SANTA CLARA – Kansas City’s offense is precisely the prudent brown-paper bag everyone expected it to be after the Chiefs traded for longtime 49ers quarterback Alex Smith in the offseason: a lot of running plays, few turnovers and not many ambitious throws downfield.
What’s surprising – and frustrating to so many 49ers fans – is that the Colin Kaepernick-led San Francisco offense hasn’t been any more exciting or effective.
The 49ers average only 174 passing yards per game, last in the league. Smith and the undefeated Chiefs rank 27th at 198 yards a game.
Both quarterbacks have thrown only nine touchdown passes, 27th in the NFL. Then again, the 49ers’ six interceptions are tied for the second-fewest in the league, trailing only Kansas City, which has thrown four.
Even Kaepernick’s rushing numbers, which seemed so tantalizing after he dashed through the 2012 playoffs – would he set a season record for a quarterback? – have been merely good and not dramatically different than Smith’s. Kaepernick averages 34.4 yards a game on the ground, Smith 29.4.
The “yeah, but” criticism has been the same, too. As in: Yeah, their teams have winning records, but the quarterback isn’t making the offense better and has been leaning on defense and special teams to win games.
Look more closely, and there are differences. Kaepernick pushes the ball downfield more than Smith – especially when Vernon Davis is on the field – while Smith prefers to dump off to the running back. Kaepernick gets sacked less than Smith but fumbles more. Kaepernick has lost four this year, Smith none.
The greatest distinction, however, is experience.
It’s easy to forget that Kaepernick has started only 16 games which, in quarterback years, is equivalent to sending your 5-year-old down the driveway for the first time without training wheels. Smith made his 16th start on Nov. 12, 2006.
Are defenses flummoxing Kaepernick with aggressive press coverage? Are they taking away the read-option attack on which he subsisted in college? Does he look uncomfortable at times as he goes through his pass-option progressions, as ESPN analyst Trent Dilfer alleged this week?
Absolutely. But that’s what you’d expect from such a young player.
“There’s still an element I’m seeing where (a defense) shows him something for the first time,” 49ers offensive coordinator Greg Roman said Thursday. “Obviously, there was a lot of that last year and very similar this year. I definitely think there is a punch-counterpunch thing, as there always is.”
The problem is that Kaepernick and the 49ers’ passing attack haven’t had much with which to counterpunch this season.
One issue that plagued Smith when he was with the 49ers was his weak supporting cast. You could argue that Kaepernick’s 2013 crew has been more meager than even Smith’s, especially when Davis – who has missed parts of three games, all losses – has been on the sideline.
When Michael Crabtree went down with an Achilles’ injury in May, the question was, would any of the team’s young, unproven backup wide receivers be any good?
The final answer came from the 49ers this week: No.
The 49ers cut one of the few remaining members of that group, Kyle Williams, on Tuesday. Another wide receiver, rookie Quinton Patton, is coming back from a broken foot. The other young contenders in May either have been traded (A.J. Jenkins) or cut (Chad Hall, Ricardo Lockette, Marlon Moore and Williams).
The 49ers’ coaches never say anything remotely negative about players. Instead, the truth comes out through their actions. And those actions scream: Our receivers stink.
That should change by this time next month.
At that point, Crabtree and Mario Manningham promise to be in the lineup and, along with Anquan Boldin, the 49ers should have their most talented three-receiver formation in decades. Add Davis to the mix, and it’s a loaded arsenal.
But for how long?
Manningham and Boldin will be free agents in March. Crabtree is coming off his third lower leg injury – two broken feet, one Achilles’ tear – since he was drafted in 2009. He’s a free agent after next season.
Like any quarterback, Kaepernick needs a strong supporting cast. His development and future success will rest on the 49ers’ ability to draft and develop good, young wide receivers.
So far, they haven’t shown much ability to do either.
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