San Francisco 49ers

Can a running QB like the 49ers’ Kaepernick be an effective pocket passer?

If your offense includes designed runs by the quarterback, you may have to live with an ugly-interception game every now and then.

That was the take of NFL Films’ Greg Cosell after he watched Colin Kaepernick’s performance against the Chicago Bears last week. Cosell said he didn’t think Kaepernick played all that poorly. But he wondered whether a quarterback who is encouraged to run as much as Kaepernick ever will be able to throw from the pocket as well as the top passers in the league.

After two games, Kaepernick’s 14 rushing attempts trail only the New York Jets’ Geno Smith among quarterbacks. The 49ers have at least partially built their running game around Kaepernick’s read-option scampers. Touchdown runs by Carlos Hyde and Frank Gore, for example, have come on read-option plays on which the quarterback was a threat to run.

“Look at Michael Vick,” Cosell said. “Coaches marveled at his athleticism, which was superhuman, and every year what did people say? ‘Boy, he’s just got to improve as a pocket quarterback and he’ll be great.’ Well, 13 years into his career and he’s still a very spotty pocket quarterback.”

Kaepernick today will try to bounce back from last week’s loss against an Arizona Cardinals defense that in 2013 ranked sixth in total defense and has forced five turnovers in the first two weeks this year.

His game against the Bears included three interceptions and a fumble that was caused by a big hit from defensive end Jared Allen. Kaepernick also suffered a back injury, though it did not appear to slow him down in practice.

Still, 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh, as always, defended his passer, and he practically scoffed at the notion a quarterback couldn’t be both a running threat and a polished thrower from the pocket.

“I think he is that,” Harbaugh said of Kaepernick.

There are plenty of examples of running quarterbacks, Vick and Tim Tebow, for example, who never developed into precise passers. But there are also cases of athletic quarterbacks who succeeded, including a prominent one who played in the Bay Area.

“Steve (Young) was sort of a mixture between a linebacker and a fullback,” longtime 49ers personnel chief John McVay said. “I think that’s his inner self. He was as tough as nails and he was a hell of a runner – he was fast and big and strong. And he was really smart, really intelligent.”

McVay noted that before Young arrived in San Francisco, he took some carries at tailback with the USFL’s Los Angeles Express. With the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 1985, he completed a career-low 52.2 percent of his passes while averaging 5.8 yards per carry.

But after a trade to the 49ers and an apprenticeship behind Joe Montana, Young’s precision improved dramatically. In 1994, he completed 70.3 percent of his throws while rushing for a career-high seven touchdowns.

“With Bill (Walsh) working with him, and with the coordinators working with him, they convinced him, ‘You must embrace Bill Walsh’s philosophy,’ ” McVay said. “And (Young) was a smart guy and did it. He threw the ball extraordinarily well.”

It’s far too early to make any judgments on Kaepernick, 26, who played in a read-option system in college.

He’s started just 32 games. When Young started his 32nd NFL game, he was 30 years old and had been playing professionally for eight years.

Still, how Kaepernick develops as a pocket passer will be scrutinized during his tenure in San Francisco and promises to determine whether his accomplishments will match those of Young, who was enshrined into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2005.

“Quarterbacks tend to get a little slower over time,” Cosell said. “Defenses don’t. When that happens, which is inevitable, where will his pocket skills be? That’s the Catch-22. If his pocket skills are no further advanced than they are now, he could have a precipitous decline in his play. How do you get the pocket skills advanced to where they need to be in three or four years if you’re not going to develop those pocket skills?”

Related stories from Sacramento Bee