Growing Pains

Where has Colin Kaepernick gone?

The player who was supposed to revolutionize the quarterback position -- for the most part this season -- has been average. Ordinary even.

Kaepernick has been really good, as he was in San Francisco's season opener against Green Bay, when he threw for 412 yards and three touchdowns. And Kaepernick has been mediocre, as he was in back-to-back losses to Seattle and Indianapolis, when he completed only 47.3 percent of his passes for a total of 277 yards, zero touchdowns and four interceptions.

Good Kaepernick. Bad Kaepernick. We have seen that act. But we have not seen a consistent Kaepernick, and we definitely have not seen a revolutionary, change-the-game-with-his-wicked-talent Kaepernick.

Sixteen starts into his NFL career, that really is to be expected.

"He's going through the learning process all young quarterbacks go through," said Greg Cosell, who has studied quarterbacks for more than 20 years as the executive producer of ESPN's "NFL Matchup" show.

"The perception of him was probably magnified because he went to a Super Bowl last year," Cosell said, "but that doesn't take away from the fact that he has not started a lot of NFL games. There's still a learning curve. The fact that the 49ers wide receiving corps has limitations, that's just the way it is."

Yes it is. All Kaepernick needs to do is ask Tom Brady about that.

Brady has operated all season without his best wide receiver, who now is putting up big numbers in Denver, his two best tight ends and a reliable, durable running back. Kaepernick and the 49ers have missed Michael Crabtree, their dangerous vertical threat, and Mario Manningham, but they still have tight end Vernon Davis, veteran wide receiver Anquan Boldin and running back Frank Gore, who is among the NFL leaders in rushing yards.

Three times this season, Kaepernick has completed less than 50 percent of his passes, including in Week 5 when he was 6-of-15 for 113 yards. He ranks 23rd in the NFL with 1,221 passing yards, putting him in the company of Philadelphia's Michael Vick (in five games) and Kansas City's Alex Smith and well behind Denver's Peyton Manning, New Orleans' Drew Brees and San Diego's Philip Rivers.

With 172 rushing yards, Kaepernick ranks fifth among quarterbacks, behind Seattle's Russell Wilson, Vick, Oakland's Terrelle Pryor and Smith. After rushing for five touchdowns in 13 games in 2012, Kaepernick has zero rushing touchdowns through six contests this season.

Kaepernick's overall stats aren't horrible -- he is completing 55.9 percent of his passes for an average of 203.5 yards per game, with eight touchdowns and five interceptions – but they aren't game-changing.

Few in the league are surprised.

"This is all part of his maturation," said one NFC front-office executive. "He was a hell of an athlete, and the dual approach to everything made him an interesting story and an interesting threat.

"That said, same with Russell [Wilson], teams all offseason have been banging away on those guys. Head coaches have mandated to their coordinators and assistants to truly get down and figure out what the hell to do with these teams because we have to stop it. Part of that is what's going on with Colin. He's still developing as a quarterback."

The front-office executive also pointed to the fact Kaepernick was drafted in the middle of the second round in 2011.

"There's always reasons players drop to that round," the source said. He noted that Kaepernick was widely viewed as a "great kid" and that people liked his values, his upbringing and his baseball background. "But he did have inconsistencies in his game and a funky delivery. So I think the people that see him now going through the stages of learning, no one's really surprised."

Part of that also is a function of the Niners' offense. Without Crabtree, San Francisco lacks a receiver who can win versus man coverage. At 33 years old, Boldin can no longer create separation from a defender. Davis is the only Niners pass-catcher who can stretch the field vertically, which is saying something about the receiving corps given that he is a tight end.

Kaepernick clearly trusts Boldin and Davis. According to ESPN Stats & Information, more than half of Kaepernick's attempts and all eight of his touchdown throws have gone to those two players. When targeting the rest of the team, Kaepernick has completed only 50 percent of his passes with three picks. Aside from Boldin and Davis, only wide receiver Kyle Williams (10 receptions for 101 yards) and fullback Bruce Miller (10 receptions for 93 yards) have more than a handful of catches.

Getting Manningham back on the field -- he started practicing this week for the first time since tearing ligaments in his left knee last December -- should help. So too should Crabtree, whenever he returns after tearing an Achilles during an offseason workout.

But ultimately, Kaepernick needs to become more patient in the pocket and learn how to move through his progressions when his first option is covered. Given his tendency to tuck the ball and run, Kaepernick needs to become more accurate throwing on the move.

The Niners also need to continue to orchestrate and manipulate big plays to help mask their deficiencies on offense. They did that last week against Arizona on the 61-yard touchdown pass from Kaepernick to Davis, when they had seven offensive linemen and two tight ends on the field and forced the Cardinals to use only three defensive backs.

Kaepernick has the talent and the athleticism to be a star. He has the work ethic. He has the trust of his teammates and coaches. But he remains a work in progress, as his production this season has shown.