Which 49ers Quarterback Is Best Fit for Chip Kelly’s Offense? Part 1: Colin Kaepernick

This is the first part in a three-part series examining the San Francisco 49ers quarterbacks and which would be the best fit in head coach Chip Kelly’s spread offense. Let’s start off with Colin Kaepernick.

 

The 2015 football season was not kind to the 49ers, though most of it was self-induced and began in 2014 when rumors emerged of San Francisco possibly parting ways with then-head coach Jim Harbaugh. The rumor mill continued and reports emerged early on in the 2014 season that Harbaugh “had lost the locker room.”

The 49ers finished 8-8 and “mutually” parted ways with Harbaugh after the final game. The hiring of Jim Tomsula as head coach and the loss of linebackers Patrick Willis, Chris Borland and defensive lineman Justin Smith compounded the problems.

Early in the 2015 season, rumors surfaced that quarterback Colin Kaepernick was involved in a relationship with former linebacker Aldon Smith’s ex-girlfriend and that Kaepernick had also lost the locker room. This, combined with atrocious quarterback play through the first eight games led to the inevitable benching for Blaine Gabbert.

Kaeperick posted a 2-6 record, 59 percent completion percentage, six touchdown passes and five interceptions. Making the move to Gabbert seemed like the ideal move at this point to revive an anemic offense.

Or was it?

Gabbert posted a 3-5 record, 63 percent completion percentage, 10 touchdowns and seven interceptions. Statistically, it appears making Gabbert the starter was the right move, but he was only marginally better and it did not revive the offense in any significant way.

end of season7

Box scores only tell part of the story though. And while Gabbert appeared statistically only marginally better than Kaepernick, according to the Pro Football Focus statistics, which quarterback would be the best fit for Chip Kelly’s offense? How did San Francisco end up with a quarterback controversy on their hands?

First, what does Chip Kelly want in a quarterback? The standard narrative is that Chip’s offense is a gimmick, that it relies on a running a quarterback. Inevitably, this leads many fans to conclude that Kaepernick must be the perfect fit because he can run. But at a 2011 coach’s clinic he said the following:

“I look for a quarterback who can run and not a running back who can throw. I want a quarterback who can beat you with his arm. We are not a Tim Tebow type of quarterback team. I am not going to run my quarterback 20 times on power runs.”

Running for a quarterback is only an option when he’s exhausted all his options, or the defense forces him to keep the ball on the read option. Kelly explained that he merely needs a quarterback who, if the defense “forces” him to run, “can do it effectively.” What he essentially values more from his quarterback, if not being able to run, is being accurate with his throws and being able to make quick decisions.

As far as Kaeperick and Gabbert are concerned, neither were very accurate passers in 2015. Let’s get a couple of plays out of the way early. Both Kaepernick and Gabbert both have strong arms, with Kaepernick possessing, basically, a howitzer. Still, both showed they can sling it down the field and, not surprisingly, both touchdowns were caught by wide receiver Torrey Smith. In the first play, Kaepernick hits Smith from a clean pocket for a 76-yard touchdown down the right sideline.

Kap to Smith BAL Game

(GIF: NFL GameRewind)

In the second play, with the 49ers at the Bears in Week 13, Gabbert rumbled for a 44-yard touchdown late in the fourth quarter to tie the game. Both teams traded possessions before the 49ers took over their own 29-yard line. Gabbert, from a clean pocket, hit Smith on a play-action pass “smash” route (corner/flat) for a 71-yard touchdown pass to win the game.

Gabbert to Smith CHI

(GIF: NFL GameRewind)

Unfortunately, these plays were the exception from both quarterbacks. Not the rule. We’ll start with Kaepernick.

In week one against Minnesota in the Monday night game, it appeared that Kaepernick was making strides with improving his skill set. But several throws throughout the game proved it would be slow going for an improved Kaepernick.

Kap_Davis_Wk1

(GIF: NFL GameRewind)

From the red zone early in the first quarter, Kaepernick brought tight end Vernon Davis in motion to run a sail concept (streak-deep out-flat) with Davis on the deep out. Davis gets good positioning on Vikings safety Harrison Smith, but slight pressure from Kaepernick’s right side forces to make an off-balance throw while falling to his left without really setting his feet. This results in an underthrown ball and missed touchdown opportunity.

Kap_Patton_Wk1

(GIF: NFL GameRewind)

Early in the second quarter of the same game, we get an excellent example of the progress Kaepernick made last offseason to improve his fundamentals. He does everything right until the moment he throws the ball. He takes the snap, avoids pressure and moves up in the pocket while keeping his eyes downfield as opposed to looking to run. He finds wide receiver Quinton Patton in his progression settling into a void in the Vikings zone, but the ball sails past Patton toward closing defenders.

However, what little progress Kaepernick showed early on suffered a major setback. In Week 3 at Arizona, Kaepernick appeared to erase two decent games with two throws that went for pick-sixes early in the first quarter.

Kap back foot int

(Image: NFL GameRewind)

On the second throw, Kaepernick appears to forget everything he’s been taught as a quarterback. The above image shows him releasing the ball while hitting his back foot — less than ideal. This is a throw quarterbacks need to either risk sitting in the pocket or throw it away. Instead, at the first sign of the rush, he back-peddled and forced a throw on his back foot to Boldin on the right sideline instead of throwing it away.

Kap 2nd pick 6 ARI

 

(GIF: NFL GameRewind)

By Week 4, and then later against Seattle in Week 7, Kaepernick was a shell of his former self. He appeared to be a quarterback who lacked the confidence necessary to make even the most basic of plays.

Kap to Bush GB Wk4

(GIF: NFL GameRewind)

Kap to Davis SEA Wk7

(GIF: NFL GameRewind)

The wheels came off Week 8 at St. Louis. It became apparent that he wasn’t seeing the field the way you expect a quarterback to see it (though I’d argue that’s been a problem since 2012). In the first quarter, Kaepernick again misses Smith coming open on a quick-in. The linebacker appears to get into the throwing lane, but if he gives the protection another tenth of second, he can zip it past the linebacker.

Kap to Patton STL

(Image: NFL GameRewind)

Kap to Patton STL Wk8

(GIF: NFL GameRewind)

Kaepernick’s day’s as a starter came to end, though, when Kaepernick failed to see an uncovered Torrey Smith waving his arms violently before the snap. The Rams were in a two-high safety look with the corners ultimately cheating in to crowd the box.

Torrey waving Wk8 STL

(GIF: NFL GameRewind)

Enter Gabbert, why, because I can only assume the 49ers coaching staff and front office were delusional enough to believe that Gabbert could make them a contender in ways that Kaepernick could not. In part two, we’ll take a look at Gabbert’s starts and see what went wrong.

 

All statistics, records and accolades courtesy of Pro Football Reference unless otherwise indicated.