One year ago today, the 49ers were 3-1, with impressive victories over Green Bay and Detroit, as well as a blowout victory over the hapless New York Jets. Alex Smith was leading the team into what looked like another promising campaign, following-up a 2011 season that saw the 49ers reach the NFC Championship game, just a year after going 6-10.
As we now know, Smith wouldn't finish the season as the starter, instead suffering a concussion against the Rams, leading to a short-term change at QB that would eventually end up being the end of his career in San Francisco.
When Colin Kaepernick took over for Smith last season, expectations were low in the sense that there was little evidence to suggest that Kap would come in and set the World ablaze, yet expectations for the team were still at all-time highs. Fans proceeded with cautious optimism that maybe, just maybe Kap was able to make few enough mistakes and the team might win a game or two while Smith recovered.
At the end of the week 10 contest vs. the Rams, the game where Kap initially was called into service for the injured Smith, things looked good, but nobody expected the string of performances that would follow as the young QB in his second year would take the NFL by storm, including a Super Bowl berth that fell just short of the 49ers sixth Championship.
Throughout the improbable run to the Super Bowl, Kaepernick was doubted by pundits, fans, bloggers, etc. Sure, there was plenty of belief in the youngster, but there were also hordes of people expecting him to struggle. The thought was that this ride would end, that the inexperienced signal-caller would be exposed in some way, make the equivalent of "rookie mistakes", and thus return to Earth.
There were stretches where it looked like it might happen, too. Throwing a pick-six to open up the playoffs vs. Green Bay was one such moment, but Kap shook it off and rallied to what would end up being an extremely one-sided victory in his first post-season game.
Even in the Super Bowl when things got rocky, Kap came back to lead scoring drives and put the team in position to win the game. It seemed like this kid was for real, and the doubt started to subside.
Not only was Colin Kaepernick running and throwing his way into the NFL spotlight, but he was unconventional for a franchise quarterback, sleeved with tattoos, adopted, and of few words in press-conferences. A very ignorant article, (to which I won't link) about Kap's tattoos and how a franchise QB shouldn't look the way he did, caused him to do his now-famous "Kaepernicking" pose, where he imitated kissing his inked-up bicep, after every rushing touchdown.
Yes, there were plenty of reasons for light to shine brightly on the budding star. Soon endorsements came, photo-shoots, and then the scrutiny of his every move. He was shown essentially in the nude for ESPN's The Body issue of their magazine, as well as numerous other times without his shirt on. Of course you'd never see Tom Brady or Peyton Manning do these types of shoots, so the eyebrows again raised.
"Different" is viewed in many ways.
You can't really blame Kaepernick for marketing himself off the field the way he did, though. He is, after all, a 26 year old kid who's making one of the lowest 2013 salaries for a starting QB in the NFL. He also has very little money left on his rookie deal, a deal that can't be re-done until following this season, per the new collective bargaining agreement.
It's also not as if he's on the phone, reaching out to every media outlet he can find in order to get on covers and attend events. His agency handles all of that, and you know they're looking to cash-in on his fame, as well. I would also bet that their phone rings an awful lot with offers, maybe even more than they're making the calls.
Still people make the comparison to Russell Wilson, also a non-first-round draft pick making relatively no money when compared to even the middling QBs in the league. Wilson's Instagram account is filled with his visits to the hospital to see very sick people, charity events he attends, etc. There are no pictures of him shirtless, no pictures of him in another team's hat in South Beach, no pictures of his shiny Jaguar.
There are those who say this makes Wilson more mature than Kaepernick.
Through one month of the 2013 season, Kaepernick hasn't necessarily torn up defenses week-in and week-out. While he started with a bang, lighting-up Green Bay's defense to the tune of 400+ passing yards, he's had some not-so-good games, too, including lost fumbles and multiple interceptions with very few big plays.
