While his counterpart in San Francisco has ranged from mum to prickly on the matter, Redskins coach Mike Shanahan on Wednesday offered reasons why a quarterback like Colin Kaepernick might encounter growing pains in his second season as a starter.
“I think the quarterback position is growth,” Shanahan said of Kaepernick, his opponent, during a conference call. “And you can see what a great arm he has and what great speed he has. I don’t know him, but he seems like a great guy and a natural leader. It just takes awhile. Every year is a learning experience.”
Shanahan is well-versed on the topic this year after fielding similar questions about his own second-year starter, Robert Griffin III. Like Kaepernick, Griffin has struggled after a sensational 2012 debut.
Griffin led the Redskins to the playoffs for the first time since 2007, finished with a 102.4 passer rating and scored seven rushing touchdowns. This year, Washington is 3-7, Griffin’s passer rating has dropped to 83.6 and, following an offseason in which two knee ligaments were surgically repaired, he has yet to run for a touchdown.
Shanahan said all quarterbacks, particularly passers like Griffin and Kaepernick who played in wide-open systems in college, must work through obstacles in the NFL. He said drop-back passing has been a particular challenge for quarterbacks accustomed to working out of the shotgun formation.
“It takes some repetitions,” he said. “It’s footwork, it’s understanding the strengths and weaknesses of coverages. It’s personnel, understanding your concepts. If you’ve got a concept to the left, a concept to the right, which side are you going to go to? What’s your progression? So there’s so many different things a quarterback has to master before he becomes one of the top guys in the league.”
Despite the drop-off from last year, Griffin is the league’s eighth-most prolific passer this season. Kaepernick, meanwhile, is 23rd in passing yards and has been held under 200 passing yards in eight of 10 games this season.
That hasn’t been an issue when the 49ers have been able to run the ball. But when they haven’t, the passing game has not been able to rescue the offense.
In the 49ers’ four losses, Kaepernick has thrown six interceptions and two touchdowns, and his passer rating is 45.9 in those games.
Asked about Kaepernick’s performances in recent weeks, 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh either has become defensive – “We don’t think anything’s wrong with Colin,” he said last week – or, as was the case with Alex Smith in previous years, has lavished the quarterback with fuzzy praise.
“I thought he did some incredible things,” Harbaugh said of Kaepernick’s 17-of-31 outing against the Saints. “Played with great poise. Thought he threw the ball, made some great throws.”
In Washington, Griffin’s passing issues have come, in part, because defenses aren’t stacking the line of scrimmage in an effort to stop the running game like they did last year. When that happened, Griffin’s receivers had more one-on-one matchups, and his throws were easier to make.
There are more defenders in coverage this year. As a result, Washington averages a robust 5.1 yards a carry, the best mark in the league. But Griffin’s completion percentage has dropped from 65.6 in 2012 to 59.7, while his interceptions have risen from just five last year to 10 already this year.
In San Francisco, the opposite has occurred. Defenses are daring Kaepernick to beat them through the air by inching linebackers and safeties close to the line of scrimmage to stop running back Frank Gore.
“Defenses are doing a good job game planning-wise,” Gore said. “Everybody’s been playing to stop the run.”
Kaepernick hasn’t been able to take advantage. Against Carolina two weeks ago, the 49ers’ longest pass play was 14 yards. Against the Saints, the longest pass play was 17 yards.
That’s largely because of personnel deficiencies. The 49ers’ best deep threat, tight end Vernon Davis, missed most of the Carolina game with a concussion. Another down-field option, wide receiver Mario Manningham, only recently has returned from a knee injury, while the team’s fastest receiver, Jon Baldwin, has made little impact and has caught just three passes this season.
Shanahan, for one, said not to worry about Kaepernick.
“Defenses will always catch up to a guy,” he said. “But that repetition is going to get him more comfortable with different situations, and you can see what a bright future he does have because his arm strength, his ability to make plays with his legs. I like what I see.”