Who is Colin Kaepernick? Why is he taking so many snaps away from Alex Smith? Are the 49ers using a wildcat offense? Isn't that strategy dead, or at least stuck in the swamps of Jersey? And if it isn't, what should we do about it?
Deep questions like these need orthodox answers. Luckily, the Archbishop of Football is here with the Wild Catechism you need to confirm your understanding of the latest quarterback juggling schemes. Here's a canonical look at the 49ers' latest offensive wrinkle that will teach viewers of Thursday night's 49ers-Seahawks game what the Niners Faithful already know: Jim Harbaugh moves quarterbacks around in mysterious ways.
Why do the 49ers keep switching back and forth between Alex Smith and Colin Kaepernick?
The 49ers have a special package of plays for Kaepernick. Their goal is to use his speed and athleticism to diversify their offense and surprise opponents with unexpected wrinkles.
Is Kaepernick's package a "wildcat?"
Technically, no. Most of Kaepernick's plays have been run from a pistol formation: the quarterback in short shotgun, one running back beside him (usually) and another behind him. Pistol-based offenses share some roots with wildcat packages but evolved separately.
So why does everyone call the Kaepernick plays a "wildcat" or "WildKap?"
The term "wildcat" has become a generic name for any play where the starting quarterback is replaced by a special guest, whether a speedy backup or some position player, typically to execute an option-based running play. The term wildcat became popular when Tony Sparano used the true wildcat package (running back takes shotgun snap, "wing" back motions into the backfield, there is either a handoff sweep, plunge into the line or something exotic) to help the Dolphins beat the Patriots in 2008. Some experts get very pernickety about using the term to refer to a package like the one Kaepernick runs, and if I were writing to a technical audience I would be more precise, but I think nowadays most people understand that "wildcat" has the colloquial meaning of "oh no, here comes some weird gadget play with a mystery quarterback."
Did Tony Sparano invent the wildcat?
No, and he never claimed to. One of his assistants, David Lee, was an offensive coordinator at Arkansas who had a great deal of success using running back Darren McFadden as a direct-snap "quarterback" who could hand off to fellow back Felix Jones, keep the ball himself or float an occasional sneaky pass. Lee's package was called "Wild Hog," a play on the wildcat name, which had been cited in a high school coaching guide. Lee had many other influences, and some of the core concepts of the wildcat date back to the single wing offenses of long ago, when the player who took the snap was not the quarterback but a "fullback" or "tailback," somewhere evolutionarily between the modern running back and Tim Tebow.
You just mentioned evolution and Tebow in the same sentence. Is that a good idea?
Not at all. Let's just say that the wildcat, as a high school and college package, is the result of some very intelligent design by guys like Sparano and Lee.
How many NFL teams run some kind of wildcat now?
The Football Outsiders database has wildcat plays for several teams in 2012, but the definition can get overly broad. The Bengals trick-play touchdown from Mohamed Sanu to A.J. Green technically falls under the broad "wildcat" name, but Sanu is not about to start taking 10 snaps per game at quarterback. Besides the Jets and 49ers, the Bills are committed to a Brad Smith wildcat package, and the Cardinals sometimes insert cornerback Patrick Peterson to take direct snaps. The Panthers and Vikings have also run isolated plays this year in the genre.
Do these plays work?
Football Outsiders has wildcat rushes averaging 3.6 yards per attempt, which is lower than the league average of 4.2 yards per attempt. There has been only one wildcat touchdown in five goal-to-go plays, so the package is not being used as some kind of short-yardage sledgehammer. Four documented passes have resulted in the Sanu-Green touchdown, a Tebow completion that was fumbled, a Tebow incompletion and a Brad Smith interception that Chan Gailey called "a dumb call" after the game.
The Football Outsiders database does do not filter for Kaepernick, however, as he is listed as a backup quarterback, not a special "watch out for" player like Tebow or Brad Smith. Kaepernick has carried eight times for 60 yards and a touchdown in the first three quarters of games and is 2-of-4 for 43 yards and a sack in the first three quarters. He played several drives in the fourth quarters of the last three lopsided games (two wins and a loss) as a plain-old quarterback.
