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Quarterback gurus: Why making changes is so difficult

Why Go See a Quarterback Guru?

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Ed Szczepanski-USA TODAY Sports

One of the big stories for the San Francisco 49ers this past offseason was Colin Kaepernick's decision to work with quarterback coaches in Arizona. I’ve noticed a lot of comments about the reasoning as to why Kap would go see a quarterback guru when he has the coaches back in SF teaching him quarterback play. Some are questions as to if the San Francisco staff just wasn’t that good to begin with and others are wondering what an outside source can do that the coaching staff can’t. While I can’t really break down exactly what goes on in the SF coaching rooms, or any team for that matter, I thought I’d just chime in on some potential reasons why a quarterback seeks outside help during the off season and how it helps in overall fundamentals.

You hear it a lot: This quarterback will need development. QB play is both physical and mental. Not to say other positions aren’t as well, but for a QB to truly be great they not only need good technique but also a clear mind when in the pocket taking crushing blows. There’s a lot to learn between the college game and the pro game. More often than not when QBs are drafted, they are expected to sit so they can develop. The reason is to get rid of bad habits and work on correct form and posture as well as get the offensive mindset flowing freely in their brains. There’s a huge difference in speed of the game in college and pros. Certain things like stance and release can help in the college game, but they won’t hinder you near as much as the professional level.

A good example of this is Aaron Rodgers. If you’ve seen any of his tape at Cal, you’d notice he’s an entirely different looking QB. Promising and NFL ready, yes, but compare the Rodgers in Cal to the one in Green Bay and you’ll definitely see some differences. One of the more obvious differences was brought up in a prior post; how he holds the ball. At Cal, he dropped back similar in style to Peyton Manning, with the ball held just above his shoulders in a ready position to zip out. In Green Bay, he holds it closer to his chest in a relaxed position. It almost looks at times like he’s kicking back watching the action unfold in the pocket.

In Rodgers’ first year, he struggled. He said in an interview with the Journal Sentinel that he had no idea what he was doing. Credit to Mike McCarthy for the calm QB you see today. After his first year, head coach Mike Sherman was fired and Mike McCarthy took over. Rodgers became his project and McCarthy put him through his "Quarterback School" where Rodgers worked for several hours a day learning McCarthy’s offense, and playing quarterback the way McCarthy wanted it. Rodgers had three years of practicing, fine-tuning, and getting ready to go. This might have been a bit too much, but there was no rush with Brett Favre as your starter. By the time Rodgers was starting, he had everything ground into him that was needed.

McCarthy’s tutelage was during the offseason. There is no way in hell the current collective bargaining agreement would have let Jim Harbaugh do this. You don’t do this overnight. Or in a few months.

Kaepernick wasn’t so lucky. I’m not saying he started too early. Starting as early as he did can be beneficial, but as the seasons wore on, he displayed a few things that drove fans nuts: Staring down his receivers, the cannon of an arm, and this year: phantom pressure.

As Jim Harbaugh himself said in a video I posted last week, "It takes 1,000 reps to break a single bad habit." That’s just to break it, not to do it efficiently. Think about brushing your teeth, cutting back on alcohol or cigarettes, just making your bed. You have to do a lot of reps before you’re religious about it. We all can attest to how hard it was breaking a bad habit in our lives. The same can be said for the way you throw a football.

I can only guess offseason training camps are exhausting, but brief. They focus on the getting the offense on the same page, working on drills, and execution. If you’re a starting QB, you might have a few observations made on things to work on, maybe small tweaks, but at this point in the season, I can assume there isn’t much time to really fix you. If you want to change your stance or release, you should be working on it the moment the offseason starts.

A QB coach especially isn’t going to help tinker you in the middle of the season when they notice things you’re doing wrong. In fact, it’s downright dangerous to even try. I’m not saying another year on the sidelines would have helped Kaepernick’s case, but in the seven days between games, you only have enough time to game plan for the other team, execute what your offense is going to allow, work on the chemistry with your receivers, watch film, and make basic adjustments. There is so much you have to work on, you just can’t go in and change everything.

