What Happened to Colin Kaepernick?

Once a dynamic quarterback, Colin Kaepernick has had his worst season in the NFL. Why?

There's no denying that Colin Kaepernick is one of the most enigmatic quarterbacks in all of the NFL. On one hand, he has undeniable arm talent mixed with his unbelievable running ability only to be mired by frightening inaccuracy and poor decision-making. Unfortunately, the inaccuracy and poor decisions have become a common theme in the young Kaepernick's play -- and he has regressed severely.

But is it all his fault? The great Frank Gore is aging and is an absolute shell of his old-self this season, Vernon Davis is MIA, and Michael Crabtree has been turned into a possession receiver. The 49ers offense has gone from a juggernaut that is a weekly threat to shred opposing defenses to scoring only 18.8 points per game this year, tied for sixth worst with a Washington team that has devolved into oblivion. Major understatement: that’s not good.

And it only gets worse.

Kaepernick: Stumbling Into Mediocrity

Here at numberFire, we quantify a player's ability by using our Net Expected Points (NEP) metric. NEP measures a player’s productivity based on how whether he performed above or below expectation on the many plays he's involved in. As you may expect, Colin Kaepernick has been astoundingly average this year, and his numbers reflect that.

Among the 38 quarterbacks who have thrown 140 or more passes this season, here's how Kaepernick stacks up against the rest of the NFL in Passing NEP and Passing NEP per pass, among other statistics.

Comp %YardsY/ATDINTPassing NEPPassing NEP per Drop Back
60.629107.1161027.21 (18th)0.06 (21st)

While the passing numbers are substandard, what’s truly scary is how inefficient Kaepernick has been rushing this year. Running on designed reads or simply getting out of the pocket and improvising is one of the things that made Kaepernick so dynamic in 2012 and 2013. Kaepernick scored five rushing touchdowns in 2012, four in 2013, but hasn’t found the end zone with his legs once this season. While the 49ers are calling fewer designed runs this year, Kaepernick has not made the most of his rushing opportunities.

Among the six quarterbacks with 40 or more rushes this season, Colin Kaepernick is dead last in Rushing NEP and Rushing NEP per attempt:

Att.YardsTDYPCRushing NEPRushing NEP per Rush

While it’s nice to look at Kaepernick’s numbers this year, I think it’s important to remind everyone just how dynamic he was when he supplanted Alex Smith as the Niners' starting quarterback in 2012, and how good he was just one year ago, too. Let’s take a step back and look into Kaepernick’s ghostly past.

The Mysterious Disappearance of Colin Kaepernick

Here are Kaepernick’s per-game yardage, touchdown, and interception averages along with his Passing NEP and Passing NEP per pass scores for those relative seasons. Keep in mind, Kaepernick only started seven games in 2012:

YearGComp %YardsY/ATDINTPassing NEPPer Drop Back

I think there are three things to note here. First, in every season, the number of interceptions thrown per game by Kaepernick has risen. As evidenced by his inaccuracy in certain situations this year, decision-making and corresponding inability to go through progressions has severely harmed Kaepernick’s passing potency.

Along with throwing more interceptions per game, Kaepernick is throwing fewer touchdowns. We’ll discuss this more in the following section, but I believe this is partially due to 49ers' offensive coordinator Greg Roman and head coach Jim Harbaugh not calling plays to Kaepernick’s strengths.

Which leads me to the third item: Kaepernick’s yards per attempt has fallen by 0.6 yards each season. This, again, is due in part to play calling, but there's no denying Kaepernick has faltered throwing the ball accurately down the field.

What has made Kaepernick so compelling in the past is his rushing ability mixed with the capability to extend plays, success off of play-action, and deep passing accuracy. Kaepernick has regressed this year, but is it all his fault?

Who Is to Blame? Is It All on Kaepernick?

Earlier, I referenced play-calling as a major factor to Kaepernick’s lack of success this season. For whatever reason, the Niners have stopped putting a premium on touchdowns and have set up Kaepernick to fail with low percentage throws that don't accentuate his abilities.

One place where Colin Kaepernick is so productive is with play-action passes. Play-action usually allows quarterbacks to see the field a little more easily, opens up passing lanes, and gives them easier progressions to read. In 2012, San Francisco called play-action 11.1 times per game, and 8.8 times per game in 2013. This year, it's at 7.31 times per game.

When the 49ers have called play-action plays over the two and half years of Kaepernick’s career, he has an 18-to-4 touchdown-to-interception ratio and averages 7.92 yards per attempt, per For perspective, from 2012 until now, one of the best quarterbacks on play-action plays, Aaron Rodgers, boasts a 20-to-5 ratio.

San Francisco isn’t totally setting up Kaepernick for failure. He hasn’t been good this year, and some of the decisions he makes are inexcusable. But what's sort of perplexing is that the Niners were once very good at calling games towards Kaepernick’s strengths. He’s obviously great at play-action passing, but that only comes with the a solid running game and the threat of Kaepernick’s uncanny ability to get out of the pocket and extend drives. Both mechanisms have been sparsely exceptional this year.

To be quite honest, the blame needs to be equally spread around in San Francisco. Kaepernick hasn’t been playing well, but the 49ers really don't seem to be all that interested in calling games to their quarterback's strengths. They don’t let Kaepernick out of the pocket on designed reads, something he's torched NFL defenses with in the past.

The future is murkier than ever for Kaepernick. But maybe with some change in coaching over the offseason, new personnel, and a revitalized run game, Kaepernick will take a step forward in 2015 and put this year behind him.