Colin Kaepernick would be the first one to admit that he had his struggles at the helm of the San Francisco 49ers offense in 2014. Following the signing of a handsome contract in the offseason, the pressure on Kaepernick to step up and provide just a little bit more, especially in terms of production and leadership, has been immense.
At the conclusion of the 2014 season, Kaepernick managed to have about the same average yards per passing attempt as Alex Smith and also finished the season trailing arch-rival Russell Wilson in yardage, touchdowns, interceptions and completion percentage. It was not a signature season for the University of Nevada Reno grad who stands as the only quarterback in NCAA history to throw for over 10,000 yards and run for over 4,000 yards. Despite his obvious capabilities, Kaepernick has, for the most part, failed to provide the 49ers with the consistent leadership and threat in the passing game that the team was expecting when the club favored him over Alex Smith.
There are reasons for Kaepernick's bad year, but these 10 reasons seem to stand out as contributing factors for his uninspiring year. Partly due to Kaepernick's struggles, the 49ers went from being a 12-win team in 2013, that went to the NFC Championship game, to the 8-8 team that didn't even really sniff the playoffs in 2014.
10 Injuries on Defense
The 49ers suffered significant injuries on defense in 2014. They lost All-Pro linebacker Navarro Bowman for the whole season, fellow All-Pro linebacker Patrick Willis for a good portion of it, and 2012 All-Pr0 Aldon Smith for most of the season that mattered. Even the secondary was dinged up and Glenn Dorsey was a big loss for the defensive line. These losses on defense certainly added to the pressure that Colin Kaepernick had to face in order to keep the offense on the field, extend drives and try to give the depleted defense some much needed rest.
In the end, the San Franciso 49ers defense didn't struggle as much as many people thought it would, ranking near the top of the league (5th) in yards allowed per game. Despite losing arguably three of its best players for significant periods of time (Navarro Bowman, Aldon Smith and Patrick Willis), the 49ers defense did its best to get good productivity from back ups while keeping big plays in check. The big difference in 2014, is that the 49ers defense allowed 340 points while only allowing 272 points in the previous season.
9 Big New Contract, Bigger Expectations
The new contract Kaepernick recently signed makes him one of the higher paid players in the league. That might have put extra pressure on him to contribute even more this season. A big thing he had to learn was how much more demanding it is to be thrust into the position of being "the man" on a team that has its share of stars on the current roster and tradition of having some exceptional players play for the 49ers at his position. Even in the public eye, Kaepernick seemed to have trouble shouldering the responsibility that comes with being the highest paid player and leader of the team.
In the offseason, Kaepernick signed a reported six-year, $114 million contract that will pay him an average of $19 million per year. Trying to keep up with the Joe Flaccos and Matt Ryans of the league, Kaepernick's inaugural season of being recognized as one of the NFL's elite probably failed to live up to even the most modest of expectations. The potential to lose both Frank Gore and Michael Crabtree exists for next season, so there could be even more pressure on Kaepernick be even more of a focal point of the 49ers offense, unless the 49ers somehow strike it rich in the 2015 NFL draft.
8 Michael Crabtree's Lack of Development
In a contract year, Michael Crabtree did little to improve his financial situation. With Anquan Boldin assuming more of his role as the go to guy in third down situations and possession receiver extraordinaire, Crabtree has struggled. He has the size and enough speed to help stretch opposing defenses, but he has struggled with health issues and being able to be more of a meaningful threat further down the field.
Crabtree's lack of development has made it easy on defenses who have been able to contain him with man coverage. After catching 15 passes of over 20 yards, getting 57 first downs and scoring 9 touchdowns in 2012, Crabtree has failed to exceed those totals in his last two seasons combined (21 games) of play. Given the extra attention on tight end Vernon Davis, the 49ers and Kaepernick were counting on bigger things from Crabtree, especially given that it was a contract year.
7 Struggles with Accuracy
Before he even made an appearance in an NFL game, there were many teams who were well aware of Colin Kaepernick's lively arm. Keapernick can throw darts with the best in the league and can throw the ball in tight windows as well, but consistency with accuracy has been elusive at best. Struggles with throwing the fade pattern or issues with being able to effectively drop balls over linebackers in zone coverage still seem to limit Kaepernick's growth and effectiveness at the NFL level. It also would help if Kaepernick can stop thinking his arm can overcome any mistakes from being late on balls thrown into tight coverage.
Long ago, a strong-armed quarterback named Warren Moon came into the league with similar issues. It took Moon until his sixth NFL season to complete over 60% of his passes in a season and he even threw more interceptions than touchdowns for his first three years in the league. If Kaepernick can ease off a little on the velocity and flat trajectory he throws with as welll as concentrate on making quicker reads, his accuracy can surely improve. He needs to learn that getting the ball to his receivers earlier will lead to a higher completion percentage and more yards after the catch, which will both can make his job easier.
6 Misuse of Vernon Davis
To say that there was a lack of chemistry between Colin Kaepernick and Vernon Davis might be the understatement of the year. The dynamic 49ers tight end who went to the Pro Bowl in 2013, was all but nonexistent in 2014. The fact that there really wasn't a single wide receiver on the roster who could present a bigger threat with his speed probably led to more double coverage and game plans dedicated towards making sure he was not going to be the one receiver on the 49ers left to roam free.
