The 49ers are reeling on offense, and that means everyone feels qualified to offer their two cents. We have Steve Young playing the role of body language expert. Jerry Rice is convinced we need a return to the "read option offense." But it’s the comments of one other 49ers quarterback that interest me the most. I’m interested in the comments of none other than Trent Dilfer.
In case you missed it, Dilfer said Kaepernick has "been hardened and broken by the NFL from a mental standpoint, from a social awareness standpoint." He went on to say Kap needs a coach like Mike Holmgren to "come in and tell him how good he can be."
I know, I know. It’s Trent-freaking-Dilfer. The quarterback that lucked into a Super Bowl ring. The quarterback that threw more interceptions than touchdowns over his 13-year career. And the guy that sometimes seems like a mouthpiece for the 49ers front office. I learned something last month, though, that changed the way I look at his comments: Trent Dilfer is an elite thinker when it comes to developing quarterbacks.
Dilfer is heavily featured in Bruce Feldman’s book, The QB: The Making of the Modern Quarterback. The book paints Dilfer as someone obsessed with figuring out the intricacies of developing quarterbacks.
"…in 2006, his thirteenth year in the NFL—seven years after he won a Super Bowl with the Baltimore Ravens. He’d looked at Brett Favre and kept asking himself, "Why did he end up great, and I ended up average?"
His own perceived failures drove Dilfer to explore the nuances of the quarterback position. He coined terms like "dude qualities" to describe a mix of leadership, resilience, and humility. He studied quarterback mechanics and details how "wrist load" helps QBs throw tight, consistent, spirals. (The key? Drop your elbows and keep the ball close to your body.) He believes the thread that connects Joe Montana, Peyton Manning, and Aaron Rodgers is the ability to create space in tight spaces and extend plays.
But it’s one of Dilfer’s strongly held tenets that takes us back to Colin Kaepernick. Dilfer believes that quarterbacking is more about nurture than nature. In the book Dilfer tells a story about how Jeff Tedford, his offensive coordinator at Fresno State, built him up to play the best football of his life through positive reinforcement.
"I want you to know something," Tedford said. "I never should’ve said [we couldn’t get a first down against Louisiana Tech] to you Tuesday, because what I didn’t remember about this game is that we have you. We have the best player in college football, and that’s you. And we’re gonna go beat these guys because of you."
He compares that to his coaching in the NFL. "My aggressiveness and intuitive feel for the position had been stripped away by years of ‘Don’t screw it up,’ negative-reinforcement coaching."
So when Dilfer says that Kap has "just been beaten down to a place where he’s not himself anymore" and "when you get beat down emotionally and socially that much, and mentally, this is the result on the football field" you can see where Dilfer is coming from.
Trent Dilfer sees himself in Kaepernick, and that’s understandable. Humans tend to look at the world through the lens of their own experience. This doesn’t mean Dilfer’s assessment is right or wrong. It just means we need to contextualize his comments. And while I am not sure I agree with Dilfer’s comments 100% in this case, I know that I won’t be discounting his comments off hand anymore.