The pendulum swing on Colin Kaepernick has been swift and telling. A little more than a year after Kaepernick and the league settled on his collusion grievance against the league and a little less than a year after an NFL-endorsed workout for Kaepernick went totally awry, the commissioner is openly encouraging teams to sign the social activist and talented passer. As the face of social justice awareness and peaceful protest among NFL players, Kaepernick was blackballed by the NFL in 2016, and only in a social climate crying out for reform and antiracism did the NFL turn on its heel and even begin acknowledging that Kaepernick should have a job in the league. Even then, they’re not all the way there yet.
Of course, Roger Goodell is not the league embodied. Chargers head coach Anthony Lynn, one of the few minority coaches in the league and an outspoken advocate for Kaepernick’s ability as a starting quarterback, reaffirmed his sentiments yesterday by sharing that Kaepernick is on the Chargers’ workout list for the 2020 offseason, and that any team without Kaepernick on their workout list “would be crazy.”
But Lynn also brought up a Chargers-specific point, saying that Kaepernick “definitely fits the style of quarterback for the system that we're going to be running.” This is an important note not only for Kaepernick, but for the Chargers, who are undergoing a change at the quarterback position following the departure of Philip Rivers—and at offensive coordinator following the firing of Ken Whisenhunt. Figuring out just what offense the Chargers are going to be running in 2020 has been a scavenger hunt in various coaching backgrounds, presser nuggets, and of course, roster moves such as the drafting of Justin Herbert and this assertion that Kaepernick is a fit.
So the necessary questions are: what system are Lynn and the Chargers going to be running? And why is Kaepernick a fit therein?
We’ll start with the offense up until now. In 2019, the Chargers fired Whisenhunt in the middle of last season, sitting at 3-5. At the time of his firing, the Chargers had just set a league record for most consecutive games without at least 40 team rushing yards, with four—they had failed to score more than 20 points in the same stretch of play.
Into Whisenhunt’s shoes went the quarterbacks coach, Shane Steichen. Thrust into his first coordinating job in the middle of a floundering season, Steichen did an admirable job keeping his head above water. Lynn praised Steichen’s work improving the offense in his season-ending presser, and Steichen was rewarded with the permanent job in 2020. As such, while Steichen was not able to install an entirely new offense in Los Angeles, we can assume that some of the tweaks he made to the existing structure foretell the bigger changes to the Chargers’ offense under his control.
Steichen’s offense solved the running production problem of Whisenhunt’s offense by committing to volume and adjusting the approach. There were significant upticks in the Chargers’ run percentage on first down, third and short, and in the red zone during Steichen’s tenure. They found increased efficacy by running from under-center alignments as opposed to shotgun formations, with 74% of their running plays coming with the quarterback under center when Steichen was calling the shots. Overall, Steichen brought the run success rate for Los Angeles from 38% to 55%.
Of course, that’s the running game. It’s important to understanding the offense as a whole, but doesn’t tell us what Steichen and Lynn might be prioritizing at the quarterback position. To that end, on ESPN Mike Clay’s write-up on play-callers in the NFL, he brought up the aggressive passing approach that Steichen layered onto his effective running game. During the back half of the 2019 season, no wide receiver group had a deeper depth of target than the Chargers’, and the TEs were third against their respective position groups as well. The problem here was that they weren’t getting targeted enough, as 35% of Steichen’s passing targets went to running backs Melvin Gordon and Austin Ekeler.
So Steichen’s 2019 Chargers leaned toward the running backs, both in volume of rushing attempts and in volume of passing game targets. It ran from under center and looked deep to its wide receivers for explosive gains. But Steichen’s 2020 Chargers aren’t necessarily going to do the same.
For example, the under-center runs are likely not going to be as dominant as they were, despite how effective they were. After drafting Oregon QB Justin Herbert, Lynn made it very clear that he expects a slow ramp-up to the under-center game for Herbert, as he never took snaps directly from the center at Oregon, and may struggle with the particular stressors that under-center play puts on a quarterback.
“When you’re taking a snap and you’re dropping, we want your eyes downfield. Guys sometimes they’re not used to that if you’re in shotgun all the time. Especially turning your back on the secondary with the hard run-action fakes. But you have to make those reads very simple, flat defender read, half throw reads and things like that,” Lynn said in regards to Herbert’s transition to different drops in the NFL. “The young man’s been in shotgun his whole life, so why do I want to get him and put him under center right way every snap? So if we’re in a pistol and we can get the same things done and at the same time we can run read schemes.”
The mention of the pistol offense is extremely important to Lynn, who has explicitly promised that there will be more pistol in the Chargers’ playbook in 2020. In 2019, the Chargers only took five snaps in pistol, but three of those five snaps came with Tyrod Taylor as the quarterback—and with Taylor, not Herbert, as the projected starter, it seems that pistol alignments can both serve Taylor’s skill set while easing Herbert’s transition.
This rep alludes to the “read schemes” that Lynn mentioned above. Pistol alignments are wicked useful because they allow the back to align directly behind the quarterback, which conceals run direction pre-snap in a way that shotgun alignments don’t. This can make it tricky for the defense to define a run strength and set their front accordingly—and things only get worse when you remember that you can run traditional under-center concepts with a pistol alignment (because the back is behind the quarterback) and shotgun concepts, like a read-option (because the quarterback is facing the defense and can read through the mesh point).
When Taylor was starting in Buffalo, he ripped defenses up as a runner. From 2015 to 2017, only Cam Newton had more rushing yards from the QB position. In that 2015 season, which is Taylor’s lone Pro Bowl berth, the Bills’ offensive coordinator was Greg Roman, proprietor of a heavy personnel, power-based, read-option offense that had slowly grown to incorporate the pistol alignment. Roman now is the offensive coordinator in Baltimore, where he created a running offense truly unique in league history, in part because it used more pistol snaps (219) than the rest of the NFL combined (200).
