Colin Kaepernick placed the ball in the belly of running back Frank Gore, then pulled it out and stepped to his right.
There it was, Kaepernick’s old friend and a vanishing species in the San Francisco 49ers offense – the read option, the play that made him The Next Big Thing in the NFL.
It happened during the second quarter of the 49ers’ grinding 23-13 win over the St. Louis Rams, and the net result was 6 yards. The pride of Pitman High tossed his head skyward in disgust after he stepped out of bounds because he knew he missed a golden chance for one of his trademark sprints to the end zone. A bobble on the exchange cost him his window downfield, however, and the gain was only nominal.
“Yeah, it would have (been a big gain) if I didn’t bobble it,” he said. “Our offensive line did a great job. (Fullback) Bruce Miller came around, it should have been a big play.”
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We focus on that play for a reason: If it goes the distance, Kaepernick and the 49ers resemble the high-flying bunch that campaigned to the Super Bowl a year ago. Today, they don’t fly high. They pound, they kick field goals and they slug toward functional wins.
The 49ers improved to 8-4 and edged ahead of Arizona in their weekly push-and-pull toward the playoffs. But can that offense scale the mountains they cleared last year?
The answer, of course, comes next Sunday in the rematch against Seattle, which humbled them 29-3 Sept. 15 in the Northwest. That uncertainty wasn’t lost an anyone in attendance at Candlestick Park, and it hung over the premises like a typical marine layer by the bay: Can the 2013 version of the 49ers stand up to the team – and especially that gnarly Seahawks defense – that’s left them scarred and bruised twice in the last 12 months?
We’ll see next week. This much we know right now: The 49ers cannot ride their own defense back to the Super Bowl without more of a contribution from the offense. The Seahawks and three other teams this season have identified that flaw.
Yes, the 49ers swept the Rams, a team they couldn’t beat last year. But 20-20 vision tells you the 49ers lack their 2012 explosion. Opponents crowd the line to deny Frank Gore major yardage week after a week. They dare Kaepernick to beat them with his strong arm downfield.
Sunday marked an uptick – 19 of 28 completions for 275 yards and a touchdown to new hurdles favorite Vernon Davis. Kaepernick appeared to be more at ease with the return of Michael Crabtree (4 catches, 68 yards).
That said, Crabtree grimaced after his 60-yard strike during the third quarter. He’s not 100 percent (by own admission), 61/2 months after his Achilles injury, but Kaepernick will pull Crabtree onto the field with a rope if needed. He missed the target that cushioned his roll into the starting quarterback job.
But it’s painfully clear the 49ers will not waltz into the playoffs like the previous two years. The offense absorbed more blows with the loss of bedrock tackle Joe Staley (MCL sprain), which means the left side of their line (including guard Mike Iupati) is on the shelf. Tight end Vance McDonald also limped off during the first half (ankle).
Minus more protection, Kaepernick was sacked four times before halftime. To his credit, he responded to the pressure by stepping into the pocket to either improv or deliver accurate throws. None of this came easily against a chippy Rams team that seemed more interested in provoking the 49ers than beating them.
Kaepernick and Company clearly won this fight. The QB earned a rating of 111.5. When he’s 90 or above, the 49ers are 12-0. By the way, his record as a starter is 15-7. Everyone not named Manning or Brady would throw a party with those numbers.
“This was one of Colin’s better games,” coach Jim Harbaugh said. “We had a lot of big plays off the scramble, either him running it or moving to create space, and I thought he did a great job throwing the ball in those scramble situations.”
The 49ers will require even more from Kaepernick when the stakes are raised against Seattle. They probably can’t catch them in the NFC West. More important, they must reclaim their swagger after the beatings they’ve absorbed. If they’re geared for another run deep into the postseason, they must show it next week.
Three things in the 49ers’ favor: Their defense that has allowed only a 12-point average over the last nine games, the calendar (Harbaugh’s 49er teams are 7-3 in December) and the return of Crabtree and Mario Manningham to assist Kaepernick.
The read-option may be all but gone – NFL defensive coordinators figured to smarten up over the offseason – but Kaepernick’s comfort zone must be widened. Having his favorite guys back on the field is a start.
“It feels great,” he said in reference to Crabtree’s return. “I mean, it’s always good to have these two (Anquan Boldin and Crabtree) at your disposal, on the field, to make plays.”