This is my Thursday column on Colin Kaepernick.
Late last season, Joe Montana told USA Today that Colin Kaepernick needed to improve as a pocket passer. Kaepernick disagreed.
“I think pocket passing is something that is overlooked as far as what I do,” Kaepernick told a local radio station. Suggesting Montana, the greatest quarterback ever, is not a discerning quarterback analyst.
“I think people see me run around, see me throw on the run, see me run downfield and say, ‘That’s just what he does.’ But, when you step up in the pocket and make a normal throw, it gets overlooked because you’re not running around. Yes, you want to get better at (pocket passing). I want to get better at throwing on the run. I want to get better at going through progressions quicker. You want to get better at everything, but I don’t think (pocket passing) is something that is specifically being addressed.”
Kaepernick is kidding himself. He thinks pocket passing is overrated. He’s wrong. He thinks he’s a good pocket passer. He isn’t.
Throwing from the pocket last season, Kaepernick threw 12 touchdowns and 10 interceptions, and his passer rating was just 80.9. Dreadful numbers. Montana was absolutely right.
On the other hand, Kaepernick’s passing numbers outside of the pocket were phenomenal – 12 touchdowns, just one interception and 114.4 passer rating. This should be no surprise. His specialty is running and throwing on the run.
“In high school, Colin ran the Wing T offense, which is a lot of misdirection running plays and throwing on the run outside of the pocket,” Chris Ault told me in a phone interview. Ault was Kaepernick’s head coach at the University of Nevada, and currently is a consultant for the Kansas City Chiefs. “The system did not feature the quarterback. They were not a great throwing team. He was not a pure drop-back quarterback coming out of high school.”
Kaepernick has been a drop-back pocket passer for 29 NFL games – that’s it. At Nevada, he did not line up under center. He lined up a few yards behind center in the Pistol, and sometimes the Shotgun. And he ran the ball 600 times in four seasons.
“Nevada’s offense complemented him,” Ault said. “He was able to get on the field at a young age. If he went to a college where he had to drop back from under center, he would have spent a long time developing and wouldn’t have gotten on the field as quickly. But in a Pistol like we ran at Nevada or Shotgun offense where the quarterback is away from center, the quarterback has more time to look at the defense because he’s not dropping back, and there are more chances to get rid of the ball earlier.”
Kaepernick thrives when he can get rid of the ball quickly – that’s what he did in college. Last season when he threw the ball in fewer than 2.5 seconds, his completion percentage was 66.1 and his passer rating was 101.2. Elite numbers. But, when Kaepernick took longer than 2.5 seconds to throw, his completion percentage fell to 49.7, and his passer rating fell to 80.7.
When Kaepernick sees his first option open, he is terrific. But when the first option is covered, Kaepernick holds onto the ball too long because he does not anticipate openings downfield. Anticipation is a skill he did not have a chance to cultivate in high school and college.
He searches for openings during the play. He took 3.08 seconds on average to throw last season – fourth-longest in the NFL. Peyton Manning took just 2.36 seconds to throw – almost a full second faster than Kaepernick.
“I see Colin as a guy who wants to see the receiver open, then he wants to utilize his arm strength to make the throw,” said Jeff Garcia, the last 49ers quarterback who earned a trip to the Pro Bowl.
“What I would like to see Colin progress to is not relying on his arm strength all of the time, being able to throw different-speed pitches out there, being able to anticipate openings, throw to spots, throw receivers open and get the ball out on time instead of hitching, hitching, and then finding a lane to run through. I think that will take his game to another level.”
Kaepernick’s rival – Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson – already has taken his game to the level Garcia describes. Some people perceive Wilson as a scrambler who struggles as a pocket passer. Misconception. Last season, his passer rating inside the pocket was 104.7.
Important, because Wilson throws three times as many passes from inside the pocket as he does from outside of it. Kaepernick, too. It’s nice to be a good outside-the-pocket passer, but that’s secondary. The 49ers aren’t going to eliminate all of their pocket-passing plays because Kaepernick struggles with them. No quarterback has won a Super Bowl just by scrambling around and throwing on the run. Quarterbacks win Super Bowls from the pocket.
It is not too late for Kaepernick to become a good pocket passer. He still is just 26 years old. Steve Young didn’t become a good pocket passer until he was 28. Kaepernick has more than enough talent to become a good pocket passer, but talent isn’t his issue. Honesty is.
Kaepernick needs to admit that pocket passing is his weakness. And then, Kaepernick needs to spend most of his time this offseason perfecting that craft.
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.