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Grant Cohn: 49ers putting footwork back in Colin Kaepernick's game

SANTA CLARA — Forty-Niners offensive coordinator Geep Chryst thinks of Colin Kaepernick in terms of Stephen Curry.

'If you were to say the reason why Curry is a great 3-point shooter is because his feet are exactly 8 inches apart when he shoots the ball, that may be true in a lot of cases,' Chryst philosophized Thursday afternoon. He was sitting at a circular conference table toward the back of the 501 club in Levi's Stadium.

'We've also seen what makes Curry great is his body might not be perfectly balanced, his feet might not be exactly 8 inches apart, but he has a great knack for playing with a flow.

'And I think that's the same with Kaep. Kaep is a fluid rhythm athlete. When we've seen him at his best, he's in rhythm and fluid.'

And when is Kaepernick in rhythm and fluid? Easy, when he's running. He might be the most natural, most fluid passer on the run in NFL history. He's accurate, he can fit passes into tight spaces and he doesn't need to set his feet when he's running, just as Curry doesn't need to set his feet when he shoots a basketball.

But when Kaepernick drops straight back in the pocket, he isn't fluid. He's mechanical, like a dancer counting steps: 'One and two, and step and throw, act na-tur-al…'

Kaepernick is better on the move. He doesn't have to do mental gymnastics about mechanics, progressions and reads while standing uncomfortably in the pocket. The action happens faster for him when he rolls out, and he has less time to overthink the process.

Jim Harbaugh never embraced this part of Kaepernick's game. Harbaugh was intent on turning Kaepernick into a pocket passer. He made Kaepernick drop straight back about 90 percent of the time. It was as if Harbaugh wanted Kaepernick to play like Carson Palmer — a statue who throws deep.

The new coaching staff embraces Colin Kaepernick's unique rhythm and fluidity. From what I can tell, the offense practiced rollouts and bootlegs during OTAs and minicamp much more often than they ever did the past few years.

'I think you're right, Grant,' said Chryst, responding to my observation. 'You've seen enough to know that that plays to Kaep's advantage. He always has been good throwing both to his left and to his right. We're trying to play to Kaep's strengths.'

There are other ways to play to Kaep's strengths, too. Like bringing back the read option. The Niners used that play frequently when Kaepernick first became the starter in 2012. But they pretty much gave up on it after the first few games of 2013, choosing instead to focus on Frank Gore and the under-center, I-formation running game, which was effective. That was Gore's background. He was uncomfortable running the read option.

Now he's gone, and Carlos Hyde is the starting running back. And his background is the read-option. That's what he ran at Ohio State. That's what Kaepernick ran at Nevada, too.

Now the read option has become one of the main running plays the Niners practice.

'(The read option) is a part of football now — it just is,' said Chryst. 'Kaep having run it at Nevada … he has a great knack at it. We've got to figure out how to keep Kaep being Kaep.'

They've also got to figure out how often to use the play. Will they use it liberally, or will they save it for key situations late in games?

'We aren't there yet,' said Chryst. 'We need to get the pads on and see where it's at. Obviously, it's part of Kaepernick's background. For him, it's like ordering breakfast. He knows what he wants to eat for breakfast.

'As you mature, whether it's Randall Cunningham or Donovan McNabb, a lot of times they used their feet to solve problems early in their careers. Look at Michael Jordan in basketball. He was a runner and a dunker early, and then he found a shot later because he had to.'

Let's be real clear about what Chyst said: He expects Kaepernick to master pocket passing eventually, when he slows down later in his career. But he isn't slowing down any time soon. So the Niners will accentuate what he already does well — run.

And they'll let him run his plate, too — breakfast, lunch and dinner.

Grant Cohn writes sports columns and the 'Inside the 49ers' blog for The Press Democrat's website. You can reach him at grantcohn@gmail.com.

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