Colin Kaepernick walks off the field after his bad pitch led to a Rams TD Sunday. (Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images)
After three starts in the “Colin Kaepernick era,” it’s obvious the 49ers are a different team with him at quarterback.
As he showed late in Sunday's game with a 50-yard run to set up a go-ahead field goal, Kaepernick has the athletic ability to make something out of nothing.
What he also has is the ability to be the featured runner in designed plays, and to be used in new offensive formations that take advantage of his talents to run the same kind of read-option type plays he used while running the Pistol offense at the University of Nevada.
The extra dimension of his abilities certainly gives opposing defenses something to worry about each game.
But the 49ers also have shown that, with Kaepernick, they’re more likely to take risks than they did when Alex Smith at quarterback.
Smith often was criticized as a game manager by some NFL observers, a quarterback who played within his limitations, didn’t make mistakes and was just part of the 11-man offensive unit on any given play.
The difference between having Kaepernick or Smith at QB certainly came into play Sunday, when the 49ers lost to the Rams in overtime in St. Louis, 16-13, to drop the 49ers to 8-3-1 this season and cut their lead to 1½ games over the Seattle Seahawks in the NFC West.
A costly mistake by Kaepernick late in the game, on a play the Niners never would have called with Smith at quarterback, proved to be the turning point of the game.
With the 49ers nursing a 10-2 lead with 3:11 remaining in regulation, and facing a third-and-3 at their own 17-yard line, the Niners called for an option-pitch play, and Kaepernick – after faking a handoff – pitched the football high over Ted Ginn Jr.’s head.
The ball was recovered by the Rams’ Janoris Jackson, who took it into the end zone for a touchdown.
The Rams then went for two to tie the game. After trading late field goals at the end of the fourth quarter to send the game to overtime, the Rams eventually won in the extra period.
Think back to when Smith was quarterbacking the Niners earlier this season: San Francisco likely would have run a more straightforward running play or short passing route to try to get the first down, control the clock and keep the ball out of the Rams’ hands.
Certainly, with Kaepernick, the coaching staff is taking a more high-risk, high-reward approach.
After Sunday’s loss, the second-year quarterback took all the blame for the bad pitch – and an earlier mistake that led to a safety -- telling the San Francisco Chronicle, “It was my fault all the way.”
“I gave up those points on the scoreboard for the Rams,” Kaepernick added. “It’s 100 percent my fault.”
Head coach Jim Harbaugh, however, said the mistake on the bad-pitch play was better tossed into the laps of the coaching staff.
“That was on us,” Harbaugh told the Sacramento Bee’s Mattew Barrows. “That was the wrong play to call at that time. I would love to have that one back. Don’t blame the players on that one. It was too risky of a play to call at that time.”
For now, Smith’s time at QB is over and Kaepernick is now The Guy for the 49ers, meaning there likely will be more of these highs and lows. Kaepernick will make plays Smith couldn’t have made, and he’ll also likely make mistakes Smith wouldn’t have made, too.
As columnist Mark Purdy of the Bay Area News Group noted, “It is foolish to speculate on whether Smith might have made the same errors as Kaepernick on Sunday because the coaches would have called different plays for Smith – including the option play, most likely. Smith might have won Sunday’s game with those different plays. Or the Rams might have stymied him, too.”
The only thing we know for certain is that we’re watching a different offense with Kaepernick at the controls, and he’ll be running the show again this Sunday when the Dolphins come to Candlestick Park.