Take a peek at any major NFL media source over the past couple of days and you'll find no shortage of people pressing the panic button due to the state of the San Francisco 49ers, and more specifically Colin Kaepernick. The quarterback has looked nothing like the sensation we saw last season. Should all the blame rest on Kaepernick's shoulders, or is there a bigger problem in the Bay?
There's no avoiding the fact that Kaepernick hasn't been the same sort of player he was last season. 2012's version was a player that was confident and poised, using his legs when necessary but otherwise taking care of himself and the ball. His passing numbers weren't gaudy, but with a potent rushing attack the 49ers didn't need them to be. Kaepernick was a perfect fit for the offense, and the pairing propelled San Francisco to the Super Bowl.
2013 has clearly been a different story. Kaepernick has been far less likely to tuck the ball and run down field, instead choosing to try to force the ball down field to receivers who aren't necessarily open. Some strange play calling has only served to compound the problem.
Through three weeks the 49ers have almost totally abandoned the running game. Frank Gore only saw 11 carries against the Colts, which is almost inexplicable considering the fact that he racked up 82 yards on those touches. To ignore a stable of players like Gore, Kendall Hunter, and Kaepernick, who excell at making plays on the ground with maybe the best run-blocking offensive line ahead of them to instead use a pass-oriented offense hardly makes sense. When you consider the fact that Kaepernick is expected to execute a pass happy offense without his favorite target, Michael Crabtree, on the field it becomes almost impossible to justify the decision.
Not surprisingly, the change in offensive philosophy is resulting in a young quarterback that looks entirely uncomfortable. Whereas Kaepernick was once a poised player that showed surprising pocket presence for an inexperienced player, he's now scrambling far too early and imagining pressure that isn't there. What's worse, instead of tucking the ball and at least taking the ball down the field, he's running around in the back field and getting into trouble. It's resulting in sacks, inaccurate passes, and interceptions.
Even the biggest fan of Kaepernick couldn't say that he's playing well at this point, but his output isn't the reason the 49ers are staring at this first losing record since 2010. Rather, it's just a symptom of a far bigger issue in San Francisco: the 49ers appear to be in the middle of a huge identity crisis.
Not only are the 49ers playing a brand of football unbecoming to them on offense, but the defense isn't playing to its standards either. Formerly a defense that was one of the toughest in the league, it hasn't offered up much in the way of resistance thus far in the season. Allowing Green Bay to move up and down the field was one thing – watching a Colts team put up 31 points is quite another altogether.
With Aldon Smith out for at least a month, it's going to take a dramatic turn around from the rest of the defense if the 49ers are going to keep pace in the NFC West. Justin Smith, Patrick Willis, and Carlos Rodgers in particular are all off to sub-par starts to the season and in the past have been critical pieces to their defensive success.
While the outlook for the season may look bleak right now, the problems in San Francisco aren't impossible to correct. The most difficult aspect of a potential turnaround will be on the defensive side of the ball. The 49ers, who didn't use particularly exotic blitz packages last season, will have to get far more creative in rushing the passer without Aldon Smith on the field.
Offensively, the fix is simple: get back to the basics. Frank Gore and the rest of the 49ers running backs should be the focal point of the offense, Vernon Davis (when he returns from injury) should be targeted far more often in Crabtree's absence, and reads need to be simplified for Kaepernick. Regardless of Kaepernick's long term potential, he's being asked to do too much and more importantly, he's being asked to be a player he's not. A return to the 2012 offense, which allowed Kaepernick to make one read and then run, would likely correct the majority of the offense's problems.
It won't be easy, but there's still plenty of hope for the 49ers season. Their record may not reflect it, but they still have a very talented roster, a solid coaching staff, and perhaps most importantly there's still plenty of time to turn things around. Will that turn around get started on Thursday night in St. Louis?