As we count down to the NFL season, Sports Jerks will be bringing you 32 questions in 32 days. Each day, we’ll feature one of the most important questions for a different NFL team heading into the opening weekend of the league.
Today’s feature team and question?
The San Francisco 49ers – Will Colin Kaepernick survive ‘sophomore’ slump?
If our first question was about the Baltimore Ravens, it’s only fitting this one covers the team that joined them in the Super Bowl – the San Francisco 49ers. After a nearly 20-year hiatus in the sport’s biggest game, the 49ers nearly went all the way in 2012, narrowly losing the championship game, 34-31 to the Ravens. San Francisco had plenty of key players that helped along the way, but perhaps none made as big of an impact as quarterback Colin Kaepernick.
Kaepernick had an amazing year under center, but it almost didn’t happen. The young quarterback was on the bench behind starter Alex Smith through the first eight games of the season. Smith was solid, but unspectacular during that time, throwing for a little over 1,600 yards with 12 touchdowns against 5 interceptions. He suffered a concussion midway through the season and after a brief quarterback controversy, was subsequently benched for the younger more dynamic Kaepernick.
To be fair, Smith was having a decent season for San Francisco. He rarely had big passing games, but was among the league’s leaders in passer rating and completion percentage at the time of the injury. Kaepernick, though, added another dimension with his running.
Despite playing only about half a season, Kaepernick had four regular season games rushing for at least 50 yards. He had a season-high in St. Louis in an overtime loss to the Rams when he scrambled nine times for 84 yards, but that was only the beginning. The quarterback saved his best performance for the first game of the playoffs running all over an exhausted (and quite frankly, confused) Green Bay Packers defense to the tune of a record 181 yards on 16 carries for two touchdowns. Never mind the fact that he added 263 yards in the air with two more touchdowns – Kaepernick’s legend was officially born that day and it was largely due to what he accomplished on the ground.
The big question for San Francisco fans is if he can avoid the widely-discussed sophomore slump.
First things first, Kaepernick isn’t actually a sophomore since he’s entering his third season in 2013. However, with only five attempts and on mop-up duty in 2011, for all intents and purposes, this is his second full year of playing time.
For my money, Kaepernick will avoid a downward spiral this year because he’s a dual threat. If you take away one aspect of his game, he can beat you with the other. Opposing teams will surely keep defenders at home a bit more to avoid costly runs by the quarterback, but that will only go so far – particularly because he’s a quality passer as well. Kaepernick’s completion percentage of 62% was significantly lower than that of Smith, but one thing he adds that Smith didn’t was a legitimate deep ball threat. In the nine games Smith played a considerable amount of time, his longest completion in the game only topped 30 yards on three occasions. Kaepernick, on the other hand, accomplished that feat in ten of his twelve contests when he made more than a cameo appearance, including the playoffs.
Another reason I like his chances to succeed is because of the offensive talent around him. Wide receiver Michael Crabtree is still recovering, but the 49ers invested in Anquan Boldin in the offseason. The team also has tight end/wide receiver Vernon Davis, 1,200-yard rusher Frank Gore, and a stout offensive line. In short, Kaepernick has plenty of weapons at his disposal.
You can count the defense among the reasons Kaepernick will succeed, too. The 49ers had one of the top defenses in the league last season, ranking in the top five in rushing yards allowed and passing yards allowed. That unit will ensure that Kaepernick doesn’t need to worry about doing too much. As Alex Smith proved, even modest success at quarterback will result in a win more often than not. Knowing he doesn’t have to go out and dominate games week after week will definitely help as he tries to navigate his way through the season.
Add it all up and it’s difficult seeing Kaepernick taking a dramatic step back in 2013.
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