides feet-first 97% of the time. He would know that if he watched full games and not highlights. This whole article is to bash a QB who is in back-to-back NFC Championship games. The underlying message he is trying to portray is that Kap is stupid, will never be at the level of Manning/Brady, and is a Mike Vick 2.0. The article is terrible and written by a joke. Lost respect for the MMQB today.

Cool
Cool

I have been waiting for an explanation as to why SF was the only team, out of the 4 remaining, to not be on the cover of SI this week and now I think I understand. It wasn't that they couldn't choose both Seattle and SF to share a cover for their region because they could have.  No, the reason is now very clear, they think Kaepernick is the weakest link... compared to Manning (who I am a big fan of.) Brady, and Wilson, the man who has won every playoff game except the Superbowl, is the weak link.  


Since I disagree with the article, and think it is premature, I will file it under the other articles that SI writers have written to fill space and start an argument. 



xx_hgm4683_xx
xx_hgm4683_xx

well, you have to consider this is his first full season as a starter so you can't expect for All-Pro caliber execution. He can achieve it but first he needs to polish his game management but also the gameplan need some changes. I acknowledged Roman's creativity sometimes but my only complain is it requires many changes in the line and that means seconds burning out that makes you waste timeouts or throw delay of game's penalties.

DominicAragon
DominicAragon

This has to be one of the stupidest articles I've read in a while. Sheesh. That's why us fans need to stick to reading the 49ers Bloggers. They actually know the team. These national guys are just dumb.

CoreyStombaugh
CoreyStombaugh

Alex Smith would have the 49ers in the same spot. You saw how Kaepernick played without Crabtree. Average at best. This guy is so overrated at this point in his career. The media makes me sick. They have to try and create these Super Heroes out of average players on very good teams. He is a result of the team around him. If Boldin, Crabtree and Davis weren't making great catches over DB's and LB's Kaepernick would be one of the lowest rated passing QB's. Yes he can run but he isn't that great of a pocket passer. It's funny because I see him in these interviews now and he's got this "I'm bad" attitude and is almost rude like "I'm so awesome so stop wasting my time with these bogus questions so I can go do something more important". It's like he thinks he is tough and trying to intimidate people. I hate both SF and Seattle because they are both a bunch of loudmouths but I hope Seattle puts Kaepernick in his place (like they did the last 2 times he came to Seattle) and exposes him for what he is.... An average QB on a very good team!

GeorgeRoach
GeorgeRoach

Wilson reminds me of Fran Tarkenton who was a great scrambler.  He ran to get out of trouble and to give his receivers time to get open.  Kap is more like Steve Young who loved to run but was a great passer.  Last year the 49ers won in part on Kap's running.  This year he started out in a way that seemed to reject running, almost like he was forbidden from running.  In the second half, he has increased his running some but he still seemed to head for the sidelines or to slide much earlier than he used to.  He is now balancing his running more with his passing but he does seem more aware of avoiding getting hurt.


His passer rating isn't very remarkable but his QBR this year is not only good but consistently so.  Only Manning has more games with big QBR ratings.  He seems to be developing rapidly.  


His big problem is that he is not the archetype quarterback like Manning, Rogers, Brees or Brady.  Alex Smith is more of the symbolic image that the press loves to love.  Kap is covered in tats and likes to kiss his biceps.  Neither are to my taste but I like having him for my team and believe that he is a winner even though he is very different from Montana or Young.  It seems unlikely that he will produce the numbers like Romo or Rivers or Brees but he seems more of a winner.

Folsom49er
Folsom49er

Wow....


I can't believe I read this garbage of an article. Can I have my 2 minutes back?



This Andy Benoit is a Hack



First of all why do Sports Writers make up articles based on "Hypotheticals"?  It's meaningless conversation.


Secondly Andy makes it seem like Kaep at a drop of a hat will just run out of the pocket during a ferocious pass rush when most of the time he's looking for 1 of his WR's to break open at the last second to make a play down the field.


Then Andy brings up Young, McNabb, McNair as examples that they "never had to run".


Yep that's true to a certain extent. But that was AFTER they went thru a "Maturation Process" to learn how to read coverage's. Kaep is still going thru that Process with what... playing 20 something games in his early career? He's playing in his 2nd Consecutive Championship Game while still learning how to be an NFL QB.


SCARY



And Andy doesn't think he will get better at that with a QB Whisperer like Harbaugh?


Please. Ridiculous Article.

RafaelBarbabosa
RafaelBarbabosa

HE CAN DO IT, JUST CALM, HE KNOWS WHAT TO DO, DONT WORRY TAKE IT EASY

DanielPlainview
DanielPlainview

Oh, such a naughty quarterback. Bad quarterback. Bad, bad quarterback. Down, naughty quarterback.

RescuedfromESPN
RescuedfromESPN

Colin Kaepernick is the 2013 winner of the Brett Favre Award, which is the QB who you're terrified of what he's going to do regardless you are rooting for his team or against his team.

DanielSmith2
DanielSmith2

@Cartesian Yes, and McDonald is in a horrible spot for Kaep to throw...he's on Kaep's right side, and the pass rush is coming in on Kaep's right precisely in the throwing lane he'd need to get the ball out there to Mcdonald. 