But Roman’s journey into the pistol alignment as a skeleton key for mobile quarterbacks in his power running system began back in San Francisco in 2012 when an injury to incumbent quarterback Alex Smith forced the keys of the offense into the hands of sophomore backup Colin Kaepernick. Kaepernick played under the father of pistol offenses in Chris Ault, the longtime Nevada head coach, and was both comfortable in and built for the advantages of taking snaps from the pistol. A couple of months and many pistol snaps later, and the 49ers were playing in Super Bowl 47.
The extent to which this has come full circle is just tremendous. When Roman was fired in Buffalo during the 2016 season and lame-duck year of Rex Ryan’s head coaching tenure, Lynn stepped up to replace him as offensive coordinator and eventually Ryan as head coach. Now, Lynn is looking to rediscover the success Roman and Taylor had in 2015, by grabbing the same system and co-opting the pistol, read-option ideas that Roman developed with Taylor and perfected with Jackson last season in Baltimore. This is why it is almost foolish for Lynn to say that Kaepernick fits what the Chargers want to do on offense: he is the grandfather of what the Chargers want to do on offense. The Chargers wouldn’t want to do this on offense if not for Kaepernick’s success in 2012 and 2013 bringing this offensive philosophy into relevancy.
From a wider perspective, Lynn has made it extremely clear that mobile quarterbacks are the future in Los Angeles. Again, following the selection of Herbert, Lynn had this to say about the quarterback room his future franchise star was joining:
“I think Justin is walking into a great situation because he couldn’t be around two better pros than Tyrod and Easton. They have different skill sets than we’ve had here in the past. All these guys they all have arms, they can make every throw, they’re mobile and it allows you to do more things. Guys that throw from the pocket like what we’ve had in the past, Phil was excellent at getting rid of the ball and letting other people be his legs. But these guys can run around a little bit so the offense may look a little different but you still have to be able to play quarterback and play it from the pocket.”
This is where we can perhaps tether the under-center runs and the pistol runs together. As we said above, the pistol alignment can allow quarterbacks the ability to read unblocked defenders and potentially tuck the football on option plays; but they can still execute traditional handoffs in which they turn their back to the defense. As such, from both under-center and pistol alignments, you can get bootleg action from your quarterbacks, moving the launch point and creating the opportunity to scramble by design.
This was not available to the Chargers with Rivers, and it accordingly ate into their play-action passing game. As Daniel Popper of The Athletic theorized, the Chargers’ 99 play-action passing attempts in 2019 (fifth-lowest in the league) were so infrequent because they couldn’t move the launch point off of play-action with an aging Rivers at quarterback. Given Lynn’s focus on passers who can “do more things” and “make the offense look a little different,” it seems self-evident why the three quarterbacks he’s added during his tenure as the head coach of the Chargers have all been mobile players: Taylor, Stick, and now Herbert. He wants not only to incorporate the designed QB run, but he wants to move the launch point in the passing game as well.
Kaepernick was a fairly volatile play-action passer across his Roman-coordinated career in San Francisco, though he was regularly in the top 10 in the share of his passing attempts accompanied by a play-action fake. In both 2012 and 2014, Kaepernick’s completion percentage and yards per attempt went down off of play-action fakes, though he was clearly attempting deeper and more aggressive passes off of play-action, which fits the mentally we saw from Steichen’s audition as the offensive coordinator in 2019. In Taylor’s Roman-led season in Buffalo in 2015, he saw significant bumps in his performance off of play-action and was second only to Kirk Cousins in NFL passer rating off of play-action.
Again, the legitimacy of Lynn’s sentiment cannot be put into question: Kaepernick is a perfect fit for what the Chargers apparently want to do on offense. He’s willing to push the ball deep to his receivers with his rocket arm—something the timid Taylor has struggled with over the course of his career—he’s one of the best dual-threat quarterbacks of recent memory, and he’s comfortable throwing off of heavy play-action and working from pistol alignments. If Kaepernick clears the Chargers workout as fit to play NFL ball again, I have little doubt that Lynn will want him on the team.
But, even if Kaepernick fits, is he needed? Lynn, not one for playing games in the media, is effusive in his expectation for Taylor as his competitive short-term starter, Herbert as his developmental starter, and Stick as his cheap backup that shouldn’t be forgotten. He has three quarterbacks that can, at the very least, accomplish most of what he wants to do on offense. He doesn’t have room for a fourth.
As such, a successful Kaepernick workout likely checks the box for the Chargers, but they won’t make an offer unless they incur injury and are in desperate need of help at the position. Signing a player with Kaepernick’s visibility and unorthodox career is a tricky thing. People will clamor for him to start the second he’s on the roster, and if he ends up disappointing, cutting him could bring negative attention on your team, given the blackballing Kaepernick has already endured by the NFL.
The Chargers are comfortably the best bet to sign Kaepernick at this stage, given Lynn’s firm endorsement and the clear and intriguing fit of Kaepernick in the system. However, as is the case with a Kaepernick signing anywhere, there are more hurdles to clear than the one recently removed, as the empty shirts that kept him out of the league for so long have suddenly begun singing a different tune.
Purely as a football player, Kaepernick is not a sure bet, and wasn’t feasibly on the market until recently—all of the teams have already made plans at the quarterback position without Kaepernick in mind. Seeing him in Los Angeles would be terribly fun, but remains a pipe dream at this time.
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