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COHN: 49ers keeping Kaepernick in cocoon

Colin Kaepernick takes off against the Miami Dolphins.

JOHN BURGESS / The Press Democrat
Published: Wednesday, December 12, 2012 at 4:51 p.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, December 12, 2012 at 4:51 p.m.

Jim Harbaugh has done nothing to justify making Colin Kaepernick the 49ers’ starting quarterback instead of Alex Smith.

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Colin Kaepernick takes off against the Miami Dolphins.

JOHN BURGESS / The Press Democrat

I long have advocated Kaepernick over Smith, believe he is the superior quarterback. But Harbaugh has done such a poor job of making the transition, I wonder why he bothered in the first place.

Several times Harbaugh has insisted he did not change the offense for Kaepernick. When asked on Wednesday if he has made any dramatic or significant changes in the offense for Kaepernick, Harbaugh replied, “I wouldn’t get too tied up with words — ‘dramatic,’ ‘significant.’ There are definite things we’re doing that tailor the offense to his skill set.”

Someone asked if the diamond formation the Niners used against the Dolphins is one of those changes.

“That’s one formation that was in before when Alex was playing,” Harbaugh said. "There have been some plays - just some plays, some scheme — Alex doesn’t ... er ... they both do a good job with. But Kap in particular ...”

Then the coach trailed off into Nonverbal Land.

Let’s be clear about this. Harbaugh is saying he’s made only minor changes in the offensive plan after he made the major change of dumping one quarterback midseason in favor of another. The mind reels.

Harbaugh has talked ardently and poetically about the attributes of Kaepernick that separate him from Smith. He justifies playing Kaepernick and not Smith because Kaepernick has better legs, is elusive, extends plays, has a better escape instinct in the pocket, is a specialist at the zone-read option, has a stronger arm and can make the big “chunk” pass over the middle.

Yet, Harbaugh is still running the same cautious, safety-first, wimp offense. So, what’s to be gained by using Kaepernick? Harbaugh, who had the guts to make the switch, doesn’t have the guts to use the switch. He should adapt and enhance the playbook for Kaepernick’s unique skills. Harbaugh is wasting Kaepernick.

Smith could run the current, timid version of the Niners’ offense as well as Kaepernick, maybe better. Smith still is No. 2 in the league for passer rating, one-tenth of a point behind the co-leaders, Robert Griffin III and Tom Brady. He has completed better than 70 percent of his passes. He has a higher passer rating and completion percentage than Kaepernick, and he performed at a high level in the limited ways Harbaugh and offensive coordinator Greg Roman used him — the same ways they use Kaepernick. So, why bench him for Kaepernick if the Niners are not changing the offense?

It comes down to Harbaugh’s perception that Kaepernick is the better talent. Harbaugh Wally Pipped Smith to no gain, chose to use the concussion as an excuse to make the transition. Statistically, he cannot validate the change. And it’s his own fault because he refuses to open up the offense.

Are the 49ers using Kaepernick well? They may think they are using him in a way best-suited to his play at this point of his career. That is not the same as using him in a way best-suited to his skill levels. His talent levels are higher than what they ask of him.

They had every reason to dump Smith if they were going to require more of Kaepernick. But they are keeping Kaepernick in a cocoon, sheltering him, being cautious with him and protecting him in the game plan. Smith performed well before the snap, recognizing coverages and changing plays. Harbaugh said so. And now Harbaugh walks away from all those attributes. For what?

Greg Roman has altered the look of some plays. Against Miami, he used the diamond formation — three men in the backfield with Kaepernick. And he continues to put Kaepernick in the pistol formation. Right now, all this is mere window dressing. It is not a real change unless they expand the option phases of the offense from that formation. Kaepernick is good at the option offense.

And there are negatives to the diamond. The 49ers, not so great in the long passing game to begin with, now have only two eligible receivers at the line of scrimmage, and they can be double-covered easily by the safeties. The 49ers no longer have Vernon Davis, their fastest guy, at the line because he’s hanging around the backfield with the quarterback, five yards behind the line. Which means he cannot be an immediate threat downfield. He can’t run a post or seam or corner or deep crossing routes. It’s always brilliant to eliminate your best deep threat.

Why are they using the pistol more?

When you put the quarterback in the shotgun with the back next to him, the back is offset left or right behind the tackle. It is easy for the opponent to key on him. When the back hides behind the quarterback in the “I” Formation with the pistol, he has the ability to attack the left or right side of the line. This creates greater issues for the defense. It creates better fakes for the quarterback. He can ride the tailback longer into the line of scrimmage and extend the fake longer and attract linebackers before he decides to hand off or run.

But there are negatives. The pistol eliminates the majority of the drop-back passing game. You’ve got three possible receivers in the backfield and only two eligibles at the line of scrimmage. The defense is all over the deep passing game. And once again Davis is deep in the backfield, and it’s easier for the linebacker to cover him because Davis must run five yards to the line.

This formation helps runs and play-action passes, but hinders the drop-back pass. What Kaepernick does is throw deep.

All of this means the switch to Kaepernick, of enormous significance for the 49ers, has been fruitless and relegates the Niners to a simpler passing game, almost a college passing game.

They better adapt to Kaepernick’s skills real fast. If what they showed the past two weeks against the Rams and Dolphins is all they have on offense, no way they keep pace with the Patriots on Sunday.

What a waste.

For more on the world of sports in general and the Bay Area in particular, go to the Cohn Zohn at cohn.blogs.pressdemocrat.com. You can reach Staff Columnist Lowell Cohn at lowell.cohn@pressdemocrat.com.

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