Maybe he really doesn’t care about the clamor, the verbal exhaust, the opinion divide, the national debate on whether he’ll avoid Robert Griffin III Syndrome and reinvent himself. Or, maybe Colin Kaepernick just has a nice play-action fake going.
“To be honest, I’m not worried about what people say about me as a quarterback. I worry about what my teammates and coaches think,” he said. “So that’s ultimately who I give that ability to judge to.”
Meaning, it’s useless asking him if he still can be the dual-threat phenomenon of yore, an art form reduced to a fleeting fad by defensive strategists who’ve exposed read-option sensations as one-dimensional. “I mean, I was also the black quarterback with tattoos,” Kaepernick noted of stereotypes. “Once again, it’s not something that really crosses my mind.”
So don’t expect him to even flinch as a new label floats in the early weeks of this transformational 49ers season:
Colin Kaepernick, game manager.
He won’t because, in the end, it cannot be his calling card in quarterbacking life, not if he and a reconfigured franchise hope to approach their success of the recent past. He managed the offense well in the Monday night victory, handing the ball off and getting out of the way when the coaches realized the Minnesota Vikings couldn’t stop Carlos Hyde’s churning legs and spin moves. For one game, anyway, he wasn’t the 52-sack chewtoy of a year ago, assessed only one sack when he wisely ducked out of bounds. For one game, anyway, he got rid of the football quickly in the pocket behind a line that performed much better than expected. For one game, anyway, he was positioned to succeed by throwing underneath in three-tight-end sets. For one game, anyway, he didn’t succumb to happy feet and prematurely escaping the pocket, instead stepping out of traffic and finding an open receiver.
For one game, Colin Kaepernick didn’t do anything to hurt his team — completing 17 of 26 passes for 165 yards and no interceptions, running for 41 yards and no fumbles while absorbing only one vicious shot that he says didn’t hurt. And for one game, his first as 49ers head coach, that’s exactly how Jim Tomsula wanted it.
“You see him getting us in the correct calls. You see him getting us in the correct runs. You see him killing a pass and going to a run. You see him killing a run and going to a pass. Doing all of those things,” Tomsula raved. “I thought he knows what he’s looking at. I thought Kap played a wonderful game. I thought he did everything we asked him to do.”
But he didn’t do a hell of a lot to win the game, either. This victory was about Hyde and the blockers creating holes on a 230-yard rushing night for the 49ers, at 5.9 a pop. This was about the defense introducing intricate blitz packages, with new coordinator Eric Mangini as the guide, against a confused Minnesota offense run by a clueless Norv Turner. As Kaepernick acknowledged Thursday, he became just another spectator marveling at Hyde’s power and speed, including the reverse-pivot move that had a nation talking the next morning. On that play, he found himself leading interference for Hyde into the end zone.
“I think it was something our team and our coaches knew that he was capable of and they put him in a position to make those plays,” Kaepernick said. “Our offensive line did a great job giving him those opportunities to make some cuts and make big plays for us. And, he did everything that was asked of him and more.”
And the cutback? “I haven’t seen anything quite like that from him, but it was an amazing play,” he said. “He got the first touchdown and really got us the momentum for the rest of the game. I wasn’t thinking [about blocking] at the start of the play by any means. But whether I was there or not, Carlos was going to get in. So, I was a little more of a distraction than anything.”
Colin Kaepernick, distraction.
That odd concept will have to change radically Sunday in Pittsburgh, where the Steelers await in their home fortress, knowing they must stop Hyde and try to make Kaepernick beat them. Ideally, the 49ers this season would combine the force of their new running threat with the unique two-way abilities of their quarterback, assuming Kaepernick can count his arm as asset. He still hasn’t answered the question after spending the offseason with positional great Kurt Warner and other teaching gurus, trying to polish the rough edges of his erratic pocket game. Against the Vikings, offensive coordinator Geep Chryst called high-percentage pass plays, making crossing routes to Vernon Davis and Garrett Celek a bigger priority than developing a deep-ball game with wideout Torrey Smith.
But at some point, Kaepernick will have to hit long pass plays, perhaps his biggest flaw. And at some point, he will have to bust loose the long dashes that made him famous and helped put him in the Super Bowl. The Vikings only blitzed on eight of his 31 dropbacks. The Steelers, though vulnerable defensively and unable to cover Rob Gronkowski in their opening game, will pressure him considerably more and try to draw him out of the pocket. They say they can’t wait to see him, having been shredded by Tom Brady’s rapid-draw release last week.
“As pass rushers, we love the fact that we get to face Kaepernick because he’s going to hold the ball, you’re going to get those opportunities,” Steelers linebacker Arthur Moats said. “We felt like last week we had good rushes on, but he was getting rid of it so quick — you don’t really see the fruits of that.”
We’re going to find out more about Kaepernick’s evolution in Heinz Field, then, than we did the other night in Santa Clara.
“It’s a long season and eventually defenses have a way of challenging you,” Chryst said. “Pittsburgh’s had about 10 days to study us and then correct whatever things that they had in their opening game, too. I’m sure they are going to have a well-prepared team. It’s their home opener, so some of the emotion maybe that we experienced [Monday], we’re on the other side of that. And we have to play with some poise and execution, too, because, they’re going to be ready to go.”
Every indicator says Pittsburgh wins. Logistically, the 49ers are coming off a Monday night game and have to fly 2,600 miles to play a team operating on nine days’ rest. Emotionally, the Steelers and their fans are pissed, convinced they were Belichicked in the opener when they were picking up the Patriots’ radio broadcast in their headsets. And the opposing quarterback, the one with two Super Bowl rings? Ben Roethlisberger is the NFL’s most productive homefield quarterback of the moment, accounting last season for a league-best 347.3 passing yards a game with 23 touchdown passes and only four interceptions.
So, yes, this is a game Colin Kaepernick must win for the 49ers, a weekly mission for most quarterbacks worth their multi-millions.
“I think I’ve improved personally. I think this team’s improved. It’s something that everyone in here has worked every day and tried to get better,” he said, offering little in the way of hows and whys.
His coach remains his biggest fan. “I don’t think we had something that was broke,” Tomsula said. “He’s a very talented athlete. He’s a very talented quarterback. We always want to compare. Colin Kaepernick is just Colin Kaepernick.”
Now, it’s time for a bit more than just Colin Kaepernick.
Jay Mariotti is sports director and lead sports columnist at the San Francisco Examiner. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read his website at jaymariotti.com.Carlos HydeColin KaepernickJim TomsulaSan Francisco 49ers