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.
Jim Harbaugh with a smaller portion of blame to offensive coordinator Greg Roman.
Why do the coaches get the blame?
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.