Here is a link to my Tuesday column explaining why Colin Kaepernick is not the main problem of the 49ers’ offense. The full column also appears below:

It is fashionable to dump on Colin Kaepernick. Last season, it was fashionable to praise him. Now, it’s Dump City.

We’ve heard the dumpage: Kaepernick is merely a one-read quarterback. If his first receiver doesn’t get open, Kaepernick panics and runs, or panics and throws a crummy pass. He does not see the entire field.

More Kap dumpage: He is a running quarterback who hardly runs anymore. He’s become timid or gun shy or maybe he just lacks imagination.

And this is the worst dumpage of all: Alex Smith could do better with the 49ers. Smith is undefeated with the Chiefs, and Kaepernick has lost three times and he’s looking at a potential fourth loss next weekend in the Big Easy.

There is some truth to the Alex Smith dumpage, but only in a limited sense.

The Alex Smith Truth: His decision-making skills are superior to Kaepernick’s. Smith reads the defense better pre-snap and sees the field better post-snap and certainly is better reading his progression of receivers. I guess that means Smith is pretty snappy.

But Kaepernick is the right quarterback for the 49ers and Alex Smith is not. Kaepernick took six sacks against the Panthers. Smith would have taken a thousand. Smith is Sack City. He is a deliberate quarterback and he hates to throw the ball unless the moment is perfect. Sometimes it’s perfect and he still doesn’t throw the ball.

So, don’t blame Kaepernick for the Niners’ crummy offense. Got that?

OK, who gets the blame?

The coaches, that’s who.

Which coaches?

Jim Harbaugh with a smaller portion of blame to offensive coordinator Greg Roman.

Why do the coaches get the blame?

Two reasons.

First reason: Kaepernick is a young player, a quarterback who’s still learning. The coaches are not teaching him right.

Second reason: The coaches install the offensive game plan, and the 49ers’ offensive game plan is the pits.

If you want to dump on anyone, dump on Harbaugh and Roman.

Harbaugh held his weekly news conference on Monday. I was not able to attend — personal reasons — so Grant Cohn asked two questions for me:

Q: The offense ran one screen — it was a pass to Kyle Williams in the second quarter on a third-and-20-something. Why not call screens more often in this game and in general?

HARBAUGH: That’s not a bad point. Point well taken.

Q: Colin Kaepernick bootlegged twice against the Panthers. Why not move the pocket more frequently, especially considering how fast he is?

HARBAUGH: That’s something that is always in our game plan. That’s another area we didn’t have a good result. You bring up a great point which frustrates everybody involved in the unit when you’re not in the rhythm picking up first downs and being able to get in deeper to your playbook — get into the screen, get into the movement game, keep things off balance. It’s frustrating to all.

Those are fascinating answers. Harbaugh ducked most questions in the news conference — I know because I watched on television. He would not criticize Kaepernick, refused to discuss Eric Mangini, stuff like that. But he embraced those tough questions, and that says something good about him. He answers tough questions when they are about football and to the point.

He admitted the Niners should use screen passes to take pressure off Kaepernick. And he admitted, without saying it, that some of those sacks were on the game plan, and not on the quarterback.

He also implied the offensive game plan was predictable, that the 49ers did not “keep things off balance.” And he regretted not being more clever on offense. It’s all right there in his words.

That leads us to the big question: Why are Harbaugh and Roman so stodgy? Why have they not developed an up-to-date passing game with multiple receiving threats out of the backfield and wide receivers and tight ends?

Why does it always boil down to Anquan Boldin and Vernon Davis? And please don’t say players are hurt. In the NFL players get hurt. Next man up.

Let’s approach the answer in a roundabout way. When Harbaugh took over the 49ers, we assumed he was returning to the West Coast Offense. He said he was returning to the West Coast Offense. And for a time he did return.

But he’s wandered, wandered right back to his football roots. His roots are not on the West Coast. He is Midwest with a shallow overlay of Palo Alto. His football roots are the University of Michigan and his coach, the legendary Bo Schembechler, who advocated power football, brawn over brains.

