His football team now resides in the heart of the Silicon Valley, so it’s only natural that San Francisco 49ers Coach Jim Harbaugh would describe the maturation of his quarterback in terms a techie could appreciate.
“Colin [Kaepernick] is at the highest level, where he can auto-correct,” Harbaugh said of his fourth-year quarterback at training camp this week. “You know, like auto-correcting in texting or whatever. Even if a coach makes a mistake, it’s wrong in the script, the play is called into him wrong, he just auto-corrects it and doesn’t ask, ‘Hey, is that right or wrong?’”
This off-season, in an effort to maintain their status among the NFL’s elite — and ideally finish the job with a Super Bowl victory — the 49ers have been in search-and-replace mode. The team will get a fresh reboot, too, in its new, $1.3-billion stadium in Santa Clara.
The 49ers have held on to as many of their core players as possible — players who in the last three years of the Harbaugh era have gotten them to three NFC title games and one Super Bowl — and have added potential playmakers such as receivers Stevie Johnson and Brandon Lloyd.
Targets for Kaepernick are no longer in short supply. Michael Crabtree enters training camp healthy, a welcome change from last season, and Anquan Boldin is back. Johnson figures to be the third receiver, and Lloyd, 33, rich with experience, will be competing for a roster spot along with youngsters Quinton Patton and Bruce Ellington.
Lloyd is a particularly interesting case, a one-time star whose career looked to be over when he sat out last season to pursue careers as a rapper and as a salesman for a company that sells metals to the aerospace industry. His return to the 49ers brings him full circle, as they drafted him in the fourth round in 2003. He spent three seasons with San Francisco before spending the next seven seasons with Washington, Chicago, Denver, St. Louis and New England.
Kaepernick said Lloyd’s crisp route running “just gives you that much more confidence when you drop back that you’re going to have a receiver where he’s supposed to be in that timing. He’s been there through camp. He’s been there through [organized team activities] on time. So that gives all of us confidence.”
Everyone knows armchair quarterbacks. In a sense, Lloyd is an armchair receiver. That’s what struck Harbaugh, at least.
“He does this thing in meetings that I have not seen before,” the coach said. “He’ll be sitting in his chair watching the tape and go through his route. And all of a sudden here comes a swim move [pantomiming the move], or a slap of the arm. And then sometimes he’ll stand up and, you know, it’s a jab step.
“Talk about full speed mentally and 100% engaged in the meeting. I mean, I’ve never seen a guy at any level go through a meeting like that. It just makes me giggle and giddy to watch him do it. Wish I had seen that earlier in my career and could have adopted that into my meeting game. It’s awesome.”
Whereas Lloyd has turned the receivers meeting room into a virtual-reality laboratory, the 49ers as a whole are dealing with this real-world situation: They play in the NFL’s toughest division, one that includes the Super Bowl-champion Seattle Seahawks, and they need to capitalize on every opportunity.
“We know we have the team to win a Super Bowl, we have the talent to win a Super Bowl,” tackle Joe Staley said. “But there’s a lot of urgency to get it done… We’ve definitely identified things we can be better at. We can get better at closing out games. If you look at the [NFC championship game at Seattle in January] in particular, it was a game where for about 10 minutes there in the third quarter, it just kind of slipped away from us.
“It’s having that mentality of, if we’ve got first and 10 from the 15, we’re not looking for three points. We’re looking to score a touchdown. We’ve got to take advantage of all the opportunities that we get and have that killer instinct.”
There are giant question marks with the team, chief among them the immediate futures of star linebackers Aldon Smith and NaVorro Bowman. Smith is facing a significant suspension by the league for his off-the-field transgressions, and Bowman has yet to return from a devastating knee injury in the NFC championship game at Seattle.
There is urgency on the team, without question, but one of the 49ers’ defensive leaders is also preaching patience.
“I remember before a game my rookie year,” All-Pro linebacker Patrick Willis said, “I went to [then-coach] Mike Singletary and said, ‘Coach, I can’t breathe.’ He said, ‘Pat, calm down. Always remember: calm before the storm.’ Ever since then, I’ve always taken that into every situation.
“We need to stay the course and don’t panic.”
Having a composed quarterback is essential. In explaining what he thinks of Kaepernick’s ability to auto-correct, Harbaugh shifted back to the imaginary keyboard.
“That’s great,” the coach said. “With a capital G.”