As Colin Kaepernick racked up yards and rifled off completions in the second half of Super Bowl XLVII, rallying San Francisco from a 22-point deficit against Baltimore to a two-point conversion away from tying the score, it seemed as though he had the makings of a superstar quarterback.
Earlier that season, the quarterback stepped up in the absence of an injured Alex Smith, starting the final seven games and forcing coach Jim Harbaugh to stick with him through the 49ers’ playoff run. He played with dazzle, tantalizing defenses with his arm and his legs, and helped resuscitate a once-proud franchise that had won five Super Bowls but hadn’t appeared in the championship game in nearly 20 years.
Remarkably, Kaepernick’s feats that season weren’t all that unique. Cam Newton, also in his second year, and rookies Robert Griffin III and Russell Wilson all helped redefine the quarterback position, signaling the potential end of the dominance of pocket passers in the NFL. It seemed to be a matter of when, not if, the college-style offense took over the professional game, with the four youngsters seemingly representing the new breed.
Now, not even two years later, those four have encountered a series of obstacles that have dimmed their once-bright futures. That prior success has been a burden, with the constant pressure and high expectations too much to handle. Injuries, an unavoidable part of the game, have been an imposition.
And, even though the ability to extend plays with their feet has greatly aided each player’s game, coaches are starting to realize the inevitable. Remaining in the pocket works, and teaching those quarterbacks the required fundamentals at this stage in their career is not a simple task.
“All these quarterbacks are going through it,” said Washington Redskins coach Jay Gruden. “We have such high expectations for these kids coming out of college that they should be at the same level as Peyton Manning and Tom Brady and Philip Rivers and Aaron Rodgers. It’s not fair. They’re going to have some growing pains. They’re going to have some struggles from time to time against good defenses, good pass rushers, and they’re just going to have to learn with the position.”
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Setting unsustainable standards
Griffin’s play Sunday against Tampa Bay, in which the Redskins lost, 27-7, was an eye-opener for anyone who had watched the quarterback play over parts of three seasons in the NFL. Not only was he missing open receivers, but Griffin failed to accurately read the defense, was skittish behind his offensive line and bungled his footwork.
It was a performance so bad that former tight end Chris Cooley, who hosts a weekly film review session Monday afternoons on ESPN 980, the team-owned radio station, spent a half hour speaking solely about the quarterback. After Cooley addressed the factors that led to Griffin taking a sack with 7:42 remaining in the third quarter, he remarked that the breakdowns were so elementary, “some of this would make a high school coach mad.”
Griffin was named the Offensive Rookie of the Year by The Associated Press in 2012, when he posted a passer rating of 102.4 and threw 20 touchdown passes against five interceptions — league records for rookies.
Between that season and the Heisman Trophy victory a year before, when he was a junior at Baylor, the spotlight on Griffin and expectation that he would excel has been persistent. That, in turn, has led to standards Griffin has not been able to attain.
The same holds true for Wilson, whose Seahawks, the defending Super Bowl champions, won just three of their first six games this season. Seattle had lost several players to free agency or retirement during the offseason, and its defense, which statistically ranked among the best all-time last season, wasn’t playing at the same level.
That put more pressure on Wilson, whose 90.8 passer rating is roughly 10 points lower than it was in each of his first two seasons. He completed just 50 percent of his passes in a loss to Dallas on Oct. 12, and his 47.6 passer rating off that game was his lowest since early in his rookie season.
“We’ve had some real nice plays, and then we’ve had some plays that haven’t been there that we thought should have been,” Seattle offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell told reporters at a press conference Wednesday. “For whatever reason, it’s different things at different times. Being able to stay in the pocket and trust your protection, trust your read, trust your throws. Being able to get open downfield on time, and being able to block the guy in front of you — all those things cause that stuff to be off.”
Kaepernick has also been unsteady since that Super Bowl appearance, dancing from one extreme to the other in yards gained, completion percentage and interceptions thrown. He threw for fewer than 200 yards in four of his first five games last season, then managed just 91 passing yards while completing 11 of 22 passes in a loss to Carolina.
Only in the victory against the New York Giants on Sunday has Kaepernick thrown for fewer than 200 yards this season, but his performances have still wavered. After posting a 125.5 passer rating, the third-highest of his career, in a victory over Dallas in the season opener, he had just a 57.0 rating in a loss to Chicago the following week. He fumbled three times against St. Louis on Nov. 2 after having fumbled just once in the 49ers’ first seven games. He wasn’t sacked at all by the Rams on Oct. 13 but then was sacked six times by Denver a week later.
Trent Dilfer, a former quarterback in San Francisco and now an ESPN analyst, said that despite the inconsistencies, Kaepernick has shown the ability to learn from his past performances. The 49ers have, on the whole, abandoned running the zone-read option and have spent time trying to focus on Kaepernick’s fundamentals.
“I was Colin’s harshest critic, and he’s a friend, but I was his harshest critic last year and I’ve seen major growth over the last year,” Dilfer said. “Now, is he where he needs to be? No, but I think he’ll get there.”
Inevitable injuries are a factor
When Newton underwent surgery on his left ankle during the offseason, it was an inauspicious start for the Panthers’ quarterback.
