TAMPA — For much of the 2012 NFL season, San Francisco’s opponents had little success chasing quarterback Colin Kaepernick.
A year later, an entire league appears to have caught up to him.
The 49ers remain an NFC power at 6-3, but Kaepernick’s magnetic aura has worn off. San Francisco is saddled with the league’s least productive passing game and Kaepernick threw for only 91 yards in last week’s 10-9 home loss to Carolina as he was sacked six times.
It’s gotten so bad that former Bucs quarterback Trent Dilfer, now an ESPN analyst, has questioned Kaepernick’s efficiency in going through his progressions.
There are some mitigating factors.
One of Kaepernick’s major weapons, wide receiver Michael Crabtree, has been out all season with an Achilles’ injury and Anquan Boldin hardly has the speed to stretch secondaries. Still, that’s no excuse for an offense that has generated fewer first downs than the New York Jets under rookie quarterback Geno Smith.
“Colin hasn’t had the really big numbers he’s had in the past,’’ 49ers center Jonathan Goodwin said, “but I see a confident quarterback.’’
The defending NFC champions have lost a bit of their swagger this fall. In home losses to Indianapolis and Carolina, the 49ers were out-mauled along the line of scrimmage. And now they venture into New Orleans, where Drew Brees has thrown at least two touchdown passes in 21 consecutive games.
To win in the Superdome, San Francisco must recapture the dynamic offensive form the 49ers flashed in the same facility against Baltimore in the Super Bowl as Kaepernick almost pulled off a stunning late comeback.
Kaepernick threw for 302 yards and ran for another 62 yards against the Ravens in that riveting 34-31 setback. And as the confetti enveloped jubilant Baltimore players, many observers walked away talking about Kaepernick’s unlimited potential under center.
“He’s going to prepare like no other and come out Sunday and put on a show for us,’’ 49ers linebacker NaVorro Bowman said. “That’s just what we need. He’s the leader of this team.’’
It’s going to take more than a few mediocre games to shake Kaepernick’s confidence, but the numbers suggest he’s not getting it done in crunch time.
Of the 44 quarterbacks on the NFL’s weekly statistical list, Kaepernick ranks No. 42 in the fourth quarter with a passer rating of 42.1. His 46.2 completion rate down the stretch is the second-lowest among all NFC quarterbacks.
Guess who is at the very bottom? That would be Josh Freeman at 36.4 percent.
Coach Jim Harbaugh has seen other young quarterbacks struggle after enjoying success, so is showing support for Kaepernick, who turned 26 earlier this month.
“We don’t think there’s anything wrong with Colin,’’ Harbaugh said. “We feel like his progression’s been very good. He’s playing winning football for us, and that’s what we expect.’’
Unlike last year, the 49ers will likely have to take the wild-card route into the postseason. That means hitting the road in January, when Colin Kaepernick needs to show Trent Dilfer he’s got it all wrong.