To begin, I want to congratulate the 49ers on another fantastic season which their fans should be absolutely proud of. To go 12-4 after losing the Super Bowl, in a really competitive NFC, and to come within a play or two of getting back to the Big Game is a tremendous accomplishment. A lot of teams that lose the Super Bowl have a "Murphy's Law" kind of year the next, where anything that can go wrong, does, and they fail to even make the playoffs. The Niners did anything but that and actually improved as a team in many respects, so the players and coaches involved deserve kudos for that. They're going to be a viable contender for years to come.
The way the game ended, with Colin Kaepernick turning the ball over three times in the final quarter, it's only natural for pundits and the analysts to blame him for the loss. I'm not going to do that, per se. I think his struggles down the stretch were symptomatic of a much bigger problem that I saw all season long -- the failure of Jim Harbaugh and Greg Roman to develop Kaepernick at all in his first full season as a starter.
Let me be clear, I'm not going to turn this into some Kaepernick vs. Alex Smith debate. That's ancient history as far as I'm concerned and well documented, to borrow a Harbaugh phrase. The troubling aspect though, to me as a neutral outside observer, is that many of the excuses that I saw given for the way the 49ers played offensively during the season-and-a-half Smith was the starter under Harbaugh, have now been proven false.
The conservative play-calls, the run early-and-often philosophy, the refusal to ever truly put the game in the quarterback's hands unless it was absolutely necessary, this wasn't because of Smith's limitations, real or imagined, but rather because it's just how Harbaugh and Roman are. It wasn't a Smith thing, it's a 49ers thing, and in my view, it's a problem. (Remember, we're talking about a coaching staff that ran it way more than they threw it even when they had Andrew Luck at Stanford.)
Admittedly, I didn't scrutinize every game in detail this season as I have in past years, but I did watch them all, and I failed to see any progression or development in Kaepernick in any area whatsoever. Whatever stats or metrics you want to use, whether it was completion percentage, yards-per-attempt, passer rating, QBR, etc., his numbers got worse or plateaued. Obviously he didn't have Michael Crabtree for most of the season, and Vernon Davis missed some time as well, and we can't forget about Delanie Walker, who contributed far more to the offense than his pedestrian numbers suggest. Still, I was expecting more, far more, from Kaepernick in 2013, and I don't think I'm alone there.
To me it's simply mind-boggling that a talent like Kaepernick, who by all accounts is as diligent a worker as any quarterback in the league, was neutered to the point where the 49ers were dead last in the league in pass attempts this season. Kaepernick is young, but he's not exactly a spring chicken at 26. He's older than most quarterbacks are by the time they've completed their first full season. Luck, for example, is almost two full years younger than Kap, and has already logged 35 starts in the league, counting the postseason. Kaepernick has 29 to his name. More to the point, Luck has already attempted 1,337 passes as a pro, to Kaepernick's 801, pretty much the equivalent of a full season's worth of reps.
I think this is a case of Harbaugh and his coaches failing to see the forest for the trees. Their "the biggest game of the season is the next one," approach sounds fine and good, but it's not at all practical for the development of a young quarterback. I think it would've been far more sensible to look at the long game here and make Kaepernick's progression as a passer the paramount goal of the season, above all else, including winning games in 2013.
Yes, it's true that having Kaepernick throw a bunch more would've probably led to a few more interceptions, turnovers and losses, but I think those growing pains are necessary and beneficial in the big picture. Like Harbaugh says, "Making mistakes is how we learn." If the team went 8-8 or 9-7 this season and missed the playoffs, so be it, at least Kaepernick would be further along in his understanding of defenses and coverages, he'd learn to be less reliant on one or two targets --particularly in the red zone-- and he'd have more tools in his belt going forward. He needed the reps, pure and simple.
Instead what 49ers fans got in the end was a lost season: No development from Kaepernick at all and no Lombardi Trophy. Rather than take one step back to take two steps forward, they're stuck in neutral, with an older Frank Gore, an older Justin Smith and a NaVorro Bowman who will be hard-pressed to make it back to his elite level by next September.