Newton missed the season opener with a broken rib and has reportedly been dealing with pain in his right foot for the past several weeks. Though the Panthers lost their fifth consecutive game on Sunday, falling to 3-7-1 following a defeat by Atlanta, the quarterback has maintained that his physical health is not a factor in his team’s start.
“Hurt is hurt,” Newton told reporters at a press conference last week. “If you’re asking me, ‘Am I hurt right now?’ Yeah, I’m hurt. I haven’t felt 100 percent in a long time. You know, is that gonna hinder anything or how I feel or that’s been my excuse as to why we’re on a losing streak? No, absolutely not.
“If you want to put the blame on me not being 100 percent, then so be it, but I know that if we were on a four-game winning streak, nobody would really care about that.”
Newton had scrambled for seven yards in the Panthers’ preseason loss to New England on Aug. 23 when he was kneed in the back during a tackle by Patriots linebacker Jamie Collins.
Three weeks later, Griffin was chased out of the pocket by Jacksonville middle linebacker Paul Posluszny and dislocated his left ankle as he planted to throw to wide receiver DeSean Jackson.
While arguments persist about a quarterback facing the risk of injury while stationed in the pocket, both Newton and Griffin were all alone, without protection from teammates, when they were knocked out of the game.
“Every time these guys run out of the pocket and get hit, I mean, that has a cumulative effect,” said Mark Brunell, who played 19 seasons, including four for the Redskins. “You’re getting beat up, and if I’m paying these guys — they’re my franchise quarterback, and I’m gonna be giving him $100 million — every time these guys get outside the pocket, you’re risking significant injury, and you know, that’s a little frightening. And we’re seeing it happen.”
With Griffin, the fallout from the quarterback’s right knee injury at the end of his rookie season likely has changed the way he has played the game. Brunell tore ligaments in his right knee in 1997, returned with a bulky knee brace and found his mobility was never the same.
That forced him to recast himself as a pocket passer. Gone were the days of extending plays because he could. Instead, the focus was on his mental preparation, understanding the tendencies of the opposing defense and knowing situational football.
“It really has to be a shift in a quarterback’s thinking,” Brunell said. “If I think I can run away from these guys on third-and-8 and go ahead and get a first down five out of 10 times, it’s just not realistic. So, what do I have to do? I have to stay in the pocket and rely on the people around me. But that’s not an easy thing to do. It’s more of a mindset. You’ve got to have good coaching and you’ve got to approach the game like that.”
It wasn’t until midway through last season that Griffin looked anywhere near the explosive athlete who could sprint away from defenders — and even then, he wasn’t the same. The Panthers, meanwhile, have continued to ask Newton to run the ball, which was evident in that Week 6 tie against Cincinnati, when he ran 17 times for 107 yards and a touchdown.
“It’s all right,” Newton said. “At the end of the day, I’m still out there every snap, and that’s not an excuse for me not to be playing the type of football that I have been playing. I’m trying to focus, go back to the little things — the checkdowns, the protection of the football, the overall execution of the offense — and that’s gonna get us over this hump.”
Keeping open mind to adjustments
The biggest change, for all four quarterbacks, has been the shift to remaining in the pocket — a habit that great success on the run in college has made it difficult for them to shake.
Griffin ran for 815 yards as a rookie in 2012, surpassing the previous record, set by Newton in 2011, of 706 yards. Newton also ran for 14 touchdowns during his first season — a quarterback record that still stands.
Former Redskins coach Mike Shanahan and his son, Kyle, formerly the offensive coordinator, tried to mold Griffin into a pocket passer last season as he recovered from right knee surgery. It’s still a work in progress. The 49ers, by restricting the use of the zone-read option, have reinforced similar ideas to Kaepernick.
Dilfer, who works extensively with ESPN’s Elite 11 camp for high school quarterbacks, believes he has found a way to incorporate those skills for players who he considers multi-dimensional. Players are taught to go through their first two reads, like any other quarterback, and then, should those targets be unavailable, then move up or outside the pocket before finding a third or fourth read — or even escaping altogether.
He’s also shared those principles to Bevell, who he said has incorporated them as part of the Seahawks’ instruction of Wilson. Seattle has continued to use Wilson as both a passer and a runner, and has trusted him
“There’s always going to be times where we tell him to trust the protection, but I’m never going to tell him to not use his feet,” Bevell said. “That’s something that’s special for his ability. … But there’s still those [plays] where you want him to sit in there and be able to see the things that they need to see, whether they’re a running guy or not.”
At some point, though, a quarterback has to be open to that transition for it to take place. Wilson, Dilfer believes, has shown he can do so. For Kaepernick, Newton and Griffin, the future is uncertain — but that doesn’t mean it can’t happen.
It just takes time and effort.
“I think they all can be nurtured if given the proper [coaching],” Dilfer said. “Now, sometimes you can’t be in the place you’re at because they don’t have time for you anymore, but I won’t write guys off. I’ve seen too many Randall Cunninghams and Brad Johnsons that were written off and come back and are very successful because of their competitive will. They fight their [tails] off once they finally go, ‘You know what? Whatever it takes.’”
• Zac Boyer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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