The Sonoran Desert has been an odd spot for Colin Kaepernick.
Early last year, he spent nearly three months there to overhaul his mechanics and sharpen his pocket passing. He returned that year for what he calls the worst game of his career, one in which Arizona Cardinals defenders derisively said they had solved the 49ers quarterback, who vexed them in previous meetings.
Now Kaepernick returns Sunday for a bit of redemption.
He is coming off his most prolific outing in three seasons, a 398-yard performance in a 41-23 loss to the New Orleans Saints. New Orleans, however, ranks last in passing defense. The Cardinals, who rank third, will offer a much better gauge on Kaepernick’s comeback.
He won’t face safety Tyrann Mathieu. In Arizona’s 47-7 win last year, Mathieu made two of the Cardinals’ four interceptions of Kaepernick, returning one for a touchdown. After the game, Mathieu said the 49ers’ “passing game has just simplified so much, it was easy for us to anticipate routes, get some good breaks on the ball.”
Mathieu won’t play Sunday because of a shoulder injury.
Kaepernick also isn’t bound by concerns about his throwing mechanics, which dominated discussion about him in the run-up to the 2015 season.
“I wouldn’t say it messed with my confidence or anything like that,” he said. “I would say it’s something that at this point in my career, I just have to go out and play. And working on mechanics, those are things you can fine-tune a little bit, but you don’t want to do too much of that where you’re not out there just playing naturally.”
Did he feel restrained in 2015?
“I wouldn’t say restrained,” he said. “It was just something that I was training one thing and my body naturally wanted to do another. So I had to find that middle ground.”
Kaepernick’s mechanics – he has been picked apart for his long throwing delivery and the way he sets his feet among other critiques – have not been an issue with first-year coach Chip Kelly, who said quarterbacks were not “robots you can program” in a uniform way.
“I think sometimes that gets scrutinized too much,” Kelly said. “Everybody can improve on their mechanics and that’s what everybody tries to do. But I think it’s kind of harmful if you try and drastically change someone from a mechanical standpoint.”
Kaepernick has said Kelly’s system is similar to the one he ran at Nevada, where he rushed for more 4,000 yards. Though he’s started just three games, Kaepernick already has one more rushing yard – 173 total – than early-season starter Blaine Gabbert. Kaepernick also ranks seventh in rushing among quarterbacks.
Kaepernick’s running particularly has caught the Cardinals’ attention.
“They were doing different things last year,” Arizona coach Bruce Arians said of the 49ers. “When they came to play us, they were throwing the ball more. We were able to get a good rush on him a couple times and make him pull it down and re-throw it.”
Added Arians: “Kap looks like he’s back healthy now, running and passing like he used to a couple years ago. He’s hit a nice groove. He looks healthy. He looks like himself, which is always scary.”