He is a one-read quarterback who is unable to move through his progression to find an open receiver when his first option is taken away. This is the number one criticism of San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick.
Numerous members of the media have made this claim at some point, stating that Kaepernick is a "primitive field-reader" and that he "wasn't being asked to do as much mentally" as some of the other young starting quarterbacks in the league. I point out those specific examples not as an attack on the writers but to show that it's not just the Mike Florio or Skip Bayless types driving this narrative.
Even former NFL quarterbacks have taken their shots. Trent Dilfer famously tabbed Kaepernick as a "remedial passer" once defenses had taken away his first read. Steve Young suggested the 49ers "tie his legs" in training camp to force Kaepernick to stay in the pocket and learn his progressions.
The problem with these takes is that they don't tell the entire story, leaving readers with a tagline but not the context required to give them an idea of how a quarterback makes reads and decides where to go with the football or how those reads fit into the larger offensive picture.
That's what I'm going to attempt to do today. Before answering the question of whether Kaepernick is a one-read quarterback we need a crash course in Quarterbacking 101 to establish a basic framework for how quarterbacks make decisions.
Before the snap
Peyton Manning's pre-snap routine is the stuff of legends. While he does more than most, some of the most important work done by any quarterback during any given play is done prior to the snap. Quarterbacks are responsible for making numerous pre-snap adjustments from setting protections to handling any motions or shifts to changing the play outright if warranted. Quarterbacks must also get their pre-snap reads of the coverage, which is the part of the pre-snap process I want to focus on today.
Getting a read on what the defense is doing prior to the snap is crucial because it is the pre-snap read that is going to determine the progression during the play in most situations. Each coverage has different weaknesses and areas of the field that you want to attack, so it is important for the quarterback to narrow down the possible coverages a defense might be playing before snapping the ball. While I'm not going to provide in-depth breakdowns of each type of coverage—for that I would recommend checking out links here, here or here—there are a few basics that are important to cover. To do that, let's look at each of the three positional groups that are going to make up a defense's pass coverage and examine what keys the quarterback is looking for from each.
Safeties. The simplest way to classify coverages are by the number of safeties in the middle of the field. The two basic classifications are "middle of the field closed" (MOFC) or "middle of the field open" (MOFO). MOFC coverages feature a single deep safety closing off the middle of the field. These are your Cover 1 and Cover 3 coverages. MOFO coverages feature two deep safeties, usually split to the hashmarks or wider, leaving the middle of the field open. Cover 0, Cover 2 and Cover 4 are found in this family of coverages. Finding the safeties and determining whether the middle of the field is open or closed is typically priority number one in figuring out the type of coverage the defense is playing.
Cornerbacks. Once the quarterback has located the safeties, he can look to the cornerbacks to further enhance his read of the coverage. When looking at the cornerbacks, there are three things that are important to focus on: depth, eyes and leverage. How far off is the corner playing? Are his eyes in the backfield on the quarterback or are they locked on to the receiver? Is he aligned inside or outside of the receiver? These are all questions that can help the quarterback determine the type of coverage being played. If the corner is 8-10 yards off the receiver with outside leverage and his eyes in the backfield, there's a good chance it's zone coverage. If the corner is right up on the line of scrimmage with inside leverage and his eyes focused on the receiver, the defense is likely in man coverage.
Linebackers. Though we're focused on the pre-snap process, the action of the linebackers immediately after the snap can be the quarterback's final confirmation of the coverage type. A linebacker is going to have one of three actions after the snap on most plays: drop, run away or blitz. If the linebacker drops, the defense is likely in zone. If he runs away from the quarterback, he's likely headed to his man coverage responsibility. And if he blitzes, the quarterback might look to attack the vacated area. Alternatively, the extra pass rusher might be unaccounted for in the protection and will key the quarterback to speed up his decision making process and get the ball out to his hot read or checkdown.