Of course, this is an over-simplification, a schematic. But it has validity.

After Kaepernick took over from Alex Smith, Harbaugh altered his offensive philosophy. With Smith, Harbaugh played “small ball,” and it worked. With Kaepernick, a better athlete than Smith, Harbaugh plays home-run ball — power runs right up the gut and long throws.

The offense is simpler now, but not effective. You almost never see screens or draw plays, or shallow crosses — two pass catchers crossing just past the line of scrimmage. You never see a back pretending to block, then jogging past the line unnoticed for a short pass which he often turns into a first down.


The imagination is gone.

Harbaugh does what he does with minimal adjustments.

“This is what we do. Stop us.” It’s become his creed. That kind of simple, hard-nosed football usually works until a team like Carolina, more hard-nosed, stops the Niners.

Harbaugh’s failure to adjust is startling. His quarterback is getting murdered, six sacks, and he sticks with a five-step drop or play action. Jim, make it easy on the kid. Help him. Throw a screen. Roll him out. This is Jimmy Raye stuff you are running. The failure is on you and the coaches.

Walsh always was adjusting, always tinkering, was always one step ahead. He refused to bang his head — or his players’ heads — against a wall. That’s why his game plans were beautiful.

I am not saying Harbaugh is a bad coach. I am not saying he’s a bad person. Nothing like that. I’m saying he has lost his way. He is living in California in 2013 and he’s not living in Ann Arbor in the 1980s. Jim, exit the past and haul your offense into the Modern Era.

For more on the world of sports in general and the Bay Area in particular, go to the Cohn Zohn at cohn.blogs.pressdemocrat.com. You can reach Staff Columnist Lowell Cohn at lowell.cohn@pressdemocrat.com.

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  1. Johnc

    Nice column. I watched the Saints-Dallas game yesterday and it was if Brees was playing catch with his receivers all night long. All the plays you mentioned were included in that effort. Brees knew the receiver would be open because the plays were well designed . The Saints had 40 first downs and rolled up about 700 yards of offense. Talent plus good coaching.

    November 11th, 2013 10:23 pm

  2. Neal

    Lowell, nice column, nice comparisons, lets see what happens on Sunday,if he takes any of this advise.

    November 11th, 2013 11:52 pm

  3. b4huxley

    Good article, I have wanted the niners to run screens for a long time.

    November 12th, 2013 2:16 am

  4. mendozaline

    The numbers do not confirm Smith as “Sack City”
    Harbough has coached 41 regular season games.
    Smith started 25 of them and was sacked 68 times or 2.7 sacks per game. Kaepernick started 16 games and was sacked
    37 times or 2.3 time a game. 1/2 sack more per game for Smith is not quite “Sack City.”

    November 12th, 2013 7:15 am

  5. Streetglide

    One poster over at shrubs blog noted that Roman was a high school coach something like five years ago. Is that true? And if so, what the hell is he doing in the Niner’s coach box? He’s a terrible game planner. The OL is certainly not as advertised but Colin doesn’t help matters.

    Colin’s body language tells me he doesn’t like taking hits in the NFL. As I’ve said before, he’s become a pretty-boy snot-nosed jerk. I hate how he acts at pressers.

    Even if he was winning, I dislike the dude’s me-first attitude. Worry less about how your beard looks or whether your headphones match your hat and stand up like a man in the pocket instead of folding like an effeminate school boy which is what you most definitely look like.

    They need to bundle up some picks and go after a decent QB next draft.

    November 12th, 2013 7:20 am

  6. Dennis

    I think you pretty much nailed it.

    November 12th, 2013 7:38 am

  7. jefe

    Mendozaline – your screen name is somewhat ironic considering Alex Smith hovers on the precipice of quarterback incompetence. Any worse, and he’d be out of the league…much like…Mendoza. :) Cheers, everyone!