So Kaepernick's numbers are rather good, but overall wildcat-type strategies have not been effective league-wide. And it is important to note that much of Kaepernick's production came in a Bills game where Jim Harbaugh could have blown his nose and the result would have been a 35-yard gain.
Why would anyone want to take the starting quarterback out of the game? Isn't he the most important player on the offense?
The quarterback is the most important player on the offense, but not the best player on the field. That makes a huge difference at the college and high school levels. Let's go back to Arkansas for a moment. When McFadden and Jones were in their heyday, the Razorbacks' quarterbacks were Casey Dick and Mitch Mustain. McFadden and Jones were typically the two best athletes on the field, on either side of the ball, and the athletic differential between them and your basic Mississippi linebacker was pretty extreme. It made sense to create opportunities to get the ball directly into McFadden and Jones' hands, eliminating the middleman quarterbacks.
Is that what the 49ers are doing? Is Kaepernick really their best athlete?
"Best athlete" may be too strong a word. Kaepernick possesses an unusual combination of size, speed, cutting ability and passing ability. He is like Tebow in many ways. The main difference is that Kaepernick was very skinny when he left college, but he has bulked up considerably after one year on the bench. Also, Kaepernick is a better passer than Tebow.
How come I never heard of Kaepernick until last week?
Kaepernick was a very well-regarded college quarterback, a four-year starter at Nevada. He rushed for more than 1,000 yards and threw for more than 2,000 yards each of his last three seasons in the Wolf Pack's pistol-based offense. Kaepernick was even a Heisman darkhorse in 2010 (he finished eighth in the voting), but unlike Tebow, he was not well known outside of college football circles. Nevada is an outpost, media-wise, and the WAC is a mid-major conference. Kaepernick led the Wolf Pack to a 13-1 record in 2010, and the reward was the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl.
Because of his level of competition, non-NFL style offense and skinny frame, Kaepernick graded out as a mid-round draft pick. The 49ers took him in the second round of the 2011 draft. He threw zero touchdowns and five interceptions in his rookie preseason, ending speculation that he was a threat to Smith in the short term, and of course Smith went on to have a career year that doused the kind of quarterback controversy that places public attention on a backup.
Offenses like ones Kaepernick and Tebow ran in college are exciting and very effective. Why don't more NFL teams use them as anything other than gadgets?
Remember the athletic differential between Darren McFadden and some college linebacker we talked about? That evaporates completely in the NFL. Most option-based offensive schemes, from the old wishbone option to the system Tebow ran, are based on two principles: 1) the option pitch or fake can be used to freeze an unblocked defensive end, essentially "blocking" him, and 2) the ball carrier (quarterback, pitch man, or wildcat guy) can consistently outrun the pursuit of defenders after the pitch or fake. In the NFL, that "frozen" defensive end is someone like Jason Pierre-Paul, who is fast and gifted enough to gobble up the pitch himself if not blocked, and the pursuit defenders can converge on a play much faster than they do in college.
More option principles are working their way into the NFL. Robert Griffin III uses a lot of pistol formations for the Redskins, and Cam Newton had success with spread-option plays last year. But the league is figuring Newton out fast, and most offensive coordinators see option plays as a short-term, transitional package to help develop a young quarterback, or as a short-yardage package.
Are NFL defenses figuring out the Kaepernick wildcat?
Figure 1 shows a Kaepernick pistol play from the third quarter of the loss to the Giants. It is a very complex version of an old-fashioned reverse. Kaepernick (7) fakes a handoff to Frank Gore (21), then appears to run an option play to the left with Delanie Walker (46) as the pitch man. But Mario Manningham (82) loops around from the wide receiver spot to take the pitch instead.