Of course, defenses in the NFL are built around confusing these pre-snap reads for the quarterback and may show one look before the snap only to rotate to another once the play begins. This is why it is important for the quarterback to not have his mind made up prior to the snap and confirm the coverage as he makes his drop.
The 49ers do many things with their formations, shifts and motions—a topic that will be explored in more depth later this week—to attempt to force the defense to show its true hand before the ball is snapped. As an offense, if you can unmask the defense and get them into predictable looks, your quarterback is going to have a far greater chance for success. Those type of play design elements combined with the above keys go a long way towards focusing the quarterback's post-snap decision-making process.
Making reads during the play
Playing quarterback in the NFL isn't like playing Madden. Once quarterbacks have the ball in their hands, they don't simply drop back, scan the entire field for an open receiver and make the throw. Rather, there is a structure in place to help guide the quarterback's decision-making process and tell him where to go with the football. The details of that structure might vary between teams and coaches, but there are two primary methods those structures are built around: progression reads and coverage reads.
Progression reads. Progressions place available pass targets in a specific order for the quarterback to check. It's the quarterback's job to throw the ball to the first open receiver in the progression. While technically you can have as many as five players in the quarterback's progression, it is incredibly rare that the quarterback will have enough time to check more than three receivers before the pass rush is on him and therefore, you'll rarely see more than three receivers in the progression. Progression reads are thrown in rhythm and are based on the timing of the receiver's routes and the quarterback's drop.
The primary route in the progression is the route designed to break open first and is thrown when the quarterback hits the last step in his drop. If the primary route is covered, the quarterback must redirect to the secondary route in the progression. The secondary route typically takes a big longer to develop and is thrown off a hitch step from the quarterback. As the third option you have what I think is best referred to as the rush route—terminology borrowed from Darin Slack's Quarterback Academy—which is the final route in the progression. The rush route is either the checkdown or a quick developing route to beat the blitz. If the quarterback is pressured, he should move directly from the primary route to the rush route in the progression to defeat the blitz.
If the quarterback makes it through the progression and still hasn't found an open receiver to throw to, it's time for him to look to escape the pocket and avoid the pass rush. He should be looking either to buy more time for a receiver to get open downfield, to take off running and pickup what available yardage he can with his legs or to throw the ball away to avoid a sack depending on the situation and what the defense is giving him.
Coverage reads. The alternative to progression reads are coverage reads. Rather than moving from receiver to receiver, the quarterback reads the defense and throws where they're not. Simple enough, right? In reality, because the quarterback does not have the time nor the ability to read the entire defense at once, he is keying on one or two defenders. The quarterback is typically presented with an if/then scenario. If the defender covers Player A, then throw to Player B; if the defender covers Player B, then throw to Player A.
Coverage reads have the benefit of making it difficult for the quarterback to stare down receivers while providing natural look-offs. Because the quarterback is looking at specific defenders rather than receivers, he's less likely to draw attention to any one specific receiver in the pattern. If executed correctly, coverage reads should essentially make the defense wrong every time by forcing a defender to choose which receiver to cover and throwing the ball where he's not.
Integrating progression and coverage reads on the same play. As Chris Brown of Smart Football points out, perhaps the best way to go about determining where to go with the football is giving the quarterback multiple progressions to choose from, with the coverage dictating which progression is used.
As an example, the offense could have a concept designed to beat MOFC defenses to the left side of the field and a concept designed to beat MOFO defenses to the right side. The quarterback will then choose which progression to go with based on the structure of the defense. This gets us full circle to the pre-snap keys discussed above. The quarterback should have a good idea of the type of coverage a defense is going to be in along with where his focus is going to be after the snap before he even touches the ball.
OK, so what about Kap?
Still with me? Now that we have a basic idea as to how quarterbacks make reads and determine where to go with the football, let's get to some specific examples to try and evaluate Kaepernick's progression prowess. If things are a bit hazy at this point, have no fear, we're about to make it all better with pictures!
