Most of those who have discussed the problems with the 49ers have ignored the primary one: They don’t have a reliable quarterback. Colin Kaepernick can make spectacular plays but he can’t be consistent against top opponents.
That showed dramatically in the 49ers’ dreadful loss to the Seattle Seahawks on Thanksgiving night. When Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson was blitzed, he scrambled, always looking downfield until he found a receiver and often connecting. When Kaepernick was pressured, he decided to test the best corner in the NFL, Richard Sherman. The pass was offline, right into Sherman’s hands. As Sherman noted later, “He said he was going to throw to the open man. I was the open man.”
That’s Kaepernick. He’s a gunslinger, always trying to prove he can beat any defense and any team. That can work against weaker teams. It doesn’t work against quality opponents. More and more, it seems Kaepernick’s career peaked in his first season, when teams didn’t know him. It’s not working now, especially not against Seattle.
Kaepernick is certainly smart enough off the field, but there’s often a big difference between regular intelligence and athletic intelligence.
Willie Mays is probably the best example. Mays is of average intelligence off the field but his athletic intelligence is off the charts. I saw him score for the Giants one time on a pitch that bounced in the dirt and went no more than six feet away from New York Mets catcher Choo Choo Coleman, who simply stared in disbelief as Mays scored standing up. Years later, Mays explained to me that he saw as the ball left the pitcher’s hand that it would be in the dirt, so he just started running. You can’t teach that.
Joe Montana and Steve Young are another example. Off the field, Young is clearly the more intelligent but Montana slipped into the Bill Walsh system almost effortlessly, leading the 49ers to a Super Bowl win in his first year as a starter. Young struggled to learn the system, often using his feet to get big gains until, as he said in a recent interview, he realized that a quarterback wins championships only when he learns how to stay in the pocket and throw downfield.
Kaepernick still hasn’t learned that lesson. I doubt he ever will because he’s basically playing the same way he did when he was first made a starter with the 49ers. It worked better that first year because nobody in the league knew him. Now, they do.
He’s obviously not the only problem. Because of injuries, the offensive line has not protected him well, so he’s had to face a much fiercer pass rush than earlier. But he doesn’t handle that well, either. He’ll abandon the pocket at the first sign of a hard rush and, unlike Wilson, he doesn’t look downfield. Usually what he’ll do is run off to the right, which reduces his targets for a pass, and then takes off running. Sometimes, he succeeds only in holding the ball long enough to get sacked.
General manager Trent Baalke is probably looking right now at a potential trade or drafting a quarterback. Kaepernick is not the answer.
Glenn Dickey has been covering Bay Area sports since 1963 and also writes on www.GlennDickey.com. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.