Cartesian
Cartesian

@Boo-urns 

Very true. The L.A. Express wanted him to play safety, didn't they?

Ken14
Ken14

@davidhd As a die-hard Niner fan, I'd like to tip my cap for your honest, and classy assessment of both Wilson and Kaepernick.  It's going to be a great game, (especially with your 12th man).  I'll say what I said to the Carolina fans last week---may the best team win!

sillycon88
sillycon88

Kap has almost never taken any big hits. Wtf are you talking about?

PaulMaggard
PaulMaggard

@dbrower your dreaming dude he has unlimited ability to get better not even close to peaking mean while Kraperdick is pretty much a one trick pony if he doesn't see the first read he runs sooner or later he's going to get popped hard and put out just like RG3 did and vick did in the past and come on dude Montana is a legend young lived in and always will live in the shadows of Montana 4 rings to 1 says that will always be true 

PaulMaggard
PaulMaggard

@BrianMurphy1 can't teach a QB to be great Montana had it Young didn't I am not sure why you people would crap on Montana the guy that brought you 4 super bowl rings for Young who road Montanas teams coat tails for one ring theres no question Montana was the better QB and Wilson is like him only he can run better then Montana could Kraperdick will get injured and be done soon cause he can't read progressions and runs all the time

PaulMaggard
PaulMaggard

@psychsports nope he won't he's over rated and soon will show he is once he gets hurt he'll be afraid to run any more and since he sucks at progressions he'll get sacked many times 

gv49ers
gv49ers

@KeysSteven One trick pony? Just because a guy can make things happen with his legs doesn't make him a one trick pony. Tim Tebow is a one trick pony. Kap can make passes few other QBs can make.  He'll only get better as a passer as he works on his mechanics.


You can cherry pick things and put up still shots for any QB and point out where they made the wrong decision or missed an open receiver...that includes guys like Tom Brady and Peyton Manning

PaulMaggard
PaulMaggard

@Mood_Indigo boy you must be smoking some good drugs lol dude is an over rated QB and soon as he gets hurt which he will as often as he runs he won't be any good any more 

donald5
donald5

@gv49ers Alex Smith isn't in the NFC championship game.  That is why there isn't an article about it

PaulMaggard
PaulMaggard

@respectmyjay I'd say the article is dead on Kap is a one trick pony that runs after looking at one read then runs he will get injured soon enough and then he will come back to earth kinda like RG3 now he is afraid to run so he gets sacked a lot same thing will happen to krapernick 

Bayertoe
Bayertoe

@respectmyjay Read his other articles. They suck too.  I would prefer a "DEEP DIVE" column to be written by a former NFL QB, a coach, or personnel guy, not a journalism intern.

JohnLee1
JohnLee1

@CoreyStombaugh , your comment is pretty ignorant.  If a qb has no receiver and his last name is not Brady, he is an average quarterback at best.  See Manning without Harrison or Wayne.  Luck without Wayne.  Kaep without Crabtree.  Stupid, ignorant comment like this shows you know nothing about football. prob a racist too since u want to put  practically third-year player "in his place."

PaulMaggard
PaulMaggard

@CoreyStombaugh I think it's funny on every interview you see with kraperdick and Jimmy boy and the rest of the whiners they are always looking down when they are speaking as if speaking to the floor it's dissrespectful to the interviewers and the fans that are watching the interviews you don't see that with the Hawks interviews they are always looking up at the people they are talking to 

FortyFkinNiners
FortyFkinNiners

@CoreyStombaugh Since people have made comparisons to Steve Young I would remind everyone that in Young's MVP years he was throwing to Jerry Rice, John Taylor, Brent Jones, Mike Sherard, and Ricky Watters. Also, Young's passing early in his career might have been written about in the same way Kaepernicks has been so far. If you remember (and I'm sure you don't) Young was traded to the 49ers because the Bucs had drafted Testaverde and so were giving up on Young. 


I understand you that don't like his style--and that's certainly OK. But Kaepernick is (for better or worse) NOT the same as Alex Smith. Smith is a very capable quarterback. And I respect both the person and his game.


Kaepernick, however, is a game changer. He's already shown us what is possible. If he really improved it just wouldn't fair

PaulMaggard
PaulMaggard

@GeorgeRoach you must be smoking some good dope lol dude will not last sorry can't read progressions runs and sooner or later he will get injured then be afraid to run so then he will get sacked a lot 

PaulMaggard
PaulMaggard

@RescuedfromESPN too bad he doesn't get to play the packers again he might have a chance of winning unfortionatly for you he is not he is playing the Hawks and they will do to him what they have always done to him make him mediocre 

PaulMaggard
PaulMaggard

@FortyFkinNiners @CoreyStombaugh so young wins one super bowl with the team Montana had built up and had running great and all of a sudden he is a great QB lol any qB that took over that team at that time would have done as good as young did Montana was a great qB that you guys screwed over in the end Kraperdick as well as young couldn't even hold a candle to this guy please kraperdick sucks is over rated and a punk just like his coach i guess if you respect punks that is your business I for one can't stand them

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