And this is the life of a starting quarterback. Fundamental changes once the season starts are almost out of the question due to time constraints. It’s already mentally exhausting since you’re trying to remember the game plan week to week as well as playbook adjustments. Rodgers’ first season learning everything was overwhelming, he needed an offseason with hours upon hours of work to get comfortable in one system. Even as a backup, they were molding him, but once that season starts it’s a different mindset. It’s less about you and how to make you work.

On the flip-side, backup quarterbacks drafted with intentions to get the keys or even veterans with some talent are given a more hands on approach. Backup quarterbacks usually emulate the other opponent’s starters, but they are also taking reps with less focus on how they are going to play on Sunday and more on getting themselves in a position to play. This, of course varies team to team, but it gives you some good insight on how productivity is done. The coaches can afford to break down mechanics on a player. Unless you’re a Jason Campbell or Drew Stanton, the coaches see a young backup as a potential project to really work on.

Take Tim Tebow. The original idea  was to put him in some game-day packages to give him some playing time doing what he was comfortable with, but keep him on the sidelines working more on fundamentals and QB play so he could later lead the offense. Of course once John Fox came in and Kyle Orton went down, the grooming was over. Why? Because they don’t have time to focus on Tebow’s QB play, they had to figure out how Tebow as a quarterback was going to win games for them every week.

This brings us to Kaepernick. Go watch his first few NFL snaps against New Orleans in the 2011 preseason. I believe it was the first time he was under center with regularity. He threw awkwardly, had a strange release and overall looked extremely different that the Kaepernick that started against the Chicago Bears. What was happening? You had a guy in development. Someone working less on winning games and working more on what his coaches were telling him to do (though he was definitely competitive and trying to win). While I can’t gauge what Kaepernick worked on, or what his development is, I can only assume the big thing was taking snaps under center (something I’m told is relatively difficult to do efficiently), know to read the field, and work on his footwork.

You can see a difference when he comes in for Alex Smith in the St. Louis Rams game. Not much though. I remember getting Facebook messages from people saying he was the strangest QB they ever saw.

Once Kaepernick took the starting job, his development was turned down. Not that they weren’t working with him (Harbaugh is the best there is with QBs, according to several sources), but now he wasn’t a project. He was leading a team. He was watching film, game-planning, taking first team reps. It’s a different atmosphere. He obviously had been groomed enough in the system he could be a competent starter, but they also added the pistol to his repertoire as they needed to find a way to win with him. If you watched the Bears and New England Patriots contests of that season, you see a different QB a lot of the time. He scanned the field and didn’t stare down receivers as much. But like any sport, bad habits do happen. I bet every QB in the NFL is working hard on trying to fix whatever was nagging them the previous season. Kaepernick definitely developed some bad habits.

And then he went and ‘worked out.’ He had to get stronger and faster.

I don’t doubt for a second the coaches gave Kaepernick a list of things to work on each offseason, and I also don’t doubt Kaepernick worked his tail off to try and implement their suggestions both seasons. With the current CBA though, he can’t have them on the sidelines during the offseason even if he wanted to. He can’t have them walk up and say "Do this, do that." He couldn’t go through five hours with Jim Harbaugh 1 on 1 and then have the time to do rep after rep necessary to ground it into his brain. If Kaepernick did develop some bad habits as the seasons wore on, getting out of them would be more difficult, even if (and I bet they did try) the coaching staff was trying to fix it.

This is why you go see a guru early in the offseason. Even before the CBA made things difficult, it wasn’t something unheard of. Tom Brady has said he starts over season to season with a coach. It’s great insight and also excellent to see someone independent of the coaches you play for. Sometimes your team’s quarterbacks coach gets used to what you do as a quarterback. Some things to them that are just ok, are not ok. It doesn’t make one side better than the other.

The offseason also gives you time to mess up.

There are probably a lot more golfers reading this than football players, so I’ll bring golf into this (Yes, all my examples are from golf and video games. Copyright 2015 Elpato Industries). If you want to have any semblance of a strong golf game, you need a good professional. Even if you’re hitting a deep drive or a good iron, it’s a good idea to see a pro like a dentist, just to make sure you aren’t doing anything that can lead to later problems. A golf lesson typically involves an extra large range bucket and the pro adjusting everything. They’ll make you bend your knees more, put less weight on your right side, make you turn your shoulders; by the time they tell you to hit the ball, you’re going to be taking a divot the size of Levis Stadium or shanking the ball left and right.