The expectations are now high. Kaepernick is the guy, the franchise, and he's expected to carry the team to victory each week, regardless of how the rest of the team is performing at any given time. For example: His favorite weapon from 2012, Michael Crabtree, tore his Achilles tendon before training camp even begun, likely sidelining him into late November.
Kaepernick also looked frequently to another TE in 2012, Delanie Walker, who left via free agency to the Tennessee Titans. Walker's replacement has been a mix of FB Bruce Miller and rookie TE Vance McDonald, though combined they haven't had near the production that was common for Walker.
To be blunt, the entire passing game has really been Anquan Boldin and a little Vernon Davis, when healthy.
Still Kaepernick is expected to come out and provide the highlight-reel plays on a regular basis, to take another step and become the guy who creates something from nothing while also taking care of the ball and limiting turnovers. He does have a whole 14 games of experience, after all, which really would put him just near the end of his rookie season had he started immediately.
Granted he does have a few more off-seasons than a rookie, but nothing compares to real-game experience.
So here Kaepernick sits, attention surrounding him from the character that he is, the spotlight he created both by his talents and his anomalies, his performance scrutinized every bit as much as his personal life. He seems to play with more anger, floated as focus, and less of the fun and smiles we're used to.
Something is off.
Is it the fame, the spotlight, the pressure to perform now that all eyes are on him? Sure, there's no bigger audience than the Super Bowl, but many expected him to fail, felt he was unraveling after a dismal first half of play in that game. Now he has people saying he could become one of the greatest of all time. The rush to fulfill his potential and validate the believers may be overpowering the drive to prove the doubters wrong.
Or is it the doubt?
Perhaps the negativity he's received after a high-profile off-season, where he acted his age and had some fun, is weighing on him. Add to that the negativity he's receiving from fans who are already prepared to call him a bust after a few shaky games thus-far. He experienced far fewer down moments last season, and now he's already had equally as many as he's had the up-times.
Or maybe it's something else. Something about his game this year that goes against who he is. Maybe he's being told to be more careful, to preserve himself, to be the pocket-passer you "need to be" in order to succeed in the "new NFL." Maybe he's telling himself these things.
You can see it on the field. The runs lack the aggressiveness, the "I'm taking this one to the house, no matter how far that is." He goes out of bounds, often for a loss of yardage. He stands in the pocket despite massive lanes opening up and none of his second-hand receivers getting open. He looks more panicky than cocky, and swagger has always been a huge part of Kaepernick's game.
No, he's not playing instinctively. He's thinking, and when you think on the football field, between the whistles when the play is live, you're slow. Too slow.
That's the reason teams practice and drill things so many times. It needs to become habit, natural, muscle-memory, so there is no thinking about it. When you put on your clothes, you don't have to consciously tell yourself "lift left leg, reach down with pants, insert foot into pant-leg, pull up...etc." Half the time you're thinking about something else, thus how you're able to do things quickly, easily, decisively.
There are times when it just doesn't seem that Kaepernick is playing this way, but he needs to be. He has had the coaching, whatever he absorbed from it, whatever made it into his subconscious, it is what it is. Let him go out and play the game. Don't tell him (or let him tell himself) "I gotta remember this, don't forget to look for this..." No, that interrupts the natural ability that's got him this far.
Jim Harbaugh always talks about "athletic instincts", especially when he mentions quarterbacks. Kap needs to use his, to see what he can see, make snap judgments, and trust himself.
Run hard, Kap, run like you have to score on every play. Just don't take huge hits. Why be afraid of a shoe-string tackle all of a sudden? He's taken hits all his life, and preserving himself while also playing conservatively, interrupting those instincts, and having lesser performance...well that's just not a good trade-off.
Try not to get absolutely decked, sandwiched, etc. Don't run into piles, yes, slide when you've already gained the first down and the play doesn't decide the game. But please don't completely avoid defenders.
