Five years into an NFL career is a helluva time for Colin Kaepernick to suffer an identity crisis. Despite all the change – a roster decimated by injuries, retirements, legal problems and a front office feud that chased Jim Harbaugh off to Michigan – the 49ers gained some comfort in the presence of a young quarterback who took them to the brink of a Super Bowl title.
A little more than three years ago, Kaepernick – a gangly, tantalizing, 6-foot-4 athlete – was a short scamper from defeating the Baltimore Ravens, Sunday’s opponent at Levi’s Stadium.
But now? Everything has changed. The 49ers have a new coach, a new offensive coordinator, a new running back, a new and diminished offensive line. The crowds are restless, and, as so often is the case, quick to target the quarterback.
Experts and non-experts are shouting different somethings into Kaepernick’s ear, some directing him one way, others shoving him in another. What was once a constant flurry of white noise – the usual chatter professional players hear – has become so loud, such a constant rattle in the background, that earplugs would be useless.
Kaepernick’s solid second half last Sunday against the New York Giants led to only a momentary pause. The debate resumed during the week with the same vigor and vitality the Democrats displayed Tuesday night in Las Vegas, with the speakers agreeing on some issues and differing on others. All of his football body parts – the muscled arms, long legs, elongated windup – are on the autopsy table for all to take a slice.
“We need to score touchdowns,” said Kaepernick, his expression stoic, during his midweek session with the media. “That’s the bottom line. It’s not a difficult thing. So, for us, we have to finish in the end zone.”
This is where the crowd noise elevates.
One former 49ers great, Steve Young, believes Kaepernick must establish himself in the pocket to become a quality longtime NFL starter. Another former 49ers great, Joe Montana, told NFL Network the fifth-year pro needs to get back to being Kaepernick, to putting his best foot forward – both of them – and start playing like the precocious, free-spirited youngster who ran veteran Alex Smith out of a job.
“(Kaepernick) says he can play in the pocket, (but) everybody says that as a quarterback,” Montana said Friday. “I’ll tell you I can run the read-option. I’m not sure you want me to run the read-option, but I’ll tell you I can. So let him do the thing that he does well. He’ll take that team back and get it winning again.
“But you can’t force him to do something and make him start thinking and then everybody questions every throw he makes. Tell those guys you want Colin Kaepernick, the guy you drafted and who you let me be the first year I was here.”
Even Chris Ault, who coached Kaepernick during his prolific college career at Nevada, offered some unsolicited advice. He told FoxSports his former star is dropping his elbow too far when he throws, resulting in an almost sidearm motion.
Kaepernick, who turns 28 on Nov. 3, must feel like a boxer getting tagged from all angles. Until the latter part of last season, his was a charmed 49ers existence. He prevailed in the court of public opinion when Harbaugh stuck with him during Smith’s last and most effective season and received only mild criticism for failing to score what would have been the game-winning touchdown in New Orleans. And his failure to incorporate a consistent vertical threat often has been attributed to a mediocre receiving corps or the staff’s commitment to a running attack.
On Thursday, 49ers offensive coordinator Geep Chryst indicated Kaepernick will take more snaps under center and defused Ault’s comments with a quick smile.
“I was joking with Kap that we put a towel under his right arm, and then we threw it because we wanted to throw like Philip Rivers,” Chryst said. “But, really, biomechanics or techniques or technical, we’re at the point in the season where you have to execute and hit the open jumper. That’s a great thing to work on in February, March and April. (But) a cookie-cutter approach to things sometimes is probably not realistic.”
The reality is this: Unless the 49ers overcome another rash of injuries and turn around their season, the coaching staff will be dissected and the scrutiny on Kaepernick and his future will intensify. His multiyear deal is team-friendly; the 49ers can pick up his contract April 1 or cut him loose and use the salary cap space to pursue another quarterback – no sure task, either.
The wise move might simply be to improve the surrounding talent and give Kaepernick more time to grow, or at the least get back to what he does best. Or maybe not. Some of the former greats are coming increasingly hard with the questions.
“People ask, ‘What happened to Colin Kaepernick?’ ” CBS analyst and former NFL quarterback Rich Gannon told KNBR radio. “My answer is ‘Nothing.’ Jim Harbaugh and Greg Roman did a lot of things to mask some of his deficiencies. They had a great defense, a very good running game, a very good offensive line. They had some playmakers, and this guy ran around and made some plays.
“They don’t have the same people around him. The defense is not as good. As a result, his deficiencies are more apparent. He was never a great thrower of the football. He’s got an elongated stroke. The intermediate stuff is good. His accuracy has never been great. His footwork is a problem. You can tell he doesn’t play fast under center. You very rarely see him get to his third receiver in a progression. And you have to be able to play from the pocket, and he hasn’t shown the ability to do that just yet.”
Just yet? Or never?