Colin Kaepernick had one of the most spectacular days of his season as the 49ers beat the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Sunday. He threw a touchdown pass to Vernon Davis that traveled 63 yards in the air. A shorter touchdown pass to Michael Crabtree was almost as remarkable — on both ends — as Kaepernick put the ball where only Crabtree could get it and Crabtree caught it with both feet in bounds in the end zone before falling out.
Yet, with all this, the 49ers’ offense still wasn’t very productive, producing only those two touchdowns and four field goals by Phil Dawson, who has a team-record 24 straight now. Kendall Hunter scored another touchdown on a fumble recovery in the end zone after the Bucs’ botched a reverse on a kickoff return.
All this against a team that is now 4-10. Obviously, not a team the Niners will play in the postseason. And that’s the point. The 49ers are going to be playing on the road, starting with the first week of the postseason. They need to prove they can beat playoff teams. They’ve won only one game against a team currently in a playoff spot, the Seattle Seahawks last week, and that was because of Frank Gore’s 51-yard run and a very stout defense. Kaepernick was not an important factor.
And even if they advance in the playoffs, to get to the Super Bowl, they’ll have to beat the Seahawks in Seattle. Don’t hold your breath.
Kaepernick’s physical skills are awesome, and that’s been obvious from the start. The question has always been: When will he become a quarterback and not just a freelance operator? It hasn’t happened yet. Against Tampa Bay, he played basically the same role he played so well in college, taking a direct snap from center and then, no matter what the play was, deciding whether to run or pass.
That produced some spectacular plays against the Bucs, who have a solid defense but one which can be exploited, which is one of the reasons they’re 4-10. But even then, the 49ers’ offense couldn’t score more than two touchdowns.
Against playoff teams, Kaepernick will have to play a more conventional quarterback. He has the physical tools to do it. The question is his mindset.
In earlier times, both Joe Montana and Steve Young had to re-adjust their thinking to be successful on the pro level.
Montana had some spectacular moments in college at Notre Dame, but the consistency wasn’t there. That often led to his benching, and it also meant that most pro teams had little interest in him. Bill Walsh thought he could develop that consistency and he did, quickly.
Young was even more of a challenge. Like Kaepernick, he had both a strong arm and great running ability, but he picked up some bad habits playing for a Tampa Bay team whose coach told Young to “go out and make something happen.”
Young played that way when he first came to the Niners, but he learned to play under control and became a Hall of Fame quarterback, like Montana.
Can Kaepernick learn the same lesson? The 49ers’ future depends on it.