GLENDALE, Ariz. — The organizational coddling of Colin Kaepernick can stop now. Whatever propaganda the 49ers have been feeding us about his supposed post-Harbaugh progress as a passer — better footwork, quicker tempo, improved pocket poise, savvy tutelage from Kurt Warner, more freedom in a scaled-down playbook, not being “asked to do things outside of my character,” as he whined — is a load of unadulterated b.s. In his fourth season as an NFL starter, it’s time to accept some harsh truths.
What is he? A one-dimensional liability, a half a quarterback, a read-option runner and athlete operating in a pistol offense that belongs in a high school stadium.
What is he not? Someone who will return this franchise to its recent glories.
If 2015 is a referendum on Kaepernick and his future, his four-interception, double-pick-six failure Sunday in another humiliating, unwatchable loss — 47-7 to the title-legitimate Arizona Cardinals — should trigger thoughts about other long-term options. Jared Goff, anyone? Having laid two stinkbombs against talented opponents on successive weekends, the 49ers seem quite capable of losing a dozen games, just enough to enter the draft sweepstakes for the Cal quarterback/conventional pocket passer. If Kaepernick’s contract yields only minimal financial damage upon his release, at what point should Jed York and Trent Baalke ponder that possibility?
“I didn’t play well. I put our team behind the eight-ball from the jump, and we never rebounded,” Kaepernick said. “It’s very hard for me to deal with, very hard to see myself go out and play like that and hurt this team the way I did. I nullified all the efforts of every other player on that field, and that’s something I have to fix. I have to be better for this team moving forward.”
Is that even possible? Veteran linebacker NaVorro Bowman, whose return from a shredded knee has been obscured by two blowouts, has little faith in the offense. “There is not much we can do offensively, so we as a defense need to go out there every single play and defend the end zone,” he said of a unit that has been awful itself, allowing 899 yards and a good portion of 90 points the last two games.
Kaepernick’s statements were the only thing he got right on a day when his passing numbers were abysmal: 9 of 19 for 67 yards and a 16.7 rating. That Jim Tomsula refused to replace Kaepernick with Blaine Gabbert — not wanting to create a QB controversy in Week 4 of his very wobbly beginning as an NFL head coach — says all you need to know about the starter’s fragility. “Bad day. It starts and ends with me,” said Tomsula, who didn’t have his team ready to play for a second straight week. “We need to look at everything we’re doing. That’s me.”
Rather than yank Kaepernick, Tomsula tried to console him. “Keeping his eyes up, keeping him going,”’ the coach said. “I think the world of that guy. … Colin is our quarterback.”
Emotion had better move aside for harsh reality. Before the game, the Cardinals’ defensive backs noted that Kaepernick didn’t throw well to the outside — an NFL requisite, right? They were ready for him, which should frighten management and the coaching staff. It’s a copycat league, so expect the Green Bay defensive staff — my gosh, Aaron Rodgers is next — and every other opponent to attack similarly.
“Every time he threw a ball, I just had a feeling that it might get picked,” Cardinals safety Deone Buchanan said.
“Kaepernick was a little bit uncomfortable all game,” Cardinals safety Rashad Johnson said. “There were guys in his face and he was never able to step in and throw it. He was always a little behind on his throws.”
It was Kaepernick, giddy after piling up some fantasy yards during garbage time in Pittsburgh, who challenged Tomsula and offensive coordinator Geep Chryst to throw early. “We got to our passing game. We just got to it a little too late,” he said last week. Hearing him, the braintrust let Kaepernick throw on the third play of the first offensive series. Pressured by Frostee Rucker, No. 7 didn’t notice that the Cardinals had loaded up with defensive backs waiting to pounce. Justin Bethel stepped in front of Vernon Davis, and 21 yards later, Arizona was up 7-0.
“I have to put the pass further outside, allow Vernon to make that play,” Kaepernick said of Davis, who will be examined for a knee problem today.
After going back to the drawing board — or, I should say, the blue Microsoft tablet — with quarterbacks coach Steve Logan, Kaepernick trotted out for more punishment. This time, he faked off the read-option and looked for Anquan Boldin. Enter the Honey Badger, Tyrann Mathieu, who jumped in and returned the ball 33 yards for a touchdown and 14-0 lead.
“I got a little bit of pressure rolling right and thought I could fit that one into Anquan. It got undercut,” Kaepernick said. “Both of those are my fault.”
Said Mathieu, in a telling comment: “Their passing game has just simplified so much, it was easy for us to anticipate routes, get some good breaks.”
The game was effectively over then, assuming it ever started. “A big momentum-changer, obviously,” said 49ers linebacker Ahmad Brooks, “two interceptions for touchdowns in three minutes.”
“It would be a big challenge for anyone, being down that much, trying to fight back,” said running back Carlos Hyde, who gained 51 yards on 15 carries as the Cardinals’ premier defense bottled him up.
Only late in the first half did Kaepernick generate a spark — running, of course, for a touchdown after a 37-yard punt return by Jarryd Hayne. But he soon would cough it up after 49ers corner Kenneth Acker, scorched a week earlier, managed an interception of Carson Palmer. Would No. 7 use the final 53 seconds of the second quarter to trim Arizona’s big lead? Nah, he simply padded it, again underthrowing Davis and again victimized by Mathieu. The Cardinals kicked a field goal as the clock expired, and at that point, down 31-7, you wondered if Gabbert, though lame himself, would get a shot. He didn’t. They would make us suffer with Kaepernick.
Did someone say they wanted Kaepernick to be the inspirational leader of this team? His blunders only served to deflate the 49ers, who deteriorated into a mess of unsportsmanlike conduct penalties, more of the same pass-defense deficiencies that led to a predictable field day for Palmer and Larry Fitzgerald and, late in the third quarter, a bizarre play call that speaks to the disarray of the Tomsula regime. Backed up against their own goal line, the 49ers lined up in the shotgun formation. It was a recipe for a safety, and the Cardinals obliged.
The concern is that York, who dismissed Jim Harbaugh in part because he felt Kaepernick was regressing, has hitched his wagon to No. 7 and stubbornly will stand by him. York said this in the offseason, remember, to the NFL Network: “It’s not fixing Kaepernick. I think Kap is an unbelievable player. He’s a young guy that continues to grow and mature. … With Kap you got a guy in Geep Chryst who knows him better than anybody else. You have a great guy in Steve Logan that’s coming in that’s going to work with him on fundamentals and to put a system that’s going to put Kap in the best position to make plays.”
Um, want a re-do, Jed?
All of which has brainwashed Kaepernick into thinking Harbaugh was the problem. In fact, Harbaugh and the deposed coordinator, Greg Roman, created the best of Kaepernick. Somehow, he forgot how Harbaugh took the dramatic step in promoting him at the expense of a productive Alex Smith. With amnesia kicking in, he said the other day, “I would say the biggest thing is, I’m being asked to be myself this year. And I don’t think anyone knows how to be myself better than me. So it’s a comfort zone for me.”
Um, want a re-do, Kap?
If the 49ers need a tutorial in a state-of-the-art pass offense, they should watch the Cardinals. Going deep is the norm for coach Bruce Arians, who is maximizing Palmer as he did Andrew Luck and Ben Roethlisberger, and his team looks primed for a Super Bowl run. “Coach Arians, he’s like a mad scientist,” Fitzgerald said. “He’s always finding ways to get guys involved, new ways to create mismatches for his playmakers. That’s the exciting thing. You come in here Wednesday morning, you have no idea what to expect.”
The only thing the 49ers are doing Wednesday mornings is trying to convince the world that Colin Kaepernick is a serviceable passer. He is not.
Not even close.
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.