This is my Wednesday column on the 49ers’ OTA.
SANTA CLARA – This is about the red zone and the loss of arrogance.
During practice, the 49ers have seemed arrogant since Jim Harbaugh became the head coach three seasons ago. Whenever the media is allowed to watch, the Niners usually do the same things. The basics. I’ve never seen Harbaugh focus a practice on one of the 49ers’ weaknesses. Watching them practice, you’d think they have no weaknesses and have won the past three Super Bowls.
Wednesday afternoon during the second day of the 49ers’ voluntary OTAs, I expected more arrogance.
Wednesday was the most pragmatic open practice of the Harbaugh Era. After the players finished stretching and warming up, they did a brief scrimmage session, 11-on-11. This lasted five minutes tops. Then, most of the team jogged to the north field to practice tackling, while Colin Kaepernick, Anquan Boldin, Michael Crabtree and Brandon Lloyd walked to the south field to practice red-zone offense.
Red-zone offense has been the 49ers’ biggest weakness. If the 49ers offense was better in the red zone, the Niners would have beaten the Seahawks in the NFC championship game last season and the Niners would have beaten the Ravens in the Super Bowl two seasons ago. Both of those games ended with the 49ers offense unable to score a touchdown in the red zone.
Wednesday afternoon, it looked like Kaepernick, Crabtree, Boldin and Lloyd were trying to rectify the end of the Super Bowl against the Ravens. Kaepernick floated pass after pass to the back of the end zone just like he did two years ago, except no defense was on the field. Crabtree dropped two passes during this drill even though no one was covering him. But Lloyd made this drill look easy. He scored imaginary touchdowns every time. After he scored, Kaepernick and Boldin and Crabtree would ask him questions and Lloyd would explain how he did what he did.
About 20 minutes later, the 49ers did a seven-on-seven drill in the red zone, meaning no linemen on the field. Kaepernick missed both throws he attempted. He telegraphed a pass to Kassim Osgood and Perrish Cox easily knocked the ball away. On attempt No. 2, Kaepernick overthrew backup tight end Garrett Celek who was open. Obviously, Kaepernick still needed work in the red zone.
Harbaugh noticed. He ended practice with an 11-on-11 drill in the red zone. Red zone, red zone, red zone. Kaepernick made the play of the day during this drill. He dropped back without staring down a receiver, and then he threw to Lloyd before Lloyd made his break. The pass was perfect. Lloyd made a sliding catch in the front-right corner of the end zone. Touchdown.
After practice, reporters interviewed Harbaugh next to the practice field. I asked if he’s emphasizing red-zone offense this offseason. He nodded. “We’re about 35, 40 percent operating in the red zone in these OTAs. I thought it was good, especially yesterday. Offensively, I don’t know if a ball hit the ground. Today, the defense surged back and had a better day.”
Shortly after Harbaugh’s interview, Kaepernick walked out to the practice field and answered questions.
“That’s something that we know we’ve struggled with here, the red zone,” Kaepernick said. “That’s something that we’re constantly trying to improve. (Lloyd) has had success down there. So, if there is something we can pick up from him – how he runs routes, how he sets things up – that’s something we want to take and try to make it ours.”
What’s so challenging about playing offense in the red zone?
“The confinement of space,” Kaepernick said. “When you’re playing from your own 30, you have 70 yards of field to play with. When you get inside the 10, you have 20 yards. Space is the biggest thing down there.”
Kaepernick is one of the most dangerous quarterbacks in the NFL when he’s at his own 30 yard line. He threatens every square inch of the field with his speed and his rocket arm. When he gets into the red zone and there aren’t many square inches to threaten, he’s not so dangerous. His legs and his rocket arm can’t help him anymore.
I asked Kaepernick how he can improve his own play in the red zone. Last year, he probably would have deflected the question by saying he tries to get better at everything. Not this year. He knows exactly what he needs to improve.
“Clean up little things,” said Kaepernick, “Whether it is footwork, whether it is making quicker decisions – those are the types of things I want to improve on to make this offense more efficient.”
Ding ding ding! Perfect answer. When the field shrinks, he can’t wait for receivers to get open and then muscle passes to them. He needs to anticipate the openings. And Kaepernick knows it.
Grant Cohn writes sports columns and the “Inside the 49ers” blog for the Press Democrat’s website. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.