Like many option-based plays, this play leaves a defensive lineman unblocked or barely blocked. In this case, that lineman is Justin Tuck (91), one of the most experienced, versatile defenders in the NFL. Tuck anticipates a trick and ignores Kaepernick and Walker, instead fending off a weak block by Gore and waiting for the end-around. Manningham barely eludes Tuck and gains seven yards, but a lot of high-risk engineering went into those seven yards.
Two drives later, Kaepernick re-enters the game in a different wildcat formation, as shown in Figure 2. He fakes a handoff to Gore, who appears confused about his role, running into the flat instead of "meshing" with the quarterback. Kaepernick then drops to pass, but he has only two receivers downfield to throw to, and while it appears that the wide receiver gets open, he does not throw the football. Instead, Pierre-Paul (90) and Osi Umenyiora (72) get free and chase Kaepernick. In the WAC, Kaepernick may have been able to escape two defensive ends by scrambling, but that's not happening against the Giants' pass rushers. The result is an ugly 12-yard sack.
Doesn't the element of surprise provide the 49ers with a big advantage on these plays?
Whatever benefits the 49ers get from "keeping the defense guessing" are negated by the fact that they are keeping themselves guessing. On the play in Figure 2, Gore is confused about his role, and Kaepernick is not comfortable with his reads. The 49ers took a routine play-action pass and complicated it by introducing an inexperienced quarterback (making one of his first downfield reads of the game midway through the third quarter) and an unusual formation that may have puzzled a veteran running back. They outsmarted themselves.
Worse still, the sack in Figure 2 came after a 55-yard Alex Smith completion. After the seven-yard run in Figure 1 set up third-and-short, Smith returned to the game, the 49ers shuttled in another unusual personnel package (including a sixth offensive lineman), and they drew a false start. Smith threw an interception on the next play. The 49ers are getting in their own way with all of the substitutions. The Jets made similar mistakes with Tebow in the fourth quarter against the Texans.
The gains from wildcat strategies have not outweighed the risks since a handful of games in 2008, when the Dolphins really did have defenses scratching their heads. If teams want to gain 3.6 yards per play with occasional seven-yard bursts, that is what handoffs are for.
Could all of this WildKap stuff be a way of easing Kaepernick into a starting job?
If so, it is a terrible idea. Time spent mastering a "package" is time that could be better spent learning the full offense. Kaepernick has lined up at wide receiver for a few snaps, a sure sign that his package is something distinct and removed from the regular playbook. When you are practicing as a wide receiver running a reverse, you are NOT getting a rep as a quarterback dropping to pass, and developing quarterbacks need consistent practice reps more than they need cute trick play sessions. The same goes for America's favorite punt protector.
The best way to develop Kaepernick during games is to insert him into the fourth quarters of blowouts, like they did against the Bills and Giants.
Do Wildcat plays have any place in NFL systems?
Incorporating some option-style plays into the offense makes sense if your quarterback is Newton or Griffin, Ryan Tannehill or Christian Ponder, or even an older speedster like … Alex Smith. Such plays work best in short-yardage situations, where freezing the defense long enough to gain three yards can make a big difference. For a team with a real problem at quarterback, like a third stringer thrust into the lineup, a wildcat package can be a way to keep opponents from completely stacking against the handoff. Otherwise, the Wildcat should be used as often as something like a halfback option pass.
Does the WildKap have any place in the 49ers offense?
The 49ers are loaded with skill position talent and have a quarterback who already possesses some rushing ability. Their base offense is loaded with counters and reverses, which makes it unique in a league where the running game has been reduced to stretches and draws. Jim Harbaugh and his staff outsmarted themselves once in a while last season by handing off to tight ends and choreographing complicated blocking schemes. They are outsmarting themselves again with the WildKap, but now they do not have lack of depth at running back or wide receiver as an excuse. They should let Kaepernick develop naturally, because he has starting quarterback potential.
The good news for the 49ers is that they are so good that a little experimentation is not going to hurt them. Maybe the Giants loss got it out of their system.
The lesson has ended. Go in peace!