When the question of Colin Kaepernick and the read option came up in a long conversation this week, a scout for one of the San Francisco 49ers’ NFC West Division rivals sounded warning:
Expect to see a more dangerous Kaepernick now that the Lombardi Trophy is on the line. In other words, expect 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh to turn Kaepernick loose in the read option after limiting his carries in the regular season to protect his quarterback’s health.
“I’d put some money on that one,” the scout said. “Definitely. When the chips are down and you have to win, you’ll go ahead (and run read option). It’s there, it’s a real thing, it’s not make-believe. But the quarterback is at risk.”
No doubt Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers and his assistants anticipate the same, and that must have been a daunting thought as they worked on a game plan to slow the quarterback who twice in the last calendar year has scorched them to a nearly unprecedented degree.
The images surely are burned in the Packers players’ and coaches’ minds: Kaepernick galloping on scrambles and read-option runs for an NFL rushing record by a quarterback (181 yards) and leading an offense that put up 579 yards and 45 points in the 49ers’ blowout win in the divisional round of the playoffs last January; then, in the regular-season opener in early September, with the read option as a decoy, Kaepernick standing tall and mostly unthreatened in the pocket against a passive, lane-oriented pass rush, throwing darts for a career-high 412 passing yards in the 49ers’ 34-28 win.
Those two games and a No. 25 ranking in yards allowed provide plenty of evidence to question whether the Packers have the stuff to slow Kaepernick, this time at Lambeau Field in what forecasts predict will be among the coldest games in NFL history.
What should Capers do after two very different game plans failed almost equally? Does he have the weapons, especially with his best player, outside linebacker Clay Matthews, out because of a broken thumb? Or does a similar fate await the Packers for a third straight meeting no matter what Capers does?
This week, I called five NFL scouts to discuss Kaepernick, including three who have studied him especially closely because they work for rival NFC West Division teams. They offered varying evaluations on the 26-year-old quarterback who at 6-feet-4 and 230 pounds is one of the most impressive athletes in the NFL.
Two of them ranked Kaepernick among the top 10 quarterbacks in the league, argued that any struggles were primarily because he was short of weapons for much of the season and predicted he’ll perform better in the playoffs because he’ll run more read option. Another sees a talented athlete who’s just beginning to become an NFL passer. And two others emphasized Kaepernick’s shortcomings that came to fore when he struggled to consistently put up points in the two months after shredding the Packers in the opener.
The truth is, for much of the 2013 season, Kaepernick hasn’t looked much like the phenom who last year took his team to the brink of a Super Bowl win and in three playoff games had a passer rating of 100.9, averaged 10.6 yards on 25 rushes and led an offense that averaged 34.6 points.
After scorching the Packers in the opener, Kaepernick looked every bit what he was: a young quarterback in his first full season as a starter. In the nine games after the opener, he had a poor passer rating (73.0) and threw only one more touchdown pass (eight) than interceptions (seven) for a team that had a winning record (6-4) mainly because of its defense.
In the final six games, Kaepernick played better (106.5 rating) if still unevenly, and the 49ers didn’t lose.
“What was going on with him was Colt McCoy was the backup quarterback,” said one of the scouts from the NFC West. “They can’t afford for him to get hurt. Last year they had Alex Smith (as a backup), so if Kaepernick runs (read option) and gets hurt, ‘We’ve got Alex Smith.’
“They’re afraid that if Kaepernick gets hurt, their season is done. It’s all about keeping it close, winning at the end with a good running game and a strong defense. That’s what they did most of the year. The last two or three games, you saw Kaepernick start heating up on that run.”
Count that scout in the group that thinks Kaepernick will be better in the playoffs because he’ll be running more read option.
Still, other scouts saw in Kaepernick’s play this season weaknesses a defense can exploit, even if the Packers failed to in the first two meetings.
Most notably, Kaepernick threw four interceptions, no touchdown passes and put up only 10 points combined in back-to-back losses to Seattle and Indianapolis in September. In November, Carolina held him to nine points and a 42.0 rating, and a week later New Orleans allowed Kaepernick only 127 passing yards in a 23-20 win over the 49ers.
Granted, all four of those defenses rank in the top nine in the NFL for fewest points allowed, whereas the Packers are tied for No. 24. Still, it’s more than enough proof that defenses can pressure Kaepernick into bad decisions if they also don’t let him convert third downs scrambling.
One of the scouts said the best way to defend Kaepernick is to send at least one extra rusher and play mostly zone in coverage.
