Entering Week 5’s matchup with the New York Giants, Colin Kaepernick was coming off back-to-back games that were among the worst of his career and desperately needed a bounce-back performance. Offensive coordinator Geep Chryst implemented "major changes," err…, "some adjustments," to the San Francisco 49ers’ floundering offense. Kaepernick talked about spending additional time with his receivers in the meeting room to iron out the kinks in the passing game and get everyone on the same page.
On the surface, the results appeared to be positive. San Francisco scored a season-high 27 points. Kaepernick completed 65.7 percent of his passes for 262 yards and a pair of touchdowns, good for his best QBR (87.5) of the season. Football Outsiders’ DVOA was a fan of the performance as well, as the 49ers climbed back into the positive — i.e., above average — in offensive DVOA (16.9 percent) for the first time since Week 1.
It didn’t hurt perceptions when Kaepernick made two of his best throws of 2015 in the second half of this game, both on fade routes to Anquan Boldin out of the slot.
This was the first of those throws, but the second throw in the fourth quarter was a carbon copy — same routes, same coverage, same result. Both were beautiful passes, thrown in rhythm and on time, and dropped right over the top of a defender in tight coverage. It was the type of thing we’ve seen from Kaepernick in spurts dating all the way back to his first career start against the Bears, and they’re the throws that suck us back in whenever we start to slide off the Kaepernick bandwagon.
Unfortunately, outside of a throw here and a throw there, what we’re seeing this season is not that same Kaepernick from 2012–13. Old Kaepernick pushed the ball downfield as frequently as any quarterback in football. That guy finished tied for sixth in average depth of target (10.0 yards) in 2012, per Pro Football Focus, before finishing second in the same metric (10.1 yards) during the following campaign. New Kaepernick? He ranks 29th out of 37 qualifying quarterbacks with an average depth of target of 7.3 yards. Whether because he’s become gun shy or he’s been directed by the new coaching staff and scheme, Kaepernick is no longer looking to create big plays in the passing game.
The pre-snap look given by the Giants on this play should’ve alerted Kaepernick to Vance McDonald’s route in the slot. McDonald is running an in-breaking route against a defense that’s showing blitz, and Landon Collins is playing off McDonald with outside leverage. Sure, defenses disguise their coverages all the time and it’s not like this look means Kaepernick should be blindly throwing to McDonald on this play. But you probably want to give that a quick look after the snap.
Kaepernick instead looks left toward Anquan Boldin and Torrey Smith, even though they’ve got tight man coverage with a safety lurking nearby. As soon as a rushing lane opens up, Kaepernick is off, never once checking McDonald over the middle. Kaepernick manages to pick up the first down with his legs on this play, but it’s the process that’s concerning. This type of decision is a complete 180 from the promising signs we saw early in the season, and in the long run is a decision that will lead to more bad plays that good ones.
A few plays later we see Kaepernick fail to pull the trigger on throw down the sideline to Quinton Patton. San Francisco has a vertical concept called to the three-receiver side of the field, in which they’re looking to outnumber New York’s deep zone defenders. Though it’s not immediately apparent, it quickly becomes clear that Patton is going to be open right as Kaepernick hits the last step of his drop.
Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie’s eyes are in the backfield the entire play as he sits and waits to pounce on a throw to Boldin. Brandon Meriweather’s eyes are also narrowed in on Kaepernick as he drifts toward McDonald in the middle of the field. If Kaepernick gives some semblance of a look-off and makes an on-time throw (releasing the ball on his first hitch), this play has touchdown potential. But even though Kaepernick is looking that direction, he doesn’t make the throw and bails left out of the pocket at the first sign of pressure.
Also on display here is Kaepernick’s inability to throw with anticipation. This isn’t a pass you can make if you wait until Patton "looks" open to make it. Kaepernick has to be able to read the leverage and movement of the defenders and know that he can throw a route open that currently looks covered. Lack of anticipation pops up again on this next play:
After the play fake, Kaepernick has ample time in the pocket before the right side of the offensive line finally collapses in comical fashion. Well before pressure starts to bear down on him, Kaepernick has Celek about to come open over the middle on the dig route. Just like the previous throw, this is a play where Kaepernick needs to make the throw before it looks open. Right about here would do:
But by the time Celek looks open, it’s too late. Pressure is on the way and Kaepernick has to bail once again. Let’s go to one more play highlighting the same issues:
Depending on the matchup that Kaepernick prefers, he has two options on this play. Boldin and Patton are working a nice pick play to free up Boldin on the wheel route at the bottom of the image. In the middle, Celek is about to run by a flat-footed Landon Collins on the post route.
Either throw would require Kaepernick to stand in the pocket and make a throw knowing that pressure is on the way, but that’s life for a quarterback in the NFL. Meriweather is in no man’s land in the middle of the field (surprise!) and isn’t in position to help on either throw. An accurate throw here puts points on the board. But instead, without a cozy pocket to throw from, Kaepernick takes off up the middle and is lucky to escape without a turnover when he jumps on his own fumble.
There’s no denying all three of those plays would be difficult throws, albeit throws quality quarterbacks make. Kaepernick had some easier opportunities to push the ball downfield, but opted to forego most of those as well.
On third-and-short, the 49ers are looking to fake the screen to Patton and slip Boldin and Smith behind what they hope is a defense eager to bite on the screen action. It doesn’t quite go as planned, as the Giants recognize the vertical routes and do a solid job of recovering. But you can see that Boldin has inside leverage on Prince Amukamara with a sea of green grass to the middle of the field.
Boldin recognizes this and starts to bend his route inside, but Kaepernick does not. The downfield picture isn’t the one he expected pre-snap, so he’s hesitant to pull the trigger to a receiver who’s already open, and instead makes a dangerous, late throw to the flat. Patton bails Kaepernick out with a nice move after the catch to convert for a new set of downs, but it was conversion made far more difficult by Kaepernick’s hesitance throwing downfield.
And that was really the story of this game for Kaepernick: throw it short and hope your receivers make you look good. More than two-thirds of Kaepernick’s 262 yards (67.2 percent) came after the catch. Only six of his 32 aimed passes traveled more than 10 yards in the air, and 23 of them traveled less than five yards. Kaepernick’s 5.4-yard average depth of target was the second-lowest figure of his career.
So while the passing game looked better than it had in previous weeks, it had little to do with better play from the guy behind center. Kaepernick was overly cautious, failed to make numerous anticipatory throws down the field, and exhibited much of the same poor decision-making process that we saw against the Cardinals and Packers. The Giants just did a worse job of taking advantage of those mistakes, most notably on Kaepernick’s aforementioned fumble and on his near-interception in the end zone late in the fourth quarter.
The overly cautious part is really the most concerning. Kaepernick has never been a passer that consistently makes anticipatory throws and his run/pass decision making has always been a bit sketchy. But when he was at his best, in addition to having a much better offensive line, he made up for it with excellent downfield passing. He threw accurate passes in tight windows that gave his receivers an opportunity to make plays. Paired with an excellent running game, it was more than enough to give the 49ers an effective offensive attack. Now, that aspect of Kaepernick’s game has almost completely disappeared, somehow leaving him as a worse version of the same limited passer he’s always been.