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All-22: Colin Kaepernick versus the Ravens and expectations going forward

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Colin Kaepernick had led the 49ers to back-to-back quality performances on offense. How did he look against the Ravens and what should be expect going forward? We look at the tape.

Let’s talk about Colin Kaepernick again, shall we? The San Francisco 49ers’ quarterback and his performance this season has been a frequent topic of conversation ‘round these parts and Sunday’s win over the Baltimore Ravens gave us plenty more to discuss.

Kaepernick’s play against the Ravens was a high point in what has been a roller coaster 2015 season. Early in the year, it looked like an offseason spent reworking his mechanics was paying dividends. Kaepernick looked more comfortable in the pocket and was doing a better job exhausting plays before looking to scramble than at any other point of his career. Consecutive dumpster-fire performances against the Cardinals and Packers saw those promising signs vanish. Kaepernick was the worst version of himself: inaccurate, panicky under pressure, and unable to move effectively within the pocket.

The "bounce-back" narrative began with a solid showing against the Giants, but it was a game in which the numbers inflated how well Kaepernick actually played. That narrative rolled on this week against the Ravens. Kaepernick put up a career-best 12.59 yards per attempt in just the fifth 300-yard regular season performance of his career. With an 83.0 QBR, Kaepernick has now posted a QBR over 80.0 in back-to-back games for the third time in his career. In short, the box score looked excellent. But did the tape match up?

Kaepernick’s performance in Week 6 certainly wasn’t among the best games of his career, as some of the numbers suggest, but it was unquestionably more impressive than his game against the Giants.

To start the contest, it appeared we were going to be in for more of the same hyper-conservative passing game that we saw in New York. Kaepernick dropped back to throw 10 times on the opening two drives. His average depth of target (aDOT) on his nine aimed throws (the other pass was thrown away) was 4.4 yards downfield, according to my charting. Only two of those throws traveled more than 10 yards in the air and they were both inaccurate passes that failed to give Kaepernick’s intended target a chance to make a play. Six of the remaining seven throws on those first two drives were either screens or quick throws to the flat off play action, i.e., throws that a decent high school quarterback can make consistently.

But on San Francisco’s third drive, the switch flipped and Kaepernick started throwing the ball downfield again. On his 17 remaining aimed passes, Kaepernick’s aDOT was 15.2 yards downfield. Ten of those throws traveled 10 or more yards in the air, including five that had over 20 air yards. Getting it all started was this 52-yard completion to Bruce Miller on a wheel route out of the backfield:

You don’t often see teams throw the ball 20-plus yards downfield on third-and–1 — it’s only happened 156 times since 2006, per Football Outsiders — but that’s exactly what Geep Chryst dials up here. San Francisco comes out with 22 personnel (two RBs, two TEs, one WR) and Baltimore responds by putting only three defensive backs on the field. Not a single Ravens defender was more than five yards from the line of scrimmage at the snap, presenting the perfect opportunity for a shot down the field.

Kaepernick actually has Torrey Smith wide open on the deep over route as well, but rightly opts for the safer, higher percentage throw to Miller. Play action and a pancake block from Andrew Tiller gives Kaepernick all day to throw and he delivers with an accurate, catchable pass to his wide open fullback. The degree of difficulty here isn’t high, but considering Kaepernick had been unable to put deep throws in the same zip code as his intended target in recent weeks, it was great to see him take advantage of the big-play opportunity.

Early in the second quarter, we finally got to see a long Torrey Smith touchdown we’ve all been waiting for since he was signed back in March. Yes, Smith had a 75-yard score in Week 2 against the Steelers. But that pass was on a rope to a hole in the middle of Pittsburgh’s zone defense, which certainly isn’t a bad thing, it’s just not the type of deep ball you envision when adding a burner like Smith to the offensive equation. This was that play:

The Ravens are crowding the line of scrimmage once again, anticipating run from the 49ers’ two-tight end formation. Play action buys Kaepernick ample time to wait for Smith’s double move to develop, and oh boy does it develop. Shareece Wright — you remember him, right? — gets caught looking in the backfield when Smith makes his fake to the comeback route, and it was all over. Kaepernick puts the ball on the money 40 yards downfield and Smith outruns Wright to the end zone for a 76-yard touchdown.

Kaepernick’s other most notable deep throws didn’t come via designed shot plays. Rather, they were a result of the improvisation that has been the hallmark of some of Kaepernick’s most exciting plays.

