The NFL has watched with curiosity the rise of Colin Kaepernick. Fans admired his Super Bowl performance in only his 10th career start. They saw him and the 49ers miss a Lombardi Trophy by only a few yards. They bought his No. 7 jersey and cheered his nouveau style.
They witnessed a new side of Kaepernick on Sunday night – when all systems fail.
He’s struggled through rough moments before, but never to this degree and certainly never with the nation peering in over his shoulder. If he’s labored this bad, it must have been in grade school at Turlock.
Kaepernick walked slowly off the field, helmet in hand, after the final pass to Michael Crabtree slipped though his fingers in the end zone. It was over – a Titanic-like collapse from a 17-0 lead to an embarrassing 28-20 loss to the Chicago Bears.
The 49ers broke in Levi’s Stadium with a clunker that may give previous clunkers a bad name. No, this one was a step-by-step study on how to burp a game that seemed safely digested.
And the breakdown started with Kaepernick. He wore the disappointment as he exited the field, head down, and it must have felt like an anvil.
“I told him it’s football, keep your head up,” running back Frank Gore said. “He’ll come back. He’s a ballplayer and a tough quarterback.”
But when an NFL quarterback, especially one that presents his game with his legs as well as his arm, loses a fumble and throws three interceptions – and contributes a personal foul for inappropriate language – well, there’s no safety net.
“Terrible” is how Kaepernick assessed his performance. “We hurt ourselves. I saw the coverages. I didn’t make the plays.”
He shared the misery, of course. I didn’t think it was physically possible for a team to be flagged 16 times (not counting the unaccepted penalties) for 118 yards. Each piece of yellow laundry shed a precious layer of momentum that, by deep in the second half, left the 49ers empty and exposed.
“It stings. It stings to lose,” coach Jim Harbaugh said. “We all have fingerprints on this one.”
Granted, but it seemed Kaepernick’s confidence gradually circled the drain and disappeared down the pipes. The Bears disguised their blitzes and, by the end, the QB with the long legs was spinning those wheels and going nowhere.
For sheer shock value, the game registered an 11 on a scale of 1 to 10. The script called for a take-charge 49ers victory and a successful housewarming. Instead, thieves broke in and stole all the silverware.
One rule in the NFL rises above the rest in importance: If you don’t finish off a struggling opponent, it will rise up and beat you. Count the 49ers guilty.
The loss begged the question: Did all the firestorm surrounding the 49ers catch up to Kaepernick? Did the suspension of Aldon Smith, the non-suspension of Ray McDonald and all the stadium hysteria throw the QB off stride? It couldn’t have helped, but laying it all on the lap of so-called “distractions” is too easy.
Jay Cutler, the streaky Bears quarterback, eventually found his mojo by exploiting rookie defensive back Jimmie Ward via veteran Brandon Marshall. The receiver victimized the kid for three touchdowns, the first a reach-for-the-sky one-hander late in the first half that became a harbinger.
Meanwhile, Kaepernick surveyed a Chicago defense all but waving “SOS” signs. By the second half, three Bears starters – tackle Jeremiah Butler, corner Charles Tillman and safety Chris Conte – had departed via injuries.
The Bears, not exactly the Monsters of the Midway these days, should have been chased back to the airport. Not only did they not retreat, they sent everyone except the late George Halas after Kaepernick. And it seemed each one of them, maybe even Papa Bear from above, struck a blow on the quarterback.
Perhaps it was just football fate. The 49ers completed the trifecta in opening-game losses at Kezar Stadium, Candlestick Park and their new South Bay home. It runs in the family.
More relevant: This football calamity will shine an even harsher light on Kaepernick, one he most likely will embrace. Athletes love to prove naysayers wrong, so he’ll be more than a little motivated to clear his latest hurdle, which comes in the form of a question.
How does he bounce back from his most stunning loss?