We start with a play from San Francisco's regular season opener against Green Bay last season. Green Bay's safeties are giving a MOFO look, though M.D. Jennings (43) has started to creep up towards the line of scrimmage. Moving to the cornerbacks, we see Tramon Williams (38) giving a zone look—off coverage, eyes and stance oriented to the quarterback—to the trips side while Sam Shields (37) is in a press man look—up on the line of scrimmage, inside leverage—on the single receiver side.
After Boldin motions inside to create a bunch look at the top of the image, we get a bit clearer picture of what coverage the defense is playing. Jennings has continued to work is way up to the box, Morgan Burnett (42) has moved closer to the middle of the field giving us more of a MOFC look and Williams has stayed off and outside the bunch. As Kaepernick prepares to snap the ball he should be looking to confirm Cover 3.
From his pre-snap read, Kaepernick has opted to work the bunch progression to his left. Now, we don't know Kaepernick's exact progression but based on the timing of the routes we can get a pretty solid idea and I've numbered the likely progression in the image above.
After the ball is snapped, we see that the Packers do in fact play Cover 3. Burnett is dropping down the deep middle of the field, Williams is bailing into his deep-third responsibility and we get four underneath defenders (though one is spying Kaepernick). The primary route in this progression is Vernon Davis on the corner route. We can make this assumption because the corner is a rhythm route that must be thrown on the last step of the quarterback's drop. As Kaepernick completes his drop, he can see Williams and Burnett still have a good cushion on Davis's corner and are going to be in position to take that throw away.
With the primary option taken away by the defense, Kaepernick can move to his secondary option which is Boldin on the dig route. The combination of Boldin's dig route and the drag route by Kyle Williams puts stress on the underneath defender in the middle of the field. When that defender comes up to Williams on the drag route, Boldin is left wide open in the middle of the defense. Kaepernick takes his hitch step and makes the easy throw to his secondary receiver for the big play.
This is a perfect example of a play in which I feel many people would've assumed Boldin was the primary target because he was the one that ended up wide open even though the timing of these routes tell us otherwise.
It is important to keep in mind that it is the quarterback's job to get the ball to the first open receiver in the progression. If that happens to be the primary route, there is absolutely zero reason to view that as a bad play. Quite the opposite in fact. When the quarterback is able to complete a pass in rhythm to his primary target, it is likely the result of good play design and correct pre-snap reads and adjustments.
NFL defenses will inevitably take away away that first option, which is why it is important for a quarterback to be able to find their secondary or rush receiver in the progression. But plays aren't designed around the third option in the progression and quarterbacks don't move through reads just for the sake of doing it. If the primary option is open, every coach wants every quarterback to go there with the ball every time.
Where does Kap need to improve?
Kaepernick's inability to move through his progressions to find secondary and tertiary receivers might be exaggerated but it is not completely myth. There are plays in which Kaepernick makes an incorrect read and forces a throw into coverage. And there are other plays when he has a man open but doesn't pull the trigger.
When re-watching Kaepernick's starts, the two themes that stuck out to me on plays that didn't go as planned—regarding aspects within Kaepernick's control—were making the incorrect decision as to whether to run or pass and failing to find the rush route. These are closely tied together, so let's look at a couple examples.
Here, we've got a third-and-two play from San Francisco's Week 16 game against Atlanta. The Falcons are showing a MOFO look with both safeties split wide of the hashmarks. The cornerbacks are at a depth of 4-6 yards with their eyes in the backfield, giving us a good indication the defense is in zone coverage. The secondary's pre-snap alignment should have Kaepernick thinking Cover 2.
Above we get a look at Kaepernick's likely progression. Kaepernick's primary option is going to be Crabtree on the spot or snag route. If he's there, the ball should come out on the final step of the drop. If Crabtree is covered, Kaepernick can move to Quinton Patton on the dig route behind him and finally to Boldin in the flat.