“He can see guys open when you play man-to-man,” one NFC West scout said, “whereas the zones have a tendency to slow him down a little bit. He’s not quite sure.”
Kaepernick is a gazelle of an athlete, has first-rate arm strength and is extremely bright (37 on the Wonderlic), but three of the scouts to one degree or another questioned his vision and ability to make quick decisions.
“I just feel like (Kaepernick) is a first-read and run guy,” another scout said. “Did him good for a while, particularly with how he played at the end of last year. Then he hit that slump because I don’t think he sees the field real well. That’s my opinion. (If) the guy’s open, he’s going to throw it in there good, but if he has to go to No. 2 or No. 3 or No. 4, scan the field, I don’t think he’s that guy.
“Guys have been successful playing that way. Jeff Garcia was exactly the same guy. He couldn’t see anything, either. He’d throw it to (Terrell) Owens or run it. He could run like hell. Jake Plummer was that. Jake couldn’t see the field, either, but he could throw the hell out of the ball.”
On the other hand, Kaepernick has had an edge late in the season that he lacked most of the year with the return five weeks ago of receiver Michael Crabtree from a torn Achilles tendon sustained in May.
Crabtree last season led the 49ers in receptions with 85, and along with 33-year-old Anquan Boldin (6-1, 220) provides Kaepernick with two physical receivers who can make tough catches in traffic. The 49ers then stretch the field with their tight end, Vernon Davis, who’s their fastest receiver.
“Crabtree was a big missing piece for them,” said a scout from the NFC West. “With him and Anquan, that’s a great tandem. Are (the 49ers) as good (as last year)? I’d say yes. They might even be a little better. I think (Kaepernick) has had a year to develop, but again, the league has, not caught up with him, but figured out ways to combat him.”
Another of the scouts from an NFC West rival said the key to dealing with Kaepernick is defending halfback Frank Gore, who finished ninth in the NFL in rushing (1,128 yards) and averaged 4.1 yards a carry.
“Gore, he’s the guy that makes that whole thing go,” the scout said. “If he’s running the ball, you better look out because they’ve got everything going. If you’re stopping his (expletive), they’re starting to panic a little bit.”
Capers can watch a season’s worth of game video to get a sense for what’s worked best against Kaepernick, but the Packers’ defensive coordinator will be badly short-handed without Matthews. The outside linebacker is the Packers’ best pass rusher and preferred choice to spy when Capers wants a defensive player to mirror Kaepernick and cut off scramble lanes.
The Packers at least should be better prepared for the read option than last year in the playoffs. Capers spent extensive time in the offseason and training camp preparing for the read option, and even if Harbaugh used that run scheme only as a decoy in the opener, the two times Kaepernick kept the ball, the Packers dropped him for losses totaling 10 yards.
Harbaugh has tried to complicate the read option this year by adding motions and counter runs, but the concept is the same.
“Now they’re bringing guys in the backfield and running the crunch with it, where the back goes across the formation and the fullback,” one scout said. “Gives you all sorts of different options.”
Still, in the end, the question is whether the Packers’ defense is athletic enough to deal with the dual threat Kaepernick presents.
Matthews is irreplaceable. On the other hand, the Packers will have their best safety, Morgan Burnett, who didn’t play in Week 1. Also, fifth-round pick Josh Boyd has added some athleticism playing regularly on the defensive line late in the season. And maybe Capers will expand the role of defensive lineman Datone Jones, the first-round pick selected so the Packers could better deal with the Kaepernicks of the world. For most of the season, Capers has used Jones strictly as an inside pass rusher in the dime package, which usually has meant only a handful of snaps per game.
The brutally cold conditions forecast for Sunday could be a factor, too, though whether that breaks in Kaepernick’s favor or the Packers’ depends on how the athletic young quarterback adapts to the deep freeze.
Regardless, somehow, some way, the Packers will have to solve Kaepernick, or they’ll be looking at the bleak prospect of trying to win a shootout against the NFL’s third-ranked scoring defense.
“I know this,” said one of the NFC West scouts. “If you don’t let (Kaepernick) run around and you can affect the rhythm of his throwing, he really struggles. He’s not Aaron Rodgers where you hold your breath every time he throws the ball because he’s just that accurate, he’s not that guy. But what he is, he’s a guy that can change the game by moving his feet around. And if you get too cautious about looking at him, he can push the ball down the field on you.”
— firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @PeteDougherty.