If you wanted to pluck a single play that embodies nearly every positive and negative trait Kaepernick possesses, this one would be on the shortlist. There’s a little bit of everything here. By immediately running out of the pocket when outside pressure arrives rather than moving within the pocket and staying ready to throw, Kaepernick misses a wide open Torrey Smith on a dig route within the structure of the play (or even Vernon Davis on the drag route underneath if you want to play it safe). But then you get one of the best throws on the move that you’ll watch all season. Moving to his left, 47 yards in the air, and perfect ball placement over the defender — it’s a throw Aaron Rodgers makes and probably no one else. It’s an absurd throw and exactly the type of play that makes you want to believe in Kaepernick’s ability. But we’ll get back to that.

Kaepernick’s final big play of the day wasn’t quite as impressive of a throw, but the basic formula was the same.

San Francisco does an excellent job picking up the blitz here, giving Kaepernick time in the pocket once again. But like the previous play, Kaepernick misses the open option within the structure of the play — this time it’s Boldin on the inside slant route against Kyle Arrington. At that point, Kaepernick starts to look for a way out despite great protection. He eventually settles deep in the pocket as Quinton Patton breaks his route back to the corner of the end zone, causing Wright to slip and fall in the process. Kaepernick gets the ball out before pressure arrives and picks up his second touchdown of the day.

♦︎♦︎♦︎

There are myriad considerations that go into evaluating quarterbacks, ranging from basic charting data (game situation, pass location, use of play action, presence of pressure, etc.) to the finer points of playing the position (timing, accuracy, decision making, pocket movement, etc.). But in order to make sense of all those data points, you need a point of reference. To what standard of play are you holding that player?

For draftniks studying college quarterbacks, that point of reference is pretty straightforward: professional quarterbacks. Are they displaying traits and making throws that we see from the guys playing on Sunday?

Judging Kaepernick’s performance — or any other NFL QB — in a given week ultimately comes down to expectations. Do you hold all NFL quarterbacks to the same standards? Are you evaluating Kaepernick based on what you’d expect to see from a top–10 quarterback (which is where his 2015 cap figure lands)? Or has he fallen to the depths of the Nick Foleses and Sam Bradfords of the NFL world where simply displaying competence in basic situations is enough to garner praise?

Whatever that final lens is for you shapes your perception of Kaepernick’s play. If you thought Kaepernick performed well against the Giants, your expectations are probably closer to the Foles and Bradford end of the quarterbacking spectrum, even if you don’t want to admit it. If you’re disappointed by the fact that Kaepernick is still suffering from the same flaws in start No. 46 as he did in start No. 3 and still needs an offense tailored around his limitations to succeed, you’re probably expecting him to show he’s worth that top–10 contract.

Prior to the 2014 season, I wrote the following paragraph on Kaepernick:

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.

That was based on Kaepernick’s first two seasons as a starter, but holds equally true today. On some plays, Kaepernick shows everything you want to see. But on greater number of snaps, he’s failing to do things essential to playing quarterback at a high level. He rarely throws with anticipation. He doesn’t move well within the pocket. His run/pass decision making is shaky. And his accuracy, particularly under pressure, is erratic.

Those things have always been true, but they’re not masked as well this year. During Kaepernick’s first two seasons, the team around him was better so those flaws didn’t surface quite as often. You could also hope that as a young quarterback he would iron out those wrinkles over time and develop more consistency.

Two years later, consistency has yet to arrive. At the beginning of this article, I mentioned Kaepernick has put together back-to-back games with a QBR over 80.0 for the third time in his career. Even dropping that threshold a bit, he’s never topped 70.0 in three straight regular season games. At the same time, he’s never been below 30.0 in three straight games either. Just take a look at this game-by-game chart of Kaepernick’s QBR:

Kaepernick is all over the place. With nearly three full seasons worth of regular season starts banked, there’s little reason to expect that to change going forward. Kaepernick is a quarterback who mixes a few exceptional plays (sometimes games) with a lot of head-scratching decisions and poor throws.

Like a lot of quarterbacks, if Kaepernick gets time to throw and has an offensive system that puts him in position to succeed, you can do OK. Sunday’s game against the Ravens was evidence of that. Put a great team around him and you can do a lot more than OK. His first two seasons as a starter were evidence of that. But when you muddy the pocket and put him in situations where you need to make high-level plays, he struggles to come through more often than not. Whether or not you want to give him a pass for that depends on your expectations, but we should be beyond this point with Kaepernick by now.