After the snap, Kaepernick gets something unexpected from Atlanta's pre-snap look. They rotate to a Cover 3 look with the safety to the wide side of the field coming up and sitting on the snag route by Crabtree. Because of the pre-snap look, Kaepernick should know that Patton is going to have room on the dig route before the other safety can rotate over. A quick hitch step and throw should net a 15-20 yard completion before Corey Peters has time to finish beating Jonathan Goodwin to get pressure on Kaepernick.
Instead, Kaepernick sees an open lane to his left and looks to pull the ball down and run. Peters is able to close that space before Kaepernick can get into the open and pick-up the necessary yards to move the chains.
You can see Kaepernick's thought process. To him, it surely feels like picking up two yards with his feet is a safer bet than throwing a 15-yard dig route. And because we've seen this situation work out in Kaepernick's favor so many times, it's hard to fault him. I don't believe you can completely evaluate Kaepernick the same way that you do Tom Brady or Drew Brees. You don't want Kaepernick to eliminate one of his biggest assets by discouraging him from running the ball. At the same time, you do want to see him making better decisions as to when to pull the trigger on the throw and when to tuck it and run.
On this play, we've got a third-and-nine play against the Panthers from last season's Divisional Round game. Prior to the snap, Carolina is showing a Cover 2 man look with the safeties split (MOFO) and the cornerbacks up close to the line of scrimmage and their eyes on the receivers. With both linebackers up in the A-gaps, Kaepernick's post-snap confirmation of their actions is going to be key in determining where to go with the football.
San Francisco is running a similar route combination to the one we saw on the last play. Crabtree is again running a spot route, this time from the outside rather than the slot. Davis is running a corner and Gore is headed to the flat. The corner and spot routes are both rhythm routes that should be thrown on the final step of the drop. Whenever you have two routes in the pattern with similar timing, there is typically going to be a coverage or defender key. In this case, because we have a man coverage look from the Panthers, Davis's corner is going to be the primary route as he's most likely to gain separation.
Once the ball is snapped, Kaepernick has a problem with Charles Johnson coming untouched off the edge. Kaepernick needs to immediately move to the rush route in his progression and get the ball out to Gore in the flat. The linebacker has extra distance to travel due to his pre-snap alignment and it should be a relatively easy throw to complete and with the corner in press coverage, there's a reasonable chance that if the ball is thrown on time Gore will be able to turn upfield and pick-up some yards after the catch.
Kaepernick doesn't make the throw to Gore in the flat and again looks to make a play with his feet. When he moves up in the pocket he finds Luke Kuechly waiting for him on the delayed blitz. Kaepernick has nowhere to go and is forced to take the sack.
At times, it feels like Kaepernick is his own rush route. When the protection breaks down or he has moved through the first couple options in the progression, he looks to create with his feet rather than get the ball out to his checkdown. On some plays, this might even be by design as there will be no checkdown or underneath option for Kaepernick to go to. Ultimately, he has to get better deciding when to run and when to just get the ball out of his hand, even if for only a minimal gain.
Putting it all together
If you go back and watch Kaepernick on tape, you can portray him in just about any light that you want to. It's all there. Plays where he climbs the pocket and finds the third receiver in his progression and plays where he hesitates to pull the trigger on his first option and takes off running. Plays where he stands in the pocket with pressure on the way and delivers the ball on the money to a receiver down the field and plays where he leaves the pocket unnecessarily and misses an open receiver. If you have a particular Colin Kaepernick narrative in your head, you can find the plays to confirm that narrative.
This issue is consistency. In a series of tweets a couple weeks ago, the aforementioned Chris Brown pointed out the most important questions to ask about a quarterback are, 1) Do they make NFL difficult throws? and 2) Does the quarterback find secondary and tertiary receivers? Kaepernick can and has done both of those things and to suggest otherwise is simply misleading. Doing them on a more consistent basis is what Kaepernick must do to raise his game to the next level.