Colin Kaepernick's inconsistency and the deep ball

Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sport

Colin Kaepernick is having the most inconsistent season of any NFL quarterback this year. What is the cause of his "sophomore" slump?

The boom-bust aspects of Colin Kaepernick's play were well known last year, but the symptoms have dramatized in his second season under center.

Kaepernick is the only quarterback this year to have 3 games with an EPA below -7.0, and 3 games with an EPA above +14.0, as detailed by the cool chart visualizations provided at Advanced NFL Stats. The variance in his numbers is the greatest of any quarterback this year.

EPA (Expected Points Added) is explained in full here, but it is essentially a measure of how well a team or player performs relative to their expected performance based on elements such as field position, down-and-distance, and time remaining.

After last night's fine performance against Washington, Kaepernick has posted 3 games with an adjusted yards per attempt (AY/A) above 11.00, something only 5 quarterbacks have done this year. But he is also one of only 6 quarterbacks to twice post an AY/A below 3.

Adjusted yards per attempt takes into account touchdowns and interceptions, but does not punish Kaepernick for sacks. He has taken 26 of those this year at an Alex Smith-like rate of 8.6%. Colin's INT%, meanwhile, has almost doubled, to 2.5% -- so, as most of us have seen, the sacks are not coming as part of a risk averse decision-making process to avoid a potential interception or tight-window throw. No, often Kaepernick is walking into sacks rather than stepping up into the pocket, or attempting to escape outside before he needs to.

The symptoms have dramatized in Kap's second season under center

As a result of Kaepernick's erratic play, the offense as a whole has stalled. The 49ers have succumbed to a 3-and-out on about 27% of their offensive drives this year. That is the 6th worst mark in the NFL, and much worse than last year. In fact, the 49ers only had 38 3-and-outs all of last season, but already have 36 in 2013 after tallying just one last night.

In a previous post, I detailed a chart of each team's 3-and-outs in 2012 on a per game basis. The offense under Alex Smith had 1.76 3-and-outs per game in 2012, for the second best rate in the NFL. Under Kaepernick, 3-and-outs shot up to 2.76 per game, which was right around league average. This year, the 49ers average 3.27 a game.

Originally, this cost-benefit trade-off worked, because Kaepernick more than made up for the 3-and-outs by providing an explosive output with his big plays on the ground and in the air. But this year so far, things have not worked out that way consistently.

There are a lot of potential reasons why, and many of them have been put forth by pundits, critics, and fans alike. From talks of "can't work past his first read" to "the fad of the read option is coming to an end," people have had their shots at our young quarterback through 10 games. Today, I'd like to bring attention to something different:

The Deep Ball

The further you throw the ball down-field, the more likely it is to be (a) incomplete or (b) picked off. I trust that isn't too daring a proposition, but, in case it is, the chart provided here by Chase Stuart of Football Perspective draws it out in telling fashion.

The title of that post is also telling: "Is good luck driving the low interception rates of Joe Flacco and Colin Kaepernick?"

It was posted in late January of this year, right before the Super Bowl. It detailed how both Flacco and Kaepernick relied on the deep ball and yet, despite this, had either a high completion percentage and/or a low interception rate. In other words, both quarterback's were playing at an unsustainable level.

It is not a skill to be able to throw the ball deep and simultaneously avoid interceptions. If you throw the ball deep enough times, at some point your completion percentage will drop, and your interception rate will go up.

Armed with that basic observation, I followed Stuart's post with a post of my own during Super Bowl week, which Fooch was kind enough to title "An Opus on Stopping Joe Flacco." I predicted that Flacco's luck in throwing the ball deep and avoiding interceptions would come to an end against us, and that he would fall back to Earth at just the right time for San Francisco to run off into the sunset with a 6th Lombardi.

As you know, things didn't quite work out that way. The prediction was wrong, but not because the methodology was off. It was just a game too soon.

This year, Flacco has indeed fallen back to Earth. He's posting the worst adjusted net yards per attempt (ANY/A) of his career at 4.88, as well as the worst INT%, at 3.5.

For Flacco, like Kaepernick, it is the deep ball that has spelled his doom. You live by it; you die by it.

Pro Football Focus keeps statistics on deep passing (throws targeted 20+ yards down-field) as part of their Signature Stat series. Last year, Flacco attempted deep throws a league-leading 17.3% of the time. His "luck" came in that, while he was only completing about 40% of those attempts, he managed 11 touchdowns and 0 interceptions on 92 throws.

That is unsustainable. This year, Flacco is again top 10 in deep attempts, but his accuracy percentage has dropped to 26%, and he has 1 touchdown and 5 picks in 57 attempts.

Both those numbers are much closer to the average marks charted by Stuart. On throws 21 to 30 yards down-field, quarterbacks complete 36.6% of them while managing an INT rate of 7.7%. On throws 30+ yards down-field, the completion rate drops to 27.9%, and the INT rate climbs to 8.4%.

The fact that Flacco managed an INT rate of 0.00% over 90 attempts is absurd -- and Baltimore is paying for that absurdity to the tune of $120 million for an average NFL quarterback.

Joe Flacco is an average NFL quarterback masquerading as an average NFL quarterback.

For Kaepernick, this year's outlook is much the same (though much less expensive). In 2012, Colin managed a league-leading accuracy percentage on deep balls of 60%, and he only threw 1 pick in 33 attempts, for an INT rate of 3.0. Both his completion and INT rates are far superior to league averages, meaning we could expect heavy regression at some point.

On top of that, Kap attempted deep throws about 15% of the time last year (good for top 7 in the league), and 16.4% of the time this year (good for 1st) -- meaning this offense was, and still is, relying on the deep ball more than most teams. Take it away, and watch the offense stall.

The Kid's accuracy percentage on deep balls has dropped to 46% (much closer to the league average), and his INT rate has jumped to 4.4%.

While Flacco was lucky in avoiding interceptions, Kaepernick was lucky on both counts: not only did he only throw one pick last year (on a misread against New England where he did not see the safety coming across), but he completed 19 of his 33 attempts.

That will boost any quarterback's stats an enormous amount. His INT rate looked like Alex Smith's, but he was pushing the ball further down-field. Those two things together pulled Kaepernick to an ANY/A last year that was second only to Peyton Manning and would have given him the highest career ANY/A of all time had he retired.

Clearly, some regression from that was expected; but the fall this year has been worse than most anticipated. Natural regression on deep passes has brought Kap's stats back to more sustainable levels; but the continued reliance on the deep ball has produced high-variance play.

Is it any wonder, then, that last night against Washington, Kaepernick's quality play came hand-in-hand with deep ball success?

Pro Football Focus released their review of the Monday night bout, and noted, "On passes targeted more than 10 yards downfield, Kaepernick went 10 of 14 for 199 yards and two of his touchdowns."

Against a suspect Washington secondary that stacked the box all night, that stat line is as it should be for a talented deep ball thrower like Kap, armed with the speed of Vernon Davis and the strength of Anquan Boldin.

Perhaps, after all, it is the loss of Boldin that has cost Joe Flacco so dearly. That is why I do not buy the narrative that this team lacks weapons. I am of the opinion that Kaepernick, right now, in this offense, is too reliant on the deep ball, and he struggles in the short passing game.

Therefore, so long as this offense depends on the deep passing game, we can expect to see high-variance play from week-to-week, and even series-to-series; and Colin's inconsistency will continue.

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