It wasn’t all that long ago when San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick was one of the NFL’s next big things.
Paired with former head coach Jim Harbaugh, the dual-threat signal caller led an offense that reached the Super Bowl in 2012 and nearly returned the following season until losing to Seattle in the NFC Championship game.
Those were the high-water marks, however. Kaepernick still threw for 3,369 yards and rushed for another 639 in Harbaugh’s last season with the Niners in 2014, but fell out of favor before landing on the injured reserve list playing under coach Jim Tomsula in 2015, and remained a backup when Chip Kelly came to town this offseason.
After a mostly miserable 1-5 start to the 2016 campaign, it’s back to Kaepernick and that’s what the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have been preparing for all week.
“He has rare athleticism,” Bucs defensive tackle Gerald McCoy said of facing Kaepernick. “There’s a lot of athletes in the league at quarterback, but not a lot like him, man. He can gain ground in a hurry and he’s not a quarterback who wastes time making a decision. If he’s going to go he’s gone and if he goes, you need to get on your horse because he can get downfield quick. We definitely have to be in our rush lanes.”
McCoy is one of a handful of Bucs defensive players with experience facing San Francisco’s 28-year-old quarterback. Kaepernick went 19 of 29 for 203 yards and two touchdowns through the air and picked up 42 yards on four rushing attempts with his legs during the 49ers’ 33-14 Week 15 win in Tampa Bay in 2013.
There’s no reason to believe Kaepernick is any less athletic and dynamic despite being relegated to Blaine Gabbert’s backup since last November, but he’s still playing catchup in executing Kelly’s offense and knocking a little rust off in the process. The 2016 regular-season debut of Kaepernick crashed and burned in Buffalo last week, to the tune of a 45-16 throttling. He finished with 187 yards passing and one touchdown while completing fewer than 50 percent of his attempts (13 of 29). Kaepernick did display the athleticism McCoy mentioned, though, by leading the Niners rushing attack with 66 yards on eight attempts.
Where the rust showed was on intermediate and deep passes. Targets were getting separation and finding open space throughout the game, but Kaepernick couldn’t deliver enough catchable passes – hence his 44.8 percent completion percentage. On the afternoon’s longest play from scrimmage, a 53-yard touchdown pass, Kaepernick nearly underthrew wideout Torrey Smith when no Bill defensive back was within 5-10 yards.
But as far as Tampa Bay players and coaches are concerned, they’re game planning for Kaepernick circa 2013, not last week’s erratic version.
Bucs DT Gerald McCoy – Photo by: Getty Images
“I think you’ve got to go back to the old tape,” Bucs defensive coordinator Mike Smith said this week. “He’s still playing in the NFL, so he’s still a darn good player and a very good athlete, you saw it in the game against Buffalo when he tucked the ball down. He has a very good knack of reading the rush lanes up front and once he sees it, he takes it and goes – he had I think a 22-yard scramble. But what we have to do is we’ve got to look at what he has done in the past. He played a little bit in the preseason, but he’s been banged up. He’s been through a lot in the offseason, in terms of surgeries and getting healthy. He looks like he’s getting healthier.”
Speaking with the San Francisco media this week, Kelly mentioned Kaepernick’s physique returning to where it was pre-shoulder injury.
“I see a different Colin out there than I did seven weeks ago, when we were in camp trying to make a final decision on where we were going to be from a quarterback standpoint,” Kelly said, according to a Monday article on NFL.com. “So I see a little bit of difference. I think he’s up closer to 220 now – not that the weight is a number that has to be a certain thing that he has to get to. But I think he’s gotten stronger and he’s gotten a little bit faster since we last had this conversation
When it comes to disrupting Kaepernick in the pocket, McCoy returning to a decimated defensive line can only help. Playing without McCoy, fellow starting defensive tackle Clinton McDonald, and defensive end Robert Ayers resulted in zero quarterback hits against Carolina Panthers backup quarterback Derek Anderson during Tampa Bay’s Monday night win before the bye. Head coach Dirk Koetter said putting a little heat on Kaepernick – or any quarterback, for that matter – will only help an improving secondary gain confidence and affect games.
“I think I was the one that was saying all along, I think our secondary is all right,” Koetter said. “Now we’ve had our issues. We’ve had a couple balls thrown over our head back in the Arizona game, but the main thing in my opinion that has been hurting our secondary is our offense putting our secondary in bad position. Then in the Carolina game, we’ve been lacking in pass rush – not lacking effort, just lacking getting home. My hats off to our guys that are playing up front. We are playing a lot of young guys up front. Some of our pass rushers that we were counting on are out.
“We said many times in [training] camp that a secondary’s best friend is a good pass rush, but I think that we can cover. I think our corners can cover. I think we can make plays on the ball. I think our safeties have played their best two games the last two weeks, [safety Bradley] McDougald and [safety] Chris Conte and getting [cornerback] Vernon [Hargreaves III] solidified outside, [cornerback] Jude [Adjei-Barimah] in the slot and nickel. We know Lavonte [David] can cover and Kwon [Alexander] could cover guys in linebacker, so I think if we were in a shootout-type game where we had to rely on our secondary, I think our secondary will do fine.”