I knew the Niners were in trouble at Seattle despite a 10-3 halftime lead because the offense had done virtually nothing outside of some improvised, warp-speed Kaepernick scrambles. Three or four times, including once in the red zone on 3rd-and-6 after the defense forced an early turnover, they called designed runs for Kaepernick and none of those plays went anywhere. The only successful runs he had were on designed pass plays where he saw an opening and decided to run. His decisions, not the coaches. That's important. Those play calls to me were indicative of a coaching staff that didn't fully trust their quarterback, particularly in the red zone.
Even Kaepernick's rationale and reasoning in the end, that he'll take a one-on-one match-up with Crabtree every time, regardless of the corner he's going up against, was faulty. Yes, there are plays where you have to throw a receiver open or trust him to make a play, but by and large the successful quarterbacks make their bones by figuring out who's going to be open, finding him and passing it to him rather than relying on the flip of a coin. Kaepernick won the coin flip on the touchdown pass to Anquan Boldin, but lost it on the crucial play of the game. It was an unnecessary gamble, there was plenty of time and time outs left to throw it away or find open guys for shorter gains, and it highlighted his lack of progression from last season to this one.
It's hard to put a finger on it, but there is something off about the 49ers organization as a whole when it comes to the passing game. They can't seem to evaluate the receiver position at all in the draft (not just A.J. Jenkins over Alshon Jeffery, T.Y. Hilton or Mohamed Sanu, among others, but also Ron Johnson over Stanford's Doug Baldwin in 2011). Their free agent signings or trades (Mario Manningham, Randy Moss, Jon Baldwin) disappoint, except for Boldin of course, who pretty much fell into their laps as a favor from Harbaugh's brother. Even in the games themselves though, their philosophy seems so different from everyone else. They steadfastly refuse to throw to their backs on screens or swing routes, when they're such a commonplace staple of successful passing attacks across the league. They don't have that one speed receiver to lift the lid off the safeties and to take the occasional shot downfield, even though in Kaepernick they have a quarterback with one of the strongest arms in the NFL.
It could be that the team missed Moss quite a bit after all. His numbers weren't much, but one of the reasons the Niners were so explosive in the playoffs last year with Kaepernick was because Moss was around to run deep routes, occupy safeties and to open up stuff underneath for Davis and Crabtree. In addition to being one of the best receivers to ever play, Moss was, without a doubt, the greatest decoy in NFL history. I argued at the time the Niners got Boldin that they'd have been better off getting Jacoby Jones from the Ravens instead, since Boldin and Crabtree are so similar. Obviously Crabtree's torn Achilles suffered in an OTA changed everything and opened the door for Boldin to have a much bigger role in the offense than he would've otherwise had. There's no question that even with both of them in the lineup that the Niners were missing that one stretch receiver though, and it's something they'll have to rectify in the off-season, though you wonder if they'll see it that way.
By the way, many of the criticisms I level at Harbaugh and Roman here would be just as appropriate for the Seahawks, who were 31st in the league in pass attempts, and I realize how stupid that sounds for a team that's going to the Super Bowl. I still think Pete Carroll and his coaches should've had Russell Wilson throw more during the season, but at least they have the excuse of being without their top two receivers in Sidney Rice and Percy Harvin (and their two starting tackles) for much of the year. At least Wilson has developed to the point where he's uncanny at running away from pressure, scrambling just to the line of scrimmage to draw the defenders to him and then throwing it for long gains rather than running for a few yards. Wilson's not a finished product himself by any means, but at least he takes his shots downfield.
The bottom line is I think maybe it would be best for all involved if Roman and Kaepernick parted ways. I think the 49ers need a coordinator with a more aggressive approach and one geared more toward the passing game. Gore's best days are long behind him and the offense has to sink or swim with Kap at the controls. He is too good, too talented and works too hard to not be the focal point of the offense. It's simply ridiculous to watch him play week in and week out and see him throw for less than 200 yards in a game. Either you trust the guy you drafted to be your franchise quarterback or you don't.