Young QB Roulette: So Maddening, Fleeting
So, at least for another week, the Colin Kaepernick tattoo montage remains relevant in Young America. He came, he saw, he conquered, and I’m not talking about an opponent as lame as the St. Louis Rams’ defense. No, he stared down the most menacing, intimidating enemy in anybody’s life — his Twitter feed — and shut up the cowardly freaks who were disparaging him.
Why he or anyone else would read that garbage, I can’t explain. The Internet has given semi-lives to people with no lives, and after Kaepernick’s second successive poor performance last Sunday, he was digitally mutilated on his account by angry 49ers fans. Rather than ignore it, he decided to “favorite” many of the hateful tweets, which not only dignified the riff-raff but seemed counterproductive to refocusing quickly for a mid-week game on the road. Why would he bother responding?
“It’s something that I do for me,” he told the media.
Does it motivate him?
“I guess you could say that,” he said.
Maybe he didn’t return Thursday night as the most breathtaking dual-threat quarterback in the sport, as I called him 2 1/2 weeks ago. Maybe he wasn’t the combat-action hero as depicted throughout the offseason in all the media profiles, the sharkbot who was whisking us into the future as a winged, long-legged warrior. But when the 49ers needed him to simply to manage a game, avoid errors, make his share of big plays and get the hell out of the way after handing the ball to Frank Gore, Kaepernick was the leader on demand. He shook off criticism that he was raw and overrated — and even some comments that the 49ers goofed in choosing him over the departed Alex Smith — and threw two touchdown passes in a 35-11 stomping of the anemic Rams. Afteward, the NFL Network’s Rich Eisen asked him about the tweeting twits.
“That’s all right,” Kaepernick said. “They can tweet to me tonight.”
Never mind that the 49ers were in chaos only days earlier, that Jim Harbaugh was facing his first real crisis as coach. Never mind that Kaepernick didn’t have receiving weapons beyond Anquan Boldin and banged-up Vernon Davis. Never mind that the defense was decimated, with Aldon Smith in alcohol rehab and Patrick Willis sidelined. Though Kaepernick still is struggling to complete longer pass plays — he is completing only 34 percent of throws of at least 15 years, according to ESPN.com — he adapted to the bigger plan. Young QBs must do that sometimes to grow.
“We know the talent we have on this team,” he said. “We know what we’re capable of.”
He said “we,” which is important to note in any analysis of his current place in the maddening, fleeting roulette game that is young NFL quarterbacking. When he was taking the 49ers to the Super Bowl, and then to within five yards of a championship, the media world was captivated by his body, his presence and, yes, his six-pack abs and tats. People saw him run downfield, watched him glide above the fray, and next thing you knew, he was at the ESPY awards with his shades on indoors. Not that he didn’t continue to work as hard as anyone else: He’s the first one at the practice facility each day, and might have been there before 7 the morning a presumably stoned Smith was crashing his vehicle into a tree. It’s just that it all … seemed … so … premature, when the truth was that the 49ers won the NFC with defense and a punishing running game. Which is why it was vital for Kaepernick to answer the haters and their barrage of vitrol with a single letter:
“He was really locked in and focused all week,” Harbaugh said. “He made big plays.”
W is the measure by which quarterbacks are largely defined, the accumulation of winning, and that’s why Russell Wilson and Andrew Luck are maintaining what they started last season. They never were affixed to the read-option craze as were Kaepernick and Robert Griffin III, and, thus, already have graduated from fad status. Wilson may win a Super Bowl as the caretaker of the dominant Seattle Seahawks. Luck, who now has power running help in Trent Richardson, looks headed toward a career similar to that of the man he replaced in Indianapolis, Peyton Manning.
I’m afraid his coach with the Redskins, Mike Shanahan, may have helped ruin his career by ignoring his better instincts and refusing to remove Griffin from the infamous postseason game when his leg was dangling. That led to reconstructive knee surgery that has left Griffin without the running skills that made the read-option so successful in 2012. Defensive players now are being coached to ignore any ball fake and attack him, and they have turned RGIII into a frenetic, mistake-prone shadow of his former self. Last year, Griffin and the recipient of his option work, running back Alfred Morris, were a devastating 1-2 running tandem. This year, they are bottled up with ease, and Griffin also has struggled as a passer because defenses know he isn’t the same running threat.
Part of the problem: Defensive coordinators spent the offseason figuring out the read-option. In San Francisco, Harbaugh and Kaepernick have adapted by returning to power football. Washington doesn’t have that capability, leaving offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan, Mike’s son, to sound like a lost puppy.
“When you have something that was that successful … guys are too smart,” he told the media, referring to defensive strategists. “They are going to work all offseason and find a way to stop it. And when that happens you got to better at the other stuff. And I think we do have other stuff. And I think we’re getting better at it.
“The thing about last year: A lot of people weren’t ready for it at all. It was easy at times. Now, it doesn’t mean that it doesn’t work. You just aren’t shocking people like you were last year.”
At some point, the Redskins may have to put Griffin out of his misery, pull him and let his knee heal completely. He didn’t slide when he should have after a rare 21-yard run Sunday, turning the ball over and helping cost the Redskins a game. “The problem is I’m not a great slider,” said Griffin, who may enlist the help of Washington Nationals star Bryce Harper. “I know how to slide, but I don’t know how to baseball-slide, and I think that’s what they’re talking about. But there is just more of an emphasis on sliding feet-first as opposed to going forward, since that rule is in place. It protects you as a quarterback going backward, going feet-first, so that’s what you’ve got to do, so just make a mental note of that and try to slide feet-first.”
Say what? Sounds like a confused soul in full regression. Can we have a recall on those GQ covers?
Josh Freeman never was on the cover of anything. He didn’t even make the team photo in Tampa Bay because he supposedly slept in, and that mistake symbolized his work-ethic issues and incremental demise as the Buccaneers’ starting quarterback. In an immediate-gratification era at the position, the franchise wasted too much time — four years — in determining whether he could be a big-time player. He and coach Greg Schiano never meshed, yet management didn’t move aggressively enough to find a suitable replacement; whatever interest the Bucs showed in Carson Palmer, he wound up being traded to Arizona for a seventh-round pick, not that he’d be the answer right now in his mediocre state. Now the Bucs have to hope rookie Mike Glennon, a 6-7 passer without much mobility, can provide equilibrium for a talented team. If not, Schiano will be gone, too, and a franchise that has major mistakes in coaching hires and QB decisions will be looking to fill those voids again.
“There are a lot of reasons for it. It’s not just one guy,” Schiano said. “But’s that’s a critical piece of it. … The quarterback touches the ball every play.”
What if the Bucs had hired Chip Kelly, as they tried, in 2011? His high-tempo, quick-thinking offense wouldn’t have suited Freeman, who sometimes operates in slow motion and doesn’t think well on his feet. Chances are, a new coach will be drafting a new quarterback and wasting a lot of talent on both sides … and time.
Last year, the dual-threat quarterbacking wave made kids all the rage in the NFL. This year, we’re headed back to a simpler, traditional mode. Remember the guy benched by the 49ers when Harbaugh opted for Kaepernick? Remember his final numbers there — 27 of 29, 313 yards, four touchdowns, no interceptions and a 151.2 rating?
Alex Smith is in Kansas City now, 3-0 and playing much steadier ball than Colin Kaepernick. Kids, remember, are still kids.