After Sunday’s crushing loss to the Seattle Seahawks, the question remains whether Colin Kaepernick will become an elite quarterback or remain the tantalizing hot-and-cold quarterback he was again in the NFC Championship Game.
For the first three quarters against the Seahawks, Kaepernick did everything right. Offensive coordinator Greg Roman had wisely designed runs for him and he set a playoff record for quarterbacks with a 58-yard run that set up a touchdown — and forced Seattle coach Pete Carroll to change his defensive scheme at halftime.
Kaepernick seemed to have conquered his personal demons about playing in the airplane hangar the Seahawks call home. He had only one delay of game penalty and handled the crowd noise well, throwing accurately when he had to and playing under control.
Then, he completely unraveled in the fourth quarter with three turnovers. The first was a fumble and the second was an interception which he seemed to throw right to the Seattle defensive back. On television, Hall of Fame quarterback Troy Aikman said he didn’t know what Kaepernick was thinking.
All that could have been erased by the last 49ers’ drive, when they seemed to be on their way to the game-winning touchdown. Kaepernick tried to hit Michael Crabtree in the right corner of the end zone, where he was covered by Richard Sherman. Are you kidding me? The most important pass of the game and you target the player who is universally regarded as the best cornerback in the league? The pass was tipped by Sherman and went into the hands of Seattle linebacker Malcolm Smith. Game over.
It was a grim reminder that for all his talent, Kaepernick still can’t shake the tendencies that keep him from being an elite quarterback. He still focuses on one target, often Crabtree, even if others are open. This was exactly what he did at the end of last year’s Super Bowl, when he threw three straight incomplete passes to Crabtree. Kap’s not exactly a fast learner.
To his credit, Kaepernick accepted blame for the 49ers’ loss and didn’t make excuses. That’s the first step. Now, he has to change his pattern, which will be more difficult.
Athletes with great physical skills often rely on them without changing as they rise in levels of play. But at the NFL level, the players are the best, not only physically, but in their knowledge of the game. To beat defenders like Sherman, Kaepernick will have to play smarter.
He didn’t this year. He had big games against inferior defenses but struggled against the best, particularly the Seahawks. This is critical for the 49ers, who may already have peaked as a team, as key players age.
For instance, it’s unreasonable to expect Frank Gore, 31 in May, to continue to play at a high level, but the other running backs haven’t shown they can be as productive as he’s been.
General manager Trent Baalke has done a very good job at bringing in players through free agency or trades to bolster the defense but, as players get older, they may not be as effective.
So, it’s critical that Kaepernick play smarter against the best defenses. The 49ers’ future depends on it.