One game in particular stood out: Week 10's Carolina at San Francisco match. As you can tell by the 10-7 final score, this one was dominated by defense - and rightfully so as these are two of the best defenses in the league. Not lost among the offensive ineptitude was dismal the performance of the two quarterbacks: Cam Newton and Colin Kaepernick. This is especially interesting because Cam and Colin, like Josh, are young, athletic quarterbacks that have had various ups and downs during their brief careers. But both of these signal callers are entrenched in their starting roles, despite their struggles, while Josh is on his way to journeyman status. Why do they get a pass for sometimes uneven, sometimes outright debilitating performance?
First, the numbers - these are courtesy of Pro Football Reference and are pro-rated for a 16 game schedule. Let's see if you can guess which QB is which:
Player B has the worst statistics by a large margin and is obviously Josh Freeman. Player A is Colin Kaepernick and Player C is Cam Newton. Colin's passing stats are mostly mediocre but his gaudy yards/attempt total bolster his ANY/A (also known as ANYPA, or adjusted net yards per attempt - this stat adjusts touchdowns, interceptions, and sacks into their yardage effect). Cam's completion percentage is decent but he has thrown a fair number of picks and also takes too many sacks.
Who is the mystery Player D? He completes a decent % of passes, doesn't turn it over, and rarely takes sacks. His rushing stats aren't bad either. Did I sneak Andrew Luck or Russell Wilson into this comparison?No. Player D, believe it or not, is 2010 Josh Freeman. Freeman during that magical Bucs season. Freeman before was shell-shocked by too many sacks and broken protections. Freeman when he still showed so much promise.
So how do guys like Cam and Colin, who are thus far putting up worse numbers than 2010 Josh, get to an elite level without becoming 2013 Josh? Again, both are coming off bad games albeit against elite defenses. Facing each other, Cam and Colin posted adjusted-yards/attempt of 3.88 and 2.09, respectively. Was this a by-product of the aforementioned defenses or is something bigger going on here?
To find out, I studied every pass both quarterbacks made during the game. Am I going to upload them all? You bet! Let's start with the one who had the worse line, the one who lost at home. Here is (almost) every Colin Kaepernick pass attempt; let's try to see what's going on (apologize for the sometimes grainy footage):
1: Flare complete off play-action to the fullback, Bruce Miller, for 10 yards. The end zone cam shows just how good a jump Miller had on the linebacker in coverage.
2: This was a go route to the slot receiver that should have been picked. Colin actually gets his feet set in exactly the right direction, but mis-reads the corner as playing man when he is in fact in zone coverage playing the deep receiver. The corner does a fantastic job jumping in front of the route. It's a hard thing for young quarterbacks to learn to throw over the coverage with touch - many want to throw frozen ropes directly to receivers and it doesn't work all the time.
3: This is a little 5 yard comeback. Look how he recognizes the safety and gets his feet pointed to the sideline where the pass is going.
4: Another comeback: ~9 yards to a corner playing soft. Colin should turn his hips to the right more - the receiver is so open that the slightly high ball isn't a huge problem here, but you gotta work on little things.
5: Footage of the 5th pass, a sack, didn't save. It was one of 6 sacks on the day. Tried to work right and go back left. We'll see more of this unfortunately:
6: A few things here: Look how far back he is. 49ers coaches regularly had Colin taking 5- or 7-step drops. I'll get to more of this later, but here he is almost 10 yards behind the line of scrimmage. This was almost disastrous but Colin somehow escaped up the middle for 7 yards.
7: 10 yards checkdown to Gore in the middle. Feet are set to go deep, but nobody is open. This was a theme of the afternoon: the receivers just couldn't get open before the rush got to Colin. Carolina purposefully played with safeties deep knowing that the linebackers could fill against the run well enough. The middle of the field was open the whole afternoon, but Colin and the 49ers were unable to consistently take advantage of this space.
8: This is a sideline route that was thrown late and high, resulting in an incompletion. First, notice how low Colin is holding the ball and how his hips are almost parallel to the line of scrimmage, anticipating the rush. Great QBs never get this loose with the ball. I understand that the edge rusher is bearing and he may need to take off, but as along as he's in the pocket, he needs to play with correct posture. As a result of his open hips, his feet are actually pointed backwards and to the left. Look at his hand position relative to the ball in the second shot: it's below the ball, which means the ball is spinning up and away. In the third shot, you can kind of tell that despite the faulty mechanics, Colin's arm talent gets the ball near where it needs to be, but the catch is unnecessarily difficult and ultimately falls to the ground.
