The first reports on Colin Kaepernick’s attempts to turn himself into a more typical NFL quarterback are encouraging, both to Kaepernick and the 49ers, who have no real backup plan if he fails.
The 49ers had Kaepernick training with Kurt Warner, the ultimate drop-back quarterback. In practice, Colin seems to have gotten the message, but it’s often true that in the heat of a game, a player will revert to his old habits.
Some have compared this to Steve Young’s battle to adapt to Bill Walsh’s system when he was traded to the 49ers, but Young had been a regular T-formation quarterback in college at BYU, setting an NCAA record for accuracy. Playing in the USFL and for Tampa Bay, he had picked up some bad habits, which he had to unlearn. But he knew what the goal was.
Kaepernick has never been that kind of drop-back quarterback. He played in the “Pistol” offense in college, which gave him the option of running, passing or handing the ball off. It was the perfect college offense for his skill set.
But the NFL is quite different. The fluky offenses tend to have a very short shelf life before they’re solved and stopped. The only current exception is in Seattle, where Russell Wilson will sometimes run for yardage, sometimes dance around until he finds an open receiver downfield. Teams have tried to use a “spy” who concentrates on Wilson, but it doesn’t work because he can leave the defensive player sprawling as he dances his way around him.
Kaepernick isn’t that kind of runner. He’s very fast and if he gets into the open, he can pull off a long run. But the teams with good defenses have used a spy to stop him when he tries to run. 49ers CEO Jed York said in the offseason that the Niners should have Kap running more, but the coaching staff ignored that because they know that York knows nothing about football.
If you trace Kaepernick’s NFL career, you can see his greatest success came in 2012, when the league knew nothing about him. Since then, the good teams have found ways to defend against him.
For a time, Kaepernick was defiant. Nobody was going to change the way he played. It had always worked before, and he saw no reason to change. But, he’s older now — 28 in November — and seems much more mature. He looked at his career and saw the need to change, so he accepted the Niners’ plan to have him work with Warner.
He certainly has the physical ability to be a conventional quarterback, with a strong and accurate arm. Whether the Niners will have an offensive line capable of protecting him is another question.
The 49ers have no other option. The other quarterbacks on the current roster are nothing more than backups — castoff Blaine Gabbert and rookie Dylan Thompson.
It’s going to be a grim year for the Niners, who look like the worst team in the NFC West. If he can successfully change, Kaepernick may be the only reason to watch them.
Glenn Dickey has been covering Bay Area sports since 1963 and also writes on www.GlennDickey.com. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.