"Good!" They’ll say. "Keep doing that." So you sit, make sure to let your club ‘fall’ through the impact with the ball, not pull the butt of the club, finish the swing, and you keep shanking it. A duck hook into the 5-yard sign, a fat knock that barely passes the range line. You get to keep doing this until A: You decide to go back to what you were doing and hope it works, or B: You get comfy and realize it helped you in the long run.

Then, if you’re dedicated, you start hitting sweet, pure balls. Once everything clicks, you hit the ball solid, straight, and deep. It’s not unheard of to see multiple professionals as well. Sometimes your pro will recommend one. It again, brings insight. Maybe one helps you work on your stance and knows how to get you standing a way the guy you usually go to doesn’t. And of course again, you shank it and have to spend a week or two hitting balls and playing terrible rounds implementing what you learned. It all just boils down to how stubborn you are to change, and if you’ll revert back to what you were doing (this again is why you see a pro often as they will help you stop bad habits before they really get annoying).

The same can be said for Kaepernick’s time with Dennis Gile. I’m sure that first week was the most awkward week ever. "Adjust the hips. Throw a touch pass." I can only guess the results were some of the most awkward throws Kaepernick has ever made. I wouldn’t be surprised if he was throwing ducks that take a nose dive one yard in front of him. He may have looked like he never threw a football before.

That’s expected.

This was a process that began at the start of the offseason; there is no way Kaepernick could get this coaching in a training camp, or during the season. Plus, it’s one thing to be working on things from a list, and another to have someone living and breathing right there to tell you if you’re doing it right, wrong, or throwing another ball to just do it again.

Just looking off defenders is a habit that I can only imagine would be a pain to implement. A common criticism has been how Kaepernick stares down receivers, a tell to defenders he’s about to launch the ball. Whether he actually is, if it was a schematic issue with Harbaugh’s offense (even the great Bill Walsh had plays where he predicted the first receiver would catch the ball regardless), or something else is between Kaepernick and the coaches. The fact remains that if that’s something he feels he needs to fix, he won’t be able to work it off in a month or two before the season starts. He’s not going to do it in the middle of the season when he needs to stick to what works (does anyone want to see him throw ducks as he takes newly made adjustments on his game to game day? I don’t). We can complain in Week 7 about how Kaepernick ‘continues’ to do something, but you don’t just wake up and fix some of these issues.

I’m sure Dennis Gile was recommended by someone in the 49er organization to see, and I don’t doubt for a second that if there was a brief window when the coaching staff could talk to Gile, they would comment on what they saw Kaepernick do during the season that, now with some extra time to squash. I’m sure even during the Harbaugh era, they would have loved to put Harbaugh and Kaepernick on the field for hours to work on the nitty gritty, but the current CBA won’t allow that. With Kaepernick emerging as a starter, he has way more on his plate to keep in mind than drills on his footwork. I’m sure that Kaepernick will be handed some drills to keep doing that he’ll share with 49ers quarterbacks coach Steve Logan to continue during practices and also some things for Logan to look out for as Kaepernick takes reps. Little reminders to make sure he’s doing something so bad habits don’t creep in.

It would be nice if the CBA would at least allow the coaches to come observe their quarterback in action. Just so they know what he needs to work on first hand. So Gile can say, "Keep an eye out for this during training camp," or "He seems to be struggling with this, so make sure you have him doing this a lot so he’s ready by game day," but unfortunately, it’s not meant to be. I see both sides of the argument, but that’s for another article.

All I can say is, we don’t know what kind of quarterback we are getting out of Kaepernick, but it’s great to see that he’s at least trying to shake off some habits and change his play. It's awkward, difficult, and doesn't change overnight.  All quarterbacks do this in some capacity, and I’m sure a majority do the same thing Kaepernick does, but it’s nice to read about him wanting to get better. One can argue he should shoulder the blame for the previous season, others can say it was a team effort to have the 8-8 record we had. Whichever argument you want to make, Kaepernick knows there’s things he can fix. Not every QB can come right out of college like Andrew Luck or (sorry guys) Russell Wilson and set the world on fire and even then they are always striving to get better. Some of them just need to get a bit of work. Kaepernick got it, and realized there were a lot of things he could still work on, so he’s back to the grind on his fundamentals.

Let's see how he turns out.