The decline in his productivity was definitely extreme. Davis caught 52 passes for 850 yards in 2013, but followed that up with only 26 receptions for 245 yards in 2014. A lethal downfield threat, Davis averaged 16.9 yards per catch with 13 touchdowns in 2013 and only 9.4 yards per catch with 2 touchdowns in 2014. Considering this decline in production amounted to over 600 yards and 11 touchdowns for the season, the inability to get Davis the ball in open space looked to be a pretty big factor in the four-win swing the 49ers experienced and struggles Kaepernick experienced in 2014.
5 Greg Roman
The San Francisco 49ers offensive coordinator didn't seem to have his best season. After being thankful about managing to hold onto Roman as a coordinator during the offseason, many in the 49ers community now seem to consider him to be a contributing factor in Kaepernick's lack of development. On too many occasions this season, defenders seemed to jump routes in the passing game while defenses always seemed to have eight in the box every time the 49ers ran the ball. Even blitzes seemed to be well-timed, or not.
Under closer observation, the 49ers offense actually improved by four spots in the league rankings by coming in as the NFL's 20th ranked offense in the league during 2014. The output, however, fails to eclipse the near 5,800 yards the 49ers gained in 2012, ranking 11th in the league. Many of the same weapons are still there and Frank Gore still managed to grind out over 1,100 yards on the ground, but the 49ers' scoring average even dropped from 24.8 points per game in 2012 to 19.1 points per game in 2014. The team's offensive woes can't all be blamed on Colin Kaepernick.
4 The Banged Up Offensive Line
The 49ers struggled with injuries on the offensive line this season, not to mention the brief stint of time they went without Alex Boone at the start of the season. Anthony Davis, David Kilgore and Marcus Martin lost significant time due to injuries and All-Pro Guard Mike Iupati even had issues with a concussion. The group never seemed to be in sync whether in the running game or during a key third down pass. Jonathan Martin seemed to get beat like a drum on the outside while holes for the running game seemed to become extinct between the two tackles.
Anthony Davis signed a nice five-year contract and only managed to appear in only seven games during 2014. For teammate David Kilgore, '7' was also the unlucky number as he struggled to appear in only seven games himself. This shuffling on the offensive front did very little to buy Kaepernick more time on an offense that tried to feature him as more of a pocket passer. Although he held the ball too long on numerous occasions, Kaepernick did get enough consistent pressure to be sacked 52 times in 2014. His 100 rushing attempts might have been inflated due to the fact that he had to run for his life more than legitimately add yardage to the 49ers rushing attack.
3 He Struggled with Locking In On Receivers
Kaepernick seemed to struggle while going through his progressions on passing plays in 2014. Maybe it was due to the fact that his primary targets seemed to be more open in previous campaigns but Kaepernick held onto balls longer, was late on several throws, and seemed to force the ball into tighter windows this past season. As mentioned, pass protection was not as stout as in previous seasons and this might have contributed to him thinking he didn't have ample time to go through his progressions and locked onto his primary targets too frequently in the process. That still doesn't absolve him from not doing what his predecessor Alex Smith was good at; checking down.
Kaepernick was sacked 52 times in 2014, which contrasts sharply with the 16 sacks he experienced playing in only 13 games in 2012. Kaepernick has also struggled to complete over 60% of his passes, just managing to top it with 60.5% this year. If he could get through his progressions faster, his completion percentage would go up along with his confidence and passing yardage as well.
2 Why Take Away the Pistol and Read Option?
While the league watches RG3 struggle with his overall performance in addition to his ability to stay in games, offenses have in turn all but eliminated the pistol and read option. The read option seemed to make the 49ers running game more dynamic while keeping linebackers and safeties more honest. This led to more open space over the middle for the receivers in the passing game. Kaepernick still manages to run and knows how to slide and get out of bounds, so the 49ers should not abandon running the read option or pistol with the relatively safe 230 pound athlete.
The 49ers rushing attack had 37 runs of over 20 yards in 2012 and 2013, but only 14 runs of this length in 2014. The offensive line had its struggles, but the offense seemed to be more predictable in running sets and Frank Gore struggled to find daylight. The 49ers didn't have a receiver with enough speed to stretch opposing defenses and the running game seemed to always face a crowded box.
1 The 49ers Offense Lacked a Deep Threat
San Francisco brought in newcomers Stevie Johnson and Brandon Lloyd, but still didn't address one of the major problems with the receiving corps. There is no legitimate deep threat who can stretch the defense and draw safety help to open things up in the middle of the field. Missing this key element in the passing game allows both safeties to feel like they can take more chances on balls thrown in the middle of the field.
Kaepernick had 10 interceptions in 2014 and has seen his average yardage per passing attempt fall from 8.32 in 2012, when he took over for Alex Smith, to 7.05 in 2014. Pass plays of over 40 yards went down from 10 in 2013 to just 5 this season. Kaepernick has certainly not lost any arm strength and his darts still need more touch at times, but he is not to blame for the 49ers lack of getting big plays down the field in the passing game. Even an older Randy Moss gave defenders more to respect than they currently have at the position. The front office failed to address these needs and it did little to help Kaepernick have a better season.