Kaepernick was in the middle of everything Friday
When Colin Kaepernick steps onto the field at Candlestick Park for the first time as a 49er on Sunday afternoon, he might not exactly be on even ground yet in a QB competition with Alex Smith, but he’s at least a few steps closer after everything he experienced Friday night against New Orleans, and then after everything Jim Harbaugh said about his QBs the next day after reviewing film of the game.
Harbaugh more or less swung open the door to an open competition for the starting job when he tactfully declined to place the starter label on Smith when given several opportunities to do so during Saturday’s day-after conference call to discuss San Francisco’s 24-3 exhibition loss to the Saints.
“There hasn’t been an opportunity so far to be a clear-cut, definitive winner in the quarterback competition,” Harbaugh said. “(We’re) letting that play out, and it’ll unfold. We’re evaluating it daily. And really, it’s a mindset of letting guys compete for it.”
Kaepernick now has a much better idea of what he’s competing for after three full quarters of action against the Saints in his professional debut.
It was a bruising learning experience during which the rookie just about saw it all, experiencing a long list of game situations that he will be confronted with as a NFL quarterback. And, while Kaepernick struggled through much of it, he got through it and is already better for it.
“I felt pretty comfortable with everything that was going on,” Kaepernick said. “I was happy to get that much playing time and I was confident with everything that was going on. My first experience in the NFL, it was good to get that, get a feel for what it was going to be like, and there’s a lot of things I can learn from it.”
Kaepernick learned quickly that the NFL is a whole different animal than the level of competition he dominated during his spectacular college career at the University of Nevada.
When Kaepernick entered the game early in the second quarter, Harbaugh called five consecutive running plays before the coach finally allowed his pet project to drop back with the football in his hands. But after that, Kaepernick, got his first real taste of the NFL with this sequence of plays:
On third-and-10, Kaepernick lined up in shotgun formation and completed a 20-yard laser over the middle to Lance Long, a play that illustrated how quickly Kaepernick’s fastballs can get to intended target once they leave his hand.
Then, Kaepernick was sacked after each of San Francisco’s next three snaps.
Welcome to the NFL, kid.
But Kaepernick popped off the turf each time and let everybody know he was ready to fight again. He was brought down in the backfield only once more while playing the remainder of the game.
The Saints mixed it up defensively against Kaepernick the rest of the way, leading to an up-and-down performance during which he completed 9 of 19 passes for 117 yards and threw two fourth-quarter interceptions when forcing passes into coverage with the 49ers until total comeback mode.
Kaepernick also displayed his rare ability when breaking loose from the pocket, scrambling for a team-high 47 yards rushing on six carries, including a 28-yard burst during which Kaepernick looked like a track sprinter as he streaked through the heart of the Louisiana Superdome turf.
But the plays Kaepernick made with his feet were tempered by his unsightly passer rating of 27.6.
“I don’t think we were ready for them to come Cover 0, Cover 1 blitzes the whole first half and most of the third quarter,” Kaepernick said. “We weren’t expecting to see that almost every play, and we really didn’t prepare for it too much. After that, they started dropping off and we started forcing some throws to try to get back into it. I just have to get more comfortable with where exactly my checkdowns are and how quickly I need to get to them. So those are things you just have to learn from going forward.”
Kaepernick got the full gamut of game situations throughout the evening, experiencing the kind of reps that couldn’t be simulated in training camp practices. While the results were uneven, Kaepernick felt he had grown as a quarterback by the end of the game.
That’s what Harbaugh saw, too.
“The thing that impressed me the most and I feel the best about with Colin is he got himself into many situations in this game,” Harbaugh said. “You know, coming out after half, a two-minute drive, leading the team out of the huddle – so many things that are going to be good, teachable moments from this game and pretty much darn near every aspect of quarterback play.
Harbaugh continued, “You know, run-game mechanics, stepping up in the pocket, getting down when he’s scrambling, when to fit the ball into a tight window and when not to. He had a chance to work on some of those mechanics of calling plays, getting up to the line of scrimmage, getting the snap off and the 40-second clock, and just go through the mechanics of playing quarterback. So, there’s a lot of teachable moments from this game. That’s the thing I’m most excited about seeing him grow from.”
Kaepernick’s growth curve during the rest of this month will determine whether he actually gets a shot at being behind center for the first snap of San Francisco’s Sept. 11 season opener against Seattle. After Friday’s shaky performance by both Kaepernick and Smith, Harbaugh said the 49ers are considering the possibility of bringing in another veteran quarterback to add to the competition.
But that’s the thing as the 49ers resume practice today on their home field in San Francisco as part of a special “Fan Fest” conducted by the team: There is a QB competition now, and Kaepernick’s not the kind of guy who accepts losing in any situation.
With the heavy experience of his pro debut behind him, the 6-foot-5 gunslinger is ready to take his best shot as the Niners head into the next stage of training camp, a phase that could determine who their starting quarterback will be.
“I think that’s why I’m here,” Kaepernick said. “I don’t think any player on this team wants to come here to be a backup. I’m trying to do everything I can to make sure I’m ready for when I have the opportunity to try to show and perform to be a starter, that I take advantage of it. I think (Friday’s game) was the first step to try to make that progress.”
The second step comes today at a place where hope pervades that Kaepernick someday will be a star.