Last year, 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick cemented his grip on the starting job with a 31-21 win over the Saints, six days after shocking the Bears as a Monday night fill-in for a concussed Alex Smith.
This week, Kaepernick returns to New Orleans after a significantly less impressive showing in the preceding game. And he’ll face a significantly more impressive Saints defense than the one he saw last season.
In Sunday’s loss to the Panthers, Kaepernick started his 16th regular-season game, which gives him a full year on the job. Entering 2013 as the man Ron Jaworski of ESPN declared on track to be one of the all-time greats, Kaepernick completed 11 of 22 passes for 91 yards and an interception, for a sluggish 42.0 rating. He added only 16 yards rushing.
All-time greats never have games like that one.
Through nine starts this season, Kaepernick has only nine touchdown passes against six interceptions. In his seven regular-season starts last year, Kaepernick threw for 10 touchdowns with only three picks.
Setting aside a Week One air-raid against the Packers, who were bracing for a run-heavy game plan from the man who set a single-game quarterback rushing record against Green Bay in the playoffs, Kaepernick is averaging only 157.8 passing yards per game, and he has thrown six touchdowns and six picks. He also has been sacked 19 times in those eight games.
During the offseason, we constantly heard that defensive coordinators had become obsessed with shutting down the league’s young, mobile quarterbacks. The talk prompted the 49ers to hire former NFL head coach and defensive coordinator Eric Mangini to serve as an offensive consultant, helping coach Jim Harbaugh and offensive coordinator Greg Roman anticipate what defenses will do and plan accordingly.
While the 49ers have won six and lost only three this year, Kaepernick has become more like Alex Smith than Joe Montana, an efficient caretaker who complements a running game led by Frank Gore and a stout defense. The easy explanation is that Kaepernick hasn’t had Michael Crabtree available all year, but truly great quarterbacks adapt and adjust, especially when guys like Vernon Davis and Anquan Boldin are available.
There’s still plenty of football to be played, and Kaepernick could still shatter the ceiling under which he now finds himself. But the ceiling is definitely there, and his performance puts him a long way away from living up to the very high expectations that Jaworski foisted upon him.
Kaepernick’s current predicament could become even more obvious on Sunday, if/when his second career game against the Saints goes not quite as smoothly as last year’s did.