Photo: Harry How/Getty Images
A month ago we wrote that Colin Kaepernick and Alex Smith were basically the same player.
It looks really dumb in retrospect, but here’s the thing — Kaepernick was very similar to Smith. The 49ers used Kaepernick in the same way they used Smith for most of the regular season, and almost every statistic bore that out.
But in the playoffs, Kaepernick has been in an entire different universe from Smith.
It’s not that he got magically better. It’s that the 49ers, out of nowhere, started playing a radically different style in the playoffs. And except for the first quarter against the Falcons, it has been utterly unstoppable.
What has changed?
The 49ers have taken something they used sparingly in the regular season — the pistol formation — and built their entire postseason offence around it.
The “pistol” is a formation where the quarterback is the shotgun and the running back lines up behind him instead of next to him.
It looks like this:
The pistol is new to the NFL, but it has been around the college game for a while. In fact, Kaepernick ran the pistol exclusively when he played at Nevada, and his coach actually invented the formation.
So what’s so good about the pistol?
It’s the perfect formation for a play called the “read-option” — where the quarterback reads what the defence is doing and then either hands it off to the running back or runs it himself. It’s simple, it puts the defence on the back foot, and it works incredibly well if you have a QB who can run. Plus, NFL defenses have zero experience with it
The 49ers are running this play like crazy right now.
According to ESPN Stats & Info, the 49ers ran the option 26 times in the 7 games Kaepernick started in the regular season, so around 3 or 4 times per game. They scored 3 TDs and averaged 5.4 yards per play.
In their two playoff games, the 49ers have run the option 29 times, or 14 times per game. They’ve scored 4 TDs and averaged 8.4 yards per play.
The results are undeniable — they’re averaging 38.5 points per game (compared to 26.3 in Kaepernick’s regular season starts), and Kaepernick has become a completely different and terrifying player.
Here’s the read-option out of the pistol for a game-winning touchdown:
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