    November 12th, 2013 8:04 am

  8. NeverWrong

    @Streetglide They’ll give K a couple more years then go after Goff, if he can still walk. Here’s hoping the Golden Bears get some blockers, and some receivers who realize a ball in the air is anyone’s for grabs, even if they’ve run their pass patterns perfectly.

    To “an effeminate schoolboy” I’d add “whose helicopter dad is on the phone to the head coach every day.”

    K’s arm and running speed are great, but he probably was too much the apple of everyone’s eye to figure out things on his own. But there’s still time. Harbaugh actually is a great coach and if anyone can turn a player around for the better, it’s he.

    November 12th, 2013 8:05 am

  9. dharte

    What is this obsession with Roman? And do you really think that Jim Harbaugh, former NFL QB, a two-time Pro-Bowler, would allow a trend in play calling he didn’t approve, didn’t vet during the week as his team prepares? This guy is the very definition of a control freak.

    More to the point, it’s fascinating to hear you and a number of other sports writers dodge the obvious about Kaepernick: he doesn’t see the field well. That is a major problem in a league with such speed on defense. He also cannot “throw a receiver open,” but waits for the player to break free and then tries to power the ball in at that point; it’s clearly not working. Kaepernick, more than halfway through the season, has only two games with 200 yards passing. Two. In the NFL, elite quarterbacks consider that sort of production a pretty good half.

    Far more troubling is Kaepernick’s inability to look off receivers or move through progressions, something Andrew Luck could do at Stanford and Russell Wilson does well now. The best comparison to Kaepernick is Cam Newton, and that’s not a compliment.

    And one last thing: why, in his third year–after starting for four years in college, remember–does Kaepernick still struggle so badly to get his team simply lined up before the play clock runs out? This inability to organize his offense quickly cost the 49ers last year’s Super Bowl on the 5 yard line (Roman, by the way, had the correct call for the Ravens defense, a point that’s been made several times in the national media). Yet this season, after an entire off-season to work on the weakness, Kaepernick continues to struggle with the most basic aspects of his position.

    So blame the assistant coaches if you want, but you’re whistling in the dark…and 2 1/2 games behind Seattle in November means it’s just about pitch black out there. New Orleans next (as you know, it can get VERY dark in voodoo central).

    The kid better throw for more than 200 yards to keep up with Drew Brees. Somewhere in the flatlands, Alex Smith’s wife is laughing.

    November 12th, 2013 8:11 am

  10. mbabco

    Another possibility: the 49er players are just not executing. If that’s the case, the best coaches in the world couldn’t succeed with them.

    November 12th, 2013 9:03 am

  11. Phil

    Another thing they should do is script the first 10 plays like Walsh used to do. No Audibles…just move it down the field.

    November 12th, 2013 9:23 am

  12. Phil

    The other problem I see is that the 49ers receivers are never open in space. Even bad teams like the Vikings get their receivers open in space.

    November 12th, 2013 9:25 am

  13. Stan

    One play the announcer pointed out (on taped replay) that Bolden was wide open 20 yards down field, Kap was rolling to that side…and never threw him the ball. That’s on Kap. Now,the guy who filled in for VD dropped an easy TD short pass himself..another game killer.
    Lets just say tendency’s of the Harbaugh regime are now coming in. And losing to the good teams and coaches is getting one sided. He’s not going to get his rookie Singletary made schedule again. Unless the 49ers fall apart.

    November 12th, 2013 9:35 am

  14. Blahblah

    Smith would not have taken tons of sacks in that game. He would have dumped the ball off more often and more quickly than Kaepernick because Kaepernick looks for the long ball more than Smith does. In that game it would have been a benefit to have the QB look for the dump offs more quickly.

    November 12th, 2013 10:00 am

  15. SixAceDeuce


    How can you play a vertical passing game with possession WRs? Boldin, manningham and, formerly, Kyle Williams aren’t going to beat many CBs downfield with their speed.. it just leaves Kap holding the ball waiting for somebody to get open, and it never happens.

