The San Francisco 49ers will play the Washington Redskins tonight on Monday night football in a game that will be highlighted by quarterbacks Colin Kaepernick and Robert Griffin III. When the NFL put this game on the Monday night schedule for week 12, they probably figured it would be a potential playoff preview between two of the league’s up and coming quarterbacks. However, that has not been the case, as the Redskins are all but out of the playoff race, while the 49ers find themselves a distant second in their division and scrambling for a spot in the crowded wildcard race.
A big reason why both teams have fallen short of expectations this year are the struggles of the two quarterbacks. A year ago both Kaepernick and Griffin looked like two of the most promising young stars in the league, but they haven’t looked like it this season. So what has happened to these two young quarterbacks, and why aren’t they continuing to develop the way we expected them to? Is it because the zone-read offense is a fad that will die out as quickly as it came in, or is there something specific about these quarterbacks that is causing them to struggle this year?
With Griffin, his health has obviously been an issue, especially early in the seaosn. Coming off a serious knee injury he suffered at the end of last season, Griffin rarely ran the ball during the first month of the season, and he wasn’t all that effective when he tried. Griffin was also timid to put weight on his knee and step forward while throwing the ball, which had an impact on his abilities as a passer. His inconsistency making simple throws from the pocket shined a light on how important his ability to run was to his success last year; instead of his running ability being a bonus of having him at quarterback, it turned out to be an essential part of his game, and when he doesn’t have it, he struggles.
As the season has moved along, Griffin has begun to look healthier than he was at the start of the season, which has allowed him to become a more frequent runner, yet his completion percentage remains erratic from week to week, and doesn’t always improve when he has success running the ball. He hasn’t built his career as a quarterback on the foundation of being effective pocket passer, much less an elite passer, and that has been exposed this year because he’s been unable to use his legs the way he did last year.
Griffin will benefit from an offseason of training rather than an offseason of rehab, so it’s too early to write him off based on one bad season coming off a serious injury. However, he needs to be able to beat teams from the pocket using his arm, regardless of how talented he is as a runner. A healthy Griffin will be able to use the zone-read to become one of the most dangerous offensive talents in the league, but only if he can first become an average or better pocket passer, which he’s not right now, and it’s the primary reason for his struggles this season, regardless of the knee injury he suffered last year.
As for Kaepernick, his issues are a little more puzzling. He entered the season coming off a trip to the Super Bowl as one of the toughest quarterbacks in the NFL to prepare for because of his size, athleticism, and arm strength. It looked like business as usual for Kaepernick after a sensational season opener against Green Bay in which he threw for over 400 yards and three touchdowns. However, it’s been all down hill since then, as Kaepernick has eclipsed 200 yards passing just once in the last nine games, while throwing nearly as many interceptions as touchdowns.
Kaepernick’s problems appear to be far more mental than they are physical. Poor performances and losses in weeks 2 and 3 appear to have shattered his confidence. He looks unsure of himself in the pocket and has struggled going through his progressions and making the proper read. He doesn’t look comfortable throwing to anyone besides Anquan Boldin and Vernon Davis, which may be why he’s staring down his receivers more than he did last year and not going through his progressions. To a certain extent, the 49ers’ play calling has hindered Kaepernick as well, confining him to the pocket too much, and not utilizing his legs and putting him on the perimeter, where he’s comfortable making plays. This myriad of problems has contributed to Kaepernick’s struggles this year, although there doesn’t seem to be an obvious answer to solving them, as the mental side of football seems to have gotten to him.
The struggles that both Griffin and Kaepernick have experienced this season don’t appear to be related to the zone-read scheme that took the NFL by storm last year, and while it may not be taking over the league the way we thought it was a year ago, it’s also not something that’s going to go away completely. Griffin’s issues are largely physical and can be solved by staying healthy and having an offseason of training instead of rehabbing. Kaepernick’s problems are largely mental, and it’s difficult to configure a timetable for how quickly he’ll be able to work through them. Both quarterbacks are immensely talented, but both have taken a step back this year and have issues to work through; however, if they can identify where things have gone wrong for them this year, there’ll have a better chance of fixing their problems and emerging as the elite quarterbacks they’re both capable of becoming.