Throw the ball, too. Trust your receivers, whoever they are. Hell, trust your arm to get the ball right where it needs to be, like you've done so many times before. Vernon Davis doesn't have the best hands on the team by far, yet he's made some catches in traffic, double-covered, because Kap dropped a dime in there.
Take calculated risks. Calculated. You see the safety, you see the leverage, be smart, but don't be afraid.
In playing to Kapernick's strengths, the 49ers would only be doing what every college in the NCAA also does. Think about it. How many different styles of offense are there in college football right now? How many teams run spread with the speed, the high-flying passing attacks? How many are pro-style, smash-mouth, pound the run down the middle over and over again? Still others utilize QBs who run the ball a large percentage of the time. Their offense is based on that.
Why the variations? Some teams look completely different year-over-year, with the same coaching staff, but different players. Why? Because they scheme to their strengths, what their players do well, and they go with it.
Kaepernick isn't the only QB to enter the NFL with an athletic skill-set that includes running with the ball, avoiding pressure and extending plays, and a big arm. In fact, it's more rare to see a polished pocket passer coming out of college nowadays.
All rookies coming to the NFL have a learning curve, an adjustment from what they did in college, that worked well, to what it takes in the NFL to be consistently solid on offense. The athletes are better at this level. They'll figure you out quicker, and you're not bigger, stronger, and faster than most of the opposition. The NFL is much more flat in terms of talent.
You eventually need the full arsenal if you want to win in this league. We see it every time. There aren't many QBs who are running the ball 10 times per game by the time they're in their 30's, even if they have the juice. You have to develop a full repertoire.
The difference between each player, though, is the curve itself. For some, it happens quickly. Maybe it's the mix of all of their experiences at every level of the game, maybe it's something with how they're wired, I don't know. But not everyone is the same.
What you can't do is take a guy and make him do things he's not comfortable with. Imagine trying to button your shirt left-handed, assuming you're right-handed to begin with...and not ambidextrous. Imagine driving on the right side of the car, with the clutch on the right and gas pedal on the left (again, assuming you've never done it that way). It's not going to be nearly as pretty as what you're used to.
The same is true with players, and more specifically, in this case, Colin Kaepernick.
If he's not quite ready to hang in the pocket on every play, to manipulate defenses, to slide around with the bodies coming at him and read the field...then he's just not. All is not lost, but another way must be found.
The 49ers arguably did one of the best jobs scheming to their players' strengths over the last few years, adapting an offense to two completely different styled QBs, on the fly, and making it work. They used the aforementioned Delanie Walker in places all over the field, from FB, to TE, to WR. They let Michael Crabtree do what he does best: use his ability to make plays after the catch.
The staff is certainly capable of this, they just need to do it. Kaepernick is who he is right now, not forever, but right now. Take what he does the best, what he absolutely kicks ass at, and let him do that.
I have little doubt that he's grown, learned, and is ready for some new things on his plate...but how much and what things are not the same for everyone. There's no template you follow that says "enters season as starter, give pages 145-987 in playbook."
And beyond the plays, as mentioned, let the kid be free out there. You don't tame a wild horse overnight. Just because you get him to take the saddle doesn't mean he should enter the steeplechase; but maybe a straight line race is right up his alley.
Colin Kaepernick is a young, athletic man with many talents. He's not like everyone else, so don't expect him to be. Neither are you. But that doesn't mean his talents can't be used and used properly in order to win games in the NFL. Let him be himself, on and off the field, just give him a little guidance to help him with the transition.
Many times we learn best from our mistakes. Maybe they're not even mistakes, but some times we might not make the same decision twice. This applies to life as a person and a player. I'm not crazy about all of Kaepernick's choices, but I'm also nearly 10 years older than him, not a QB in the NFL, make far less money, come from a different background, and the list goes on.
We need to remember some times that this is a man in flux, as we all were at his age, and just sit back and watch it all happen. I'm pretty confident that he'll turn out to be a great guy, and probably a very good NFL player, too. It will take as long as it takes, though. So let's allow him that much.