Another 49ers season has come and gone without a Superbowl win. To add salt to the wound, the Seattle Seahawks blew the Denver Broncos apart in the Superbowl 43-8, giving the Seahawks bragging rights for the next year.
Given how close the 49ers were to beating the Seahawks in the NFC Championship Game, it is easy to assume that the 49ers would have won the Superbowl had they beaten the Seahawks. It is also tempting to blame 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick and his two fourth quarter interceptions for our loss to the Seahawks. Colin Kaepernick is also criticized for “regressing” this season, prompting many 49ers fans to ask for past 49ers quarterback Alex Smith’s return.
Was it wrong to make Colin Kaepernick the starting quarterback for the 49ers? How much did he really regress this year?
The most accurate mathematical measure of a quarterback’s performance is called Total Quarterback Rating (QBR), created by ESPN in 2011. ESPN analyzed over 60,000 NFL games to create a formula that would determine how much each quarterback contributed to the success or failure of his team in a given game or season.
Each play analyzed to determine QBR is weighted based on its impact in the overall game and is also weighted based on how much of the play the quarterback was responsible for. For example, an interception that happens when the football goes in and out of the hands of a wide receiver will not hurt a quarterback’s QBR too much because the interception was not in the quarterback’s control. QBR also factors in how much a quarterback contributes by running and how much they lose because of sacks.
These ratings out of 100 points give us a statistical glimpse at where our team’s quarterback stands compared to other NFL quarterbacks.
At the end of Week 16 of the NFL this season, I decided to analyze the QBRs of every quarterback who started a game in 2013. However, I made one change to the QBR system: I added back in QBR points taken away for sacks. While sacks are sometimes the quarterback’s fault, after watching San Francisco’s offensive line fail Kaepernick many times this season, I decided it was unfair to blame any quarterback for the failures of their offensive lines.
With sacks added back in, I generated a list measuring every 2013 NFL quarterback’s season through Week 16. The quarterback with the highest QBR was of course Peyton Manning (92.6), arguably the best quarterback in the history of the NFL and the 2013 NFL MVP. The second highest QBR without sacks belonged to Drew Brees, the New Orleans Saint’s Pro-Bowl quarterback.
Guess who was the third best quarterback by QBR this season out of the 40 quarterbacks in the NFL?
49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick with a QBR of 90.4. He was one of only four quarterbacks who started with QBRs above 90.
The quarterback from San Francisco’s least favorite team, Russell Wilson, is number 6 on the list with a QBR of 87.0 despite the fact that adding in sacks raised Wilson’s QBR more than it raised Kaepernick’s.
And Alex Smith? His QBR is 72.3, placing him at number 20 of the 40 NFL quarterbacks who started this year.
To me, having a quarterback ranked number 3 on the list sounds better than having a quarterback ranked number 6 or number 20.
But let us go back to the NFC Championship Game. Even if statistics show that Kaepernick was actually one of the NFL’s best quarterbacks for the 2013 season, does that change the fact that he threw two interceptions in the NFC Championship Game in the fourth quarter, resulting in our loss to Seattle?
The pass that ended the game in Seattle was underthrown to wide receiver Michael Crabtree in the right corner of the end zone with over 30 seconds left on the clock and multiple time outs. It was intercepted by Seahawks linebacker Malcolm Smith.
Even though the pass was underthrown, the real question is, why were we throwing to Crabtree to begin with?
If Crabtree did catch the ball, giving the 49ers the lead in the game, there would still be time left for the Seahawks to score before the game ended. Why give them almost 30 seconds? Why not run a few plays to eat up clock time before throwing to the end zone?
The decision to throw to Crabtree was made by 49ers offensive coordinator Greg Roman, who in charge of all offensive play calling during the game. Even though Kaepernick is to blame for the fact that the pass was underthrown, I find it hard to blame him for the interception if the pass really should not have even been thrown in Smith’s direction in the first place.
Ultimately, the 49ers still have room to improve. Getting to the Superbowl will likely involve winning in Seattle at some point, a place where the 49ers have been unable to win in the last two years. However, the 49ers go into next season in good shape. They have one of the NFL’s best quarterbacks who, even during his “sophomore slump,” had one of the best QBRs in the NFL.