Colin Kaepernick probably didn’t view it this way Sunday, but he was playing for both his short-term and long-term future in the NFL.
It was his third start this season, and the first two didn’t exactly dazzle. Kaepernick, who turned 29 last week, needed to produce something – anything, really – that hinted at his form of three years ago.
The opportunity was enticing – back home after a bye against the New Orleans Saints, one of the league’s most porous defenses. Sunday was an opportunity, a showcase for Kaepernick to prove he still had the stuff after three offseason surgeries.
The verdict from here: He did enough to keep the job.
Yes, that’s a modest step, but with a team in freefall, the whispers about Christian Ponder were becoming audible. We’ve reached the “What have we got to lose” stage with the 1-7 49ers. Coach Chip Kelly will send out a robot if he can hit a receiver in stride downfield.
Kaepernick fans had to be encouraged by the first half. The 49ers opened up the game plan by dialing safe throws that seemed to fit his eye. He completed 14 of 18 passes for 286 yards and long catch-and-run touchdowns by DuJuan Harris and Vance McDonald. Overall, the quarterback finished with 398 passing yards and a solid rating of 102.3. Kaepernick also passed the 2,000-yard mark in career rushing, a reminder of his wondrous early years with the 49ers.
He also made the kind of killer mistake that causes Kaepernick critics to howl at the moon. Saints linebacker Craig Robertson, reading Kaepernick’s eyes, broke toward the ball before Kaepernick let it go. The resulting interception fueled the Saints’ three-touchdown run during the first half of their 41-23 victory.
Kaepernick’s drawbacks fall into two categories: 1. He telegraphs his throws. 2. He often lacks accuracy. Sure enough, he misfired during portions of the third quarter.
“We definitely got into more of a rhythm today. We still left a lot out there,” Kaepernick said. “I get more and more comfortable every week. It’s something that, this is my first real opportunity getting live reps.”
Kaepernick suffered by comparison against New Orleans. Across the field stood Drew Brees, a finished product, one of the NFL’s artists. Brees and his receivers read from the same page. His pass-catchers often don’t turn toward the ball until it’s halfway there, and it’s almost always on target. In that way, Brees plays chess compared to Kaepernick’s checkers.
Granted, this line of thought is a bit unfair. Brees orchestrates a polished New Orleans offense with bona fide threats at the quarterback’s disposal. Kaepernick, in sharp contrast to his early years with the 49ers, at times is a one-man island: no reliable receivers, no establishing running threat, leaky line. Worsening the problem is a 49er defense on course to be the worst in franchise history. For Kaepernick, his personal progress might be the least of his concerns.
An encouraging drive to start the second half was blown up by Mike Davis’ fumble at the goal line, a gaff that plunges a team’s confidence. For the day, the 49ers committed four turnovers and failed to notch points three times from inside the New Orleans 20. It’s what losing teams do.
“For me, I always look at what I could have done personally,” Kaepernick said. “The interception, in particular, I thought I could beat the guy with the throw and saw him the whole way.”
One wondered, while the 49ers tried unsuccessfully to match touchdowns with Brees and the Saints, about Kaepernick’s future. Will he accomplish enough to merit more years with the 49ers? Will he attract suitors elsewhere in the league? Are there teams willing to accept his skill level and kneel-down protests against racial oppression?
Kaepernick no doubt understands his platform for protest disappears, or at least downsizes, if he’s not a quarterback. To maximize his outreach against the wrongs of this world, he must climb the NFL ladder one more time.
Sunday’s performance suggests, given the right parameters, he can still perform on this stage.