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There’s a narrative developing around the 49ers after their big 41-34 upset of the Patriots last night — Colin Kaepernick has fundamentally changed the offence since replacing Alex Smith at QB, and now San Francisco is a real Super Bowl contender.It’s not true, at least not yet.
This isn’t to say that Kaepernick hasn’t been great, or that he isn’t ultimately better than Smith.
But the narrative that the 49ers changed how they win, that Kaepernick’s dynamism has replaced Smith’s risk-averse conservatism as the winning formula, is not backed up by reality.
Here’s how Yahoo’s Doug Farrar described the pre-Kaep 49ers in a post this morning:
“Through a season and a half, the 49ers with head coach Jim Harbaugh and quarterback Alex Smith were one type of team — a team with a powerful, multiple run game, a great defence, and the kind of passing game that was generally better at maintaining a lead than fighting back from an extreme deficit. Smith was a good enough quarterback, but the 49ers knew that they couldn’t expect a heavy diet of explosive plays. That changed when Kaepernick, the second-year prop from Nevada, usurped Smith after the veteran suffered a concussion against the St. Louis Rams in early November.”
But when you dig a little deeper you find that the evidence of a San Francisco sea change isn’t there. This is basically the same offence and the same team as the Smith-led one that Farrar described above. Here’s what’s happening right now:
The 49ers are actually running more with Kaepernick than they did with Smith. In the first nine games of the season with Smith at QB, San Francisco ran the ball ~53% of the time. With Kaepernick at QB, they’re running the ball 56% of the time.
They are still the team they’ve always been — a really strong defence with a ball-control offence which is generally conservative.
Kaepernick is taking more shots down the field, but has the same basic numbers as Smith. It is true that the 49ers are taking more risks under Kaepernick, but it’s not as dramatic as you think. Smith threw the ball deep (21+ yards in the air) ~1.9 times per game when he was the starter. Kaepernick throws it deep about ~3.4 times per game.
So yeah, he’s taking more deep shots.
But the rest of the stats basically fall in line.
- Kaepernick per game: 216 yards per game, 8.4 yards per attempt, 1.4 passing TDs
- Smith per game: 192 yards per game, 8.0 yards per attempt, 1.4 passing TDs
The 49ers have never trailed in the 4th quarter with Kaepernick at QB, so Kaepernick has never led a late-game comeback. The inability to come back late in games was a big problem under Smith, and was one of the reasons he got benched despite his perfectly adequate stats. But that fundamental problem hasn’t changed with Kaepernick. Simply put, we don’t know if Kaepernick has the ability to lead late-game comebacks because hasn’t had the chance to.
We haven’t seen him in comeback mode, and as a result the 49ers biggest concern, “Can this defence-first team win a game after going down 24-7 in the third quarter?” remains unanswered.
Stats and results say that Kaepernick is better than Smith, but is he a fundamentally different player? Has he given the Niners a cutting edge they never had before? Has he ushered in a real stylistic change?
Not yet. The 49ers won last night — and are probably the best team in the NFC — because of the same boring reasons they were so good with Smith.