Could preseason be Kap's coming out party?
It has been an imposing learning curve with the 49ers for Colin Kaepernick, the team’s second-round draft pick last year who enters his second preseason with the team still as an unknown quantity. Entrenched as San Francisco’s No. 2 quarterback this summer, the athletic Kaepernick bristles with talent and potential and is anxious to prove he’s ready to move up as the exhibition season begins.
Kaepernick has never sought attention at 49ers headquarters. He always praises starter Alex Smith, keeps his answers short and simple, and deflects everything back to the team.
In other words, what a backup quarterback should do.
So when Kaepernick stepped to the lectern this week, the second-year quarterback out of Nevada stayed mostly on script – with one major exception. Kaepernick made it clear he has no desire to be a career backup, outlining his goals this year in the most expansive comments he has offered.
"To go and show that I can be a starter in this league," Kaepernick said. "I want to go out, perform my best and show everybody what I'm capable of."
All the 49ers faithful are still waiting to see what that might be.
So long as Smith stays healthy and keeps San Francisco (No. 4 in the AP Pro32) on schedule for another playoff appearance, it's doubtful that Kaepernick sees any meaningful minutes again this season. Kaepernick's best chance to shine figures to start Friday night when the 49ers host the Minnesota Vikings (No. 29) in the preseason opener for both teams.
"Colin, specifically, he needs that work," 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh said. "It's been a long time since he's played in game action. Kind of liken it to a golfer who does nothing but play the same course over and over and over again. That's kind of what practice can be like for a quarterback. They're getting a lot out of practice, practice tempo and things of that nature. But there's something about playing the games that makes them advance even further."
At least for now, Kaepernick's career has stalled.
The 6-foot-4, 230-pounder is the only player in college football history with three seasons in which he passed for at least 2,000 yards and ran for at least 1,000. The production came while playing in Nevada's Pistol offense, which never really required him to take snaps from under center, and tossing passes from different arm angles in a habit the former pitcher is still trying to break.
Harbaugh's complex version of the West Coast offense only became more difficult with last year's lockout wiping away offseason workouts and turning training camp into a speed race. Kaepernick was swamped just trying to grasp the schemes, formations and terminology – much less complete passes – and often looked lost.
"I definitely wasn't as prepared as I would've liked to be last year," he said. "But you have to deal with the situation we had to deal with. With the lockout, we went out there and did the best we could."
All Kaepernick seemed to do as a rookie in the preseason was give Harbaugh headaches.
In his first possession as an NFL quarterback, the blitz-happy New Orleans Saints sacked Kaepernick three straight times to end the drive. He finished the preseason with a 23.9 passer rating – the lowest among the 80 quarterbacks who threw at least 20 preseason passes – while completing 24 of 50 passes for 257 yards, five interceptions and no touchdowns.
His final stat line in the regular season: 3 for 5 passing for 35 yards in three games. He also lost 2 yards on two carries.
"I don't think he was overwhelmed," 49ers offensive coordinator Greg Roman said. "I think he was grinding through it, might be a better way to put it. It was a completely different offense, playing under center for the first time with a new group of players who you really haven't played with before. Definitely, there's a curve there."
The lack of playing time hasn't helped.
The 24-year-old Kaepernick, who grew up about 100 miles east of San Francisco in Turlock, sat behind Smith while the 2005 No. 1 overall pick turned in the best season of his career and led the 49ers to the NFC championship game. The only work Kaepernick could do during games was listen to the coaches-quarterback radio frequency on a headset, pay attention and go "through the plays just like I was in the games, looking at the defense, seeing where I'd be going with the ball."
Now there's competition just to hold onto that spot.
San Francisco signed Josh Johnson in the offseason, reuniting the former Tampa Bay Buccaneers' backup with Harbaugh, who first took a chance on the undersized quarterback while he coached at the University of San Diego. Johnson started five games in four seasons with Tampa Bay, completing 96 of 177 passes for 1,042 yards, five touchdowns and 10 interceptions.
Scott Tolzien is also back, and the 49ers also like what they see in that youngster, who served as San Francisco’s No. 3 quarterback last year as a rookie behind Smith and Kaepernick.
"This is by far the most talented group I've been a part of, as far as top to bottom and depth," Smith said. "Four guys that I really feel like can play at a high level. You just don't see that."
But only one figures to play this season – and for the foreseeable future – as the 49ers are stocked and loaded to compete for a championship. Teams at that level want to have continuity at quarterback and prefer to stick with one player as long as he handles the position as well as Smith did last year.
The 49ers flirted with free agent Peyton Manning – who ultimately chose Denver – until settling on Smith with a new three-year deal that has some $16.5 million guaranteed. Smith's snaps will increase through three of the first four preseason games, giving his backups opportunities until the regular season begins against Green Bay at Lambeau Field on Sept. 9.
Harbaugh has remained mum on the quarterback rotation, except that Smith will start and Kaepernick is still his No. 2. Smith likely will not play much – if at all – into the second quarter against the Vikings, leaving Kaepernick and Co. to finally show what they can do against another opponent, knowing there's no guarantee another shot might come anytime soon.
"It's football. That's what it is. At some point, you're going to have to wait your turn to get out on that field," Kaepernick said. "You just have to be ready for when your opportunity comes."