Grant Cohn: Colin Kaepernick needs to pick up the pace

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This is not a criticism of Colin Kaepernick.

Yes, he has completed only five passes so far in the preseason. No, he hasn’t played well. But just about every time he drops back to pass he gets swarmed. The offensive line has been bad. The Niners have tried three different players at right guard already and there’s still more than a week before the regular season.

The pass protection probably won’t be good any time soon, so Kaepernick probably won’t have much time to throw. We understand his struggles. But he is not a helpless victim. There’s something he can do, something he must do to survive and succeed as a pocket passer.

Kaepernick must get rid of the ball fast. I’m talking one Mississippi, two Mississippi, throw. That’s how the best quarterbacks make up for shaky offensive lines.

Take Peyton Manning. He plays behind a shaky offensive line. So last season he got rid of the ball in 2.22 seconds on average. Sacked only 17 times. Tom Brady took 2.34 seconds to throw on average in 2014. Sacked only 21 times. Ben Roethlisberger — 2.43 seconds. Sacked 33 times.

Colin Kaepernick — 2.68 seconds. Sacked 52 times. He tends to hold the ball a beat too long, then tries to make up for waiting by throwing hard. Sometimes waiting leads to sacks that shouldn’t happen.

This preseason, Kaepernick has been holding the ball more than a few beats too long. On average, he has taken 3.34 seconds to throw, slowest in the NFL — even slower than Tim Tebow, who’s taking 3.17 seconds to throw on average. You could count how long Kaepernick holds the ball in elephant years.

Here’s what’s ironic: New offensive coordinator Geep Chryst designed the new passing game to feature quick throws. It’s all about giving the quarterback a fast, easy solution to pressure.

Watch backup quarterback Blaine Gabbert operate Chryst’s system. Gabbert has been throwing on time and in rhythm, taking an average of 2.30 seconds to get rid of the ball. And he has completed 23 of 28 passes. And his passer rating is 108.8. Kaepernick’s is 47.0.

I’m not saying Gabbert is better than Kaepernick — I’m saying Gabbert has the right idea for this scheme and this offensive line.

And Kaepernick is still wrestling with the idea. During plays you can see him hesitate. Instead of throwing with anticipation, he’s waiting for receivers to get open, but he no longer has time to do that. So he ends up scrambling, throwing the ball away or getting sacked when he should already have completed a pass.

I’ll give you a couple examples. First, from the first series of the first preseason game against the Houston Texans. It was third-and-7. Kaepernick was in the shotgun. The center snapped the ball, and Kaepernick took a quick three-step drop.

He was staring at Anquan Boldin, who broke to the inside on a slant route just as Kaepernick reached the top of his drop. If Kaepernick had thrown the ball to Boldin in rhythm and on time, the pass would have been an easy completion, an easy first down.

But Kaepernick started scrambling to his left. Why? There was no pressure. Then he scrambled back to his right and threw the ball away after holding it for eight-and-a-half seconds.

Second example, from the second series of the second preseason game against the Dallas Cowboys. It was second-and-6. Kaepernick was in the shotgun. The center snapped the ball, and Kaepernick took a quick three-step drop.

He was staring at Quinton Patton, who broke to the inside on a curl route just as Kaepernick reached the top of his drop. If Kaepernick had thrown the ball to Patton in rhythm and on time, the pass probably would have been complete.

But Kaepernick pump-faked instead of throwing. Then he got sacked by Randy Gregory.

Third example, from the fifth series of the second preseason game against the Denver Broncos. It was first-and-5. Kaepernick was in the shotgun. The center snapped the ball, and this time Kaepernick took a five-step drop.

He was staring at Boldin, who was running a curl route near the left hashes and was covered. Down the left sideline, Vernon Davis was running a wheel route and was not covered — he was wide open. Kaepernick probably saw him out of his peripheral vision, and if he didn’t see him he probably knew he was open based on the coverage. He should have known.

Kaepernick didn’t throw to Davis. Kaepernick didn’t throw to anyone. He scrambled and gained 34 yards.

Which was good, but if he had thrown the ball to Davis in rhythm and on time he probably would have scored a touchdown. It is better to be a throwing quarterback than a running quarterback. Ask Steve Young.

Kaepernick always has been reinforced to hold the ball in the pocket. Holding the ball allows him to use his legs and keep dead plays alive.

But the 49ers offensive line won’t let him to play like that anymore. He’ll get killed if he keeps playing like that. He must play more like Gabbert. And isn’t that ironic?

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

Stats courtesy of Pro Football Focus.

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