All of a sudden, Colin Kaepernick has a little less room to hide as he evolves as a starting quarterback -- a year after he dropped from No. 6 in QBR (2013) to No. 14 (2014) as the 49ers also took a corresponding step back in their win total. But as you watch him in practice, you see the same Kaepernick -- the good and the bad. His athletic ability is exceptional. As a thrower, he has the best fastball in the game. His work ethic is exceptional. That's the good.
On the bad side, you still see the elongated delivery, the occasional hitch in his throwing motion, and occasional issues with his reads. The thing is, those negatives didn't prevent the 49ers from going to two NFL title games and a Super Bowl with Kaepernick behind center.
With Kaepernick and the 49ers, it's a question of who bears the load. During his time in San Francisco, the 49ers haven't once finished lower than eighth in rushing yards. Even as the team struggled last season, it was still the NFL's No. 4 rushing attack. During the Jim Harbaugh years, the 49ers rushed for 139.2 yards per game -- in the age of passing, this was a team built for 2,000 yards on the ground every year. They also had one of the best offensive lines in football. It was the formula that allowed Alex Smith to play at his best and for Kaepernick to fit in and win as a raw, young quarterback. It also helped keep the defense fresh; the 49ers were a picture of health for much of Harbaugh's tenure.
The question now is, with changes in the backfield and up front, will a drop in run production doom the 49ers, or is there plenty to keep things rolling?
"We still have a lot of talent," left tackle Joe Staley told me this week.
But there changes, the biggest coming in the backfield. Gore, one of the game's best inside runners, is being replaced by a committee of three. Carlos Hyde takes over as the starter and inside runner. Reggie Bush will work the passing downs. Kendall Hunter will rotate in on running plays.
Hyde is the key. Most people around the league believe he's ready for a breakout season. He shows that potential in practice. Like Gore, he's an exceptional runner inside the tackles. He takes over at the perfect time because Gore was aging. Hyde brings fresh legs, more speed, and will show off steady hands.
With three backs being involved for the first time, Hyde might not get the 240 to 250 carries needed to gain 1,000 yards, but that's his target. "I would have to think getting over 1,000 yards would be a good goal this season," Hyde said, referring to his own totals. "I think we should be able to accomplish that. This team is committed to running the ball." The talent is there, but Hyde isn't the backfield blocker Gore was, and it could cost him some snaps.
Another adjustment that should help is more of a commitment to a zone running scheme. Under former offensive coordinator Greg Roman, the 49ers used a plethora of blocking schemes. New offensive coordinator Jeep Chryst has simplified the plan. They will use power run blocking but will be focused mostly on zone.
"Every coordinator has a stamp on how they do things," Staley said. "We will be multiple, but we will use more zone and more inside-outside zone. Zone is how the running back has to press the hole to set up the linebacker so the offensive lineman has a chance to get there. Carlos then has to see the cutback."
Another thing Chryst is doing to make the offense better is have them break the huddle with between 22 and 28 seconds left on the 40-second clock. Too often last year, plays were coming in late and late substitutions created problems for Kaepernick and the offense. Getting to the line sooner will give more time for the QB to make pre-snap reads.
The signing of wide receiver Torrey Smith should open up opportunities for the running game. The 49ers haven't had a fast receiver to strike fear in the defense, and while Smith had a down year last season by his standards, his presence forced defenses to adjust to him in deep coverage and helped the Baltimore run game. He should do the same for the 49ers as a player who can help reduce eight-in-the-box defenses. Over the past several years, Gore and Adrian Peterson were subject to the most eight-in-the box defenses.
"Early in the season, I'm sure we will see more eight-in-the-box," wide receiver Anquan Bolden said. "With our desire to be a running team, we will still see a lot of it. Torrey is so fast, though, defenses will have to adjust to him."
The 49ers have enough around Kaepernick for him to get better than last year, and while the run game has changed, it can still be potent. What that does for the trajectory of Kaepernick's career is up to him.
From the Inbox
Q: What would happen if a suspended player got hurt during training camp or pre-season with an injury that would have kept him out for the suspended games? Would the suspension go on even though the player wouldn't have been able to play, or would the suspension take effect once the player is healed?
From Mark in Wellington, Florida
A: Nothing changes and it happens all the time. Look what happened during the weekend. On Friday, Redskins cornerback Bashaud Breeland was suspended one game for a substance issue. In practice that day he suffered an MCL injury that is going to sideline him four-to-six weeks. Breeland's injury status doesn't change the suspension equation. He would miss the opener and then be eligible to return to practice and possibly play in Week 2. Now, it looks like there is a good chance he would have missed the opener because of the injury anyway.
Q: One thing I don't understand about the current Deflategate issue is how Robert Kraft gets to verbally criticize the league, its officials, etc. the way he has, saying "I was wrong to place my faith in the league." The league regularly fines coaches and players for criticizing officials during the season and I know that owners are supposed to be held to the same standard. Does Roger Goodell just not want to make the whole thing worse or if this keeps up will he drop the hammer on Kraft?
From Dennis in Santa Clarita, California
A: There is no way Goodell will add additional punishment to Robert Kraft. He has already assessed the team -- as Kraft said -- the toughest sanction in NFL history. You are right that Goodell has power to fine such criticism. Roger is very close to Steelers owner Dan Rooney. He fined Rooney for criticizing officials after a game. I'm sure Kraft was doing that to settle down the angry Patriots fans who are upset about the four-game suspension to quarterback Tom Brady. It's one reason Goodell is paid the big bucks. He has to make tough decisions even if those decisions negatively affect the owners who hired him.
Q: Do you think Kevin Green will make it into the Hall of Fame soon? I think he's been snubbed lately for not being a big name. His stats add up.
From Taylor in Oxford, Mississippi
A: He's right on the borderline. He has the sack numbers. He has the long years of service. He was an impact defender into his mid-thirties. We recently had a long list of 100-sack pass-rushers. It took almost a decade to get most of them into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Sometimes, it takes time to get into the Hall of Fame, but at some point, the great ones make it. Greene was definitely a good one.
Q: I have a question regarding suspended linebacker Daryl Washington. If he's reinstated, do you see the Cardinals keeping him or getting rid of him? If he does go, where can he end up? The Jets might make sense given the Todd Bowles connection.
From Isaiah in Aurora, Colorado
A: Good thinking on the possibility Bowles might be interested. I still believe he is too valuable to the Cardinals to be cut. The scary part is that he asked for reinstatement in May and hasn't heard anything from the league. Washington has great range and speed. On the field, he is great. But he needs to clear up the off-the-field issues in order to get back on the field. Just like Sheldon Richardson and his off-the-field problems, coaches and general managers can lose trust in the player. Washington has lost trust, but I still think he has a home.
Q: After reading about Russell Wilson's contract, I have to ask why is it teams spend so much on a quarterback? Is Wilson really going to earn the Seahawks $20M back in revenue each year? Sometimes it doesn't make sense to me because tying up so much money into one person eventually handicaps the team by preventing the team to signing other players (see Flacco, Brees). Why not have a cap of some sort to each position and that way the team doesn't have to worry about being over the salary cap?
From Greg in Shreveport. Louisiana
A: The NFL is a quarterback-driven league, so the quarterback has to be paid. Why do top pitchers get $25 million to $30 million a year in baseball? They get the money because there aren't enough top pitchers to satisfy the 30 teams in baseball. There aren't 32 quality quarterbacks to satisfy the 32 teams in the NFL. The better the quarterback, the better the team. Wilson has been on two Super Bowl teams and wins against some of the top quarterbacks in the league. He earned that money, and revenue definitely isn't the problem.