    The Niners won last season playing small ball, aka Alex ball, throwing shorter passes and power running. Eventually the defense will have to bring the coverage down and stop it.. which leaves the deep shots to Davis, Vmac and whoever.

    Kap played like a HOFer last season with the small ball offense, we simply don’t have the players to run a vertical offense on the outside. Get back to what works.. dink-n-dunk passing and then go downfield with the playaction off the power running.

    I hope somebody shows this article to Harbaugh and Company, if they read it.. perhaps they wake up and fix things. Small ball almost won us a Super Bowl last season, going back to it could do it again!

    November 12th, 2013 11:23 am

  16. Steve the cat rescuer

    There’s no question that there is a strategic issue with the game plans, but to absolve Kaepernick of blame is turning a blind eye to a must have intangible for success. His physical talents are obvious, but what I see – or better put, don’t see – in Kaepernick is any semblance of the leadership qualities exhibited by the good to best quarterbacks, such as P. Manning, Marino, Fouts, Brady, Wilson, Luck and yes, Alex Smith. Today I read that Kaepernick is keeping all the negative tweets he receives as “motivation”. I know we live in a different world than I grew up in, but what kind of nonsense is that? Can you imagine any of the aforementioned QBs worrying about his Twitter image? Can you imagine Bill Walsh putting up with a QB who is more concerned about his image than learning the game plan and the subtle nuances of playing QB? streetglide has is right: give the edge to Kap for raw talent, but Alex Smith is a much smarter football player and someone the rest of his current and former team views as one of its leaders. I see no evidence that Kap possesses the ability to mature into a leader, which doesn’t bode well for his upside as a football player or the next few years of his team.

    November 12th, 2013 11:24 am

  17. Kommon Senze

    I think it’s quite equally easy to dump on the coach or offensive coordinator, to be honest. The game plan may not have been that dynamic, but that Panther defense was for real, and the limited weapons (limited more by Davis’ departure) probably led to some more conservative play calling.

    I also think the whole notion that the blame has to land at one spot is a bit short-sighted, too. There was plenty of ‘blame,’ if you want to call it that, to go around. Kaepernick was hardly free of fault. What I saw with him was poor footwork throughout that game. The offensive line was missing some blitz pickups that didn’t help, but his drops were not fluid, and he was not setting his feet on his throws, which is what often leads to the poor accuracy (and, be fair, Kaepernick was not accurate on a lot of throws, and not all of it was because of the pressure_.

    The game was a stinker, but I think a couple more accurate passes, for example, could have changed the outcome. Seattle has ground out some ugly games by just making a few more plays. That was the difference in this game. Execution.

    November 12th, 2013 11:55 am

  18. htwaits

    Lowell, great analysis. If Harbaugh is as good as I think he is, then he’s done some similar analysis.

    Streetglide you need to look deeper into your fact bank. Greg Roman has thirteen and a half years of NFL coaching experience, two years in top level college coaching, and one year (2008) off when he helped out with his local high school team.

    George Seifert was fired from an Ivy league coaching job before that dummy Walsh hired him.

    November 12th, 2013 12:11 pm

  19. Steve the cat rescuer

    I thought back to some of the pressers with Joe Montana after a loss. Today’s media scrutiny is far more intense, but I’m sure many will recall how the greatest QB of all time handled himself – with grace and dignity. Fast forward to what Alex Smith endured and watch some of his pressers on YouTube. Compare that to Kaepernick – surly, scowling, clipped answers, hip-hop headphones around his neck. His sideline behavior is similar – yucking it up when they’re winning, but off in a corner sulking when they’re not. He even had an animated confrontation with Boldin on Sunday. Ahead or behind, I see Wilson and Luck immediately reviewing game photos and consulting with coaches as soon as the offense leaves the field with little change in their demeanor. I don’t watch every minute of every game, but I can’t recall ever seeing Kaep doing that.