9: This is an out route on 3rd and 7 that is 6 yards short of the sticks. Colin has plenty of time to throw despite an extra rusher, and he just doesn't see that the outside receiver on the left has inside leverage. A terrible read.
10: This was an attempted play-action fake, but the end did not bite at all. The play resulted in a huge grounding penalty, but wasn't necessarily Colin's fault. There's little he can do here.
11: At first, it looks like a well run screen pass. The outside receiver has sealed his man and three blockers are heading into the secondary. In the 2nd shot, the lead lineman has taken out the first safety safety, the middle blocker is responsible for the second safety (shadow at the far right of the picture), while the third blocker needs to put a hat on the linebacker. In the 3rd shot, that blocker has barely moved while the linebacker has filled a crucial gap. Still shouldn't be a problem though. As long has he gets his hands on the defender, the receiver has a nice cutback lane to the middle. So what happened? Mike Iupati completely whiffed on the block and a promising play turned into only 5 yards.
CONCLUSION: So what have we learned from looking at these 32 passes? More importantly, is Colin going to develop into a franchise quarterback or have we already seen the best from him? Here are my takeaways:
- Good throwing mechanics: Good footwork in and out of the pocket. Feet are mostly pointed the right direction even with heavy pressure the whole afternoon. It wasn't perfect, but it wasn't sloppy either. He does need to keep that ball high and not get loose with it.
- Good decisions: Outside of his second throw which should have been picked, he threw away from coverage. He did miss some opportunities with one-on-one coverage, but he avoided bad decisions. I can't blame him for the last interception - the game was over anyway. He was ready to throw at the top of his drop and didn't hesitate.
- Tremendous accuracy. Even the balls that got away from him, the ones where his hips turned parallel to the line of scrimmage, were in the right zip code. This shows how special his arm is. Yeah, his 3/4 delivery is not orthodox, but it is fast, consistent, accurate, and he has the arm strength to make it work. He consistently fits the ball into small gaps without torquing his body like other QBs. But with arm strength comes...
- ...the need to harness it with Touch. Colin, like many young QBs, needs to learn to put a little air under certain passes to put them out of the defense's grasp and also give his receiver an extra beat to get open. Of the young starters, RG3 (at least before this year) and Russell Wilson are the most advanced at this skill.
- Faster decision making: He needs to identify zone/man coverages faster so he can A) get the ball out more quickly and take fewer sacks, and B) give himself time to look off safeties, adjust is feet to the throwing path, and do other elite-QB things. Colin needs to get better at pre-snap identification of coverages and blitzes; the 49ers often take offensive timeouts when Colin is uncomfortable with the defense he sees, and it seems he just needs more experience reading things.
- Dropping back: Colin is a tall, lanky athlete with long legs. When he drops back, he often looks herky-jerky. This may be the by-product of coaching: I've heard many QBs say that college coaches told them to drop back as far as possible as fast as possible. In the NFL, route timings, throwing lanes, and receiver chemistry require more nuance. Smaller, smoother steps would allow Colin more wiggle room in the pocket, especially when trying to avoid edge rushers that are rushing to a predetermined depth.
The offensive line is noticeably weaker than the last two years. Prior to Mike Iupati's MCL sprain, none of them has really missed time, it just seems that they collectively have gotten a half-step slow. That showed in this game as well as the 49ers Week 11 loss to the Saints, in which the line could not consistently block to the second level and the run game was bottled as a result. The scheme and concepts are still solid: block inside out, run with numbers, but you have to start winning one-on-one battles like the one's Anthony Davis lost all afternoon against the Panthers
The receivers were abysmal. They really need Michael Crabtree - none of these guys are getting open by themselves. Defenses know that, and are committing extra guys to the run game, necessitating the use of Vernon Davis as a blocker instead of receiver.
The coaching staff needs to vary its scheme. I know the 49ers passing game is predicated on high yardage/attempt numbers and throwing downfield, but their receivers simply could not get open fast enough. They need to mix in more intermediate routes than the occasional Frank Gore dump-off. I know Frank is needed for pass protection, and losing Vernon Davis may have changed the equation, but where are the running back flares, the wheel routes, and other easy-to-complete passes of yesteryear? The coaches have to get more creative with where Colin throws from and to.
Ultimately, I still believe in Colin. I think he'll get a lot better with a quality NFL starter catching passes (in the Saints game, 49ers receivers not named Anquan Boldin caught 1 pass for 8 yards on 7 targets - let that stew for a moment) in Michael Crabtree. He plays with good fundamentals and his arm is something else. Once the game really slows down for him mentally, watch out.
#QBCorner #YMTC #YouMakeTheCalls