    November 12th, 2013 12:44 pm

  20. Streetglide

    H-T, don’t think you can compare Seifert in any way to Roman. To do so is to insult one of the Niners better head coaches…

    November 12th, 2013 1:36 pm

  21. Streetglide

    And I don’t want to be a whiner, but this doesn’t look like the resume of a top-flight OC:

    1995-2001 Carolina Panthers
    (offensive line assistant)
    2002–2005 Houston Texans
    (tight ends/quarterbacks coach)
    2006–2007Baltimore Ravens
    (offensive line assistant)
    2008Holy Spirit High School
    (offensive coordinator)
    2009–2010(offensive coordinator)
    2011 – presentSan Francisco 49ers
    (offensive coordinator)

    November 12th, 2013 1:41 pm

  22. Streetglide

    Roman as Houston Tight ends/QB coach — his only pro job of any note:

    2002 = 4-12
    2003 = 5-11
    2004 = 7-9
    2005 = 2-14

    Basically he was terrible as a QB coach. I’m sure the 2-14 got him out of that position…

    November 12th, 2013 1:45 pm

  23. Streetglide

    The first year he was back as a junior OL coach the Ravens went 13-3 and lost to the Colts in the playoffs. His second year there they were 5-11. See a pattern here?

    November 12th, 2013 1:48 pm

  24. Stan

    And don’t insult Bolden. I’ve seen him open. The ball never got there. You think a Tom Brady right now would kill for a Bolden?
    Brady made a star out of the slow guy for years. Remember Welker?

    November 12th, 2013 3:47 pm

  25. htwaits


    “H-T, don’t think you can compare Seifert in any way to Roman. To do so is to insult one of the Niners better head coaches…”

    I didn’t. The point was that bringing up the fact that Roman helped out his local high school during the year he wasn’t coaching full time showed a lack of understanding.

    By the way, after Roman accepted Harbaugh’s offer to come to Stanford with him, Roman was offered a NFL coaching job. He kept his word and went to Stanford.

    George Seifert is my favorite 49er personality, and I don’t think he ever got proper credit for the work he did as the 49er head coach. I started following the 49ers in 1946, so I’ve been exposed to all of them.

    November 12th, 2013 3:54 pm

  26. htwaits

    To the Web Master for this blog:

    “Comments are moderated and generally will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive.”

    Does using the word “generally” imply that some posts that are “on-topic and not abusive” will not be posted?

    “For more information, please see our Comments FAQ.”

    At the moment the above text indicates that it’s a link to the Comments FAQ, but the link is not active.

    November 12th, 2013 6:31 pm

  27. Streetglide

    Wow HT, you are seriously older than dirt! ;- ) Said with respect — I was born in 1945…

    November 12th, 2013 6:34 pm

  28. lhatten

    I think that a lot of the comments about Alex Smith are way off base, including the Cohn’s sack city. But the one that takes the cake is Jefe. His quote “Alex Smith hovers on the precipice of quarterback incompetence. Any worse, and he’d be out of the league” is beyond belief. First, and I will say this slowly because obviously Jefe is slow: The … Kansas City Chiefs… are… undefeated… with… Alex Smith… as QB this year!! Can you say the some for the 49ers?
    Also Mr. Cohn, although Smith has been sacked more this year than Kapernick, his percentage of sacks per attempt is smaller (7.6 as opposed to 8.7 for Kapernick). This is probably because as Blahblah says, Smith will dump off more that Kapernick.
    If the 49ers play the Chiefs in a play off game this year (unlikely as Seattle will probably do them in), I will root for KC..

    November 12th, 2013 7:15 pm

  29. mendozaline

    “Mendozaline – your screen name is somewhat ironic…”

    jefe..Thanks for noticing.

    November 12th, 2013 7:58 pm

  30. htwaits


    Wow HT, you are seriously older than dirt! ;- ) Said with respect — I was born in 1945…

    You may be surprised how fast 12 years go by.

    November 12th, 2013 11:45 pm

  31. Streetglide

    Ihatten speaketh the truth…

    November 13th, 2013 6:54 am

  32. Streetglide

    HT I’m surprised how fast 68 years have gone by…

    November 13th, 2013 9:36 am

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