Colin Kaepernick entered the second phase of his NFL career Monday night and gladly stepped aside and admired the view.
Carlos Hyde doing a better-than-good impression of Frank Gore. A discarded and all-but-forgotten defense emerging again with an old friend named Navorro Bowman. A team proving life without Jim Harbaugh may not be so bad after all.
The San Francisco 49ers’ 20-3 win over Minnesota – a surprise by margin – presented Kaepernick in a slightly different mode. He didn’t necessarily win the game, but he didn’t come close to losing it.
And for the graduate of Pitman High starting his 46th game in the NFL, it’s a good start for 2015. He’s also 5-0 on Monday night, which means his brainwashing all those Sundays into Mondays could be a good game plan.
“I think it was a good start for us today to get out there, get this first win and get that experience under a lot of peoples’ belts,” he said.
Kaepernick, 27, doesn’t need to be lectured about the importance of this season. Whether or not he admits to hearing the critics, they’ve beat a loud drum: He’s regressed. He can’t throw a touchdown pass in the fourth quarter (a reality in 2014). He’s indecisive in the pocket. He freezes if his primary receiver his covered. He’s not accurate enough. He won’t be a 49er next year.
Of all the question marks about this seemingly past-its-prime team – especially after the mother of all offseasons – the most uncertainty centered on Kaepernick as he began his third full season as a starter.
In this era of 24-hour news, nonstop talk shows and philosopher jockeys waxing smart at 140 characters, the off-season can be cruel to high-profile athletes like Kaepernick. The latest installment spun like a never-ending reel: 52 sacks last year (third most in the NFL), a completion percentage of of 60.5 percent (24th) and a passer rating of 86.4 (20th).
Kaepernick’s response was one of the things he does best – hard work.
He adjusted his throwing motion and refined his mechanics last March with private coach Dennis Gile and two-time NFL MVP Kurt Warner. The reviews were favorable but irrelevant. The results remained a mystery until Game 1 against the Vikings.
The numbers (17 of 26 for 165 yards) were pedestrian. Some receivers were missed. But look closer: He completed nine straight passes between the second and third quarters while the 49ers pulled away. His decision-making appeared to be better. He teased the Vikings by threatening to run, only to pull up and toss for first downs.
Most important: zero major mistakes. For quarterbacks in the NFL, that’s often more sexy than post-game interviews.
“You saw him killing a run and going to a pass and killing a pass to go to a run,” coach Jim Tomsula praised. “He knows what he’s looking at. I thought he played a wonderful game. I thought he did everything we asked him to do.”
Kaepernick also was introduced to the new season by Minnesota safety Harrison Smith, who unloaded on him near the 49er bench. The competitor in Kaepernick lives for these moments. He popped up like a bouncing basketball and trotted back to the huddle with a first down in hand.
The 49ers’ accelerated tempo also complemented the quarterback. From the first series, the 49ers showed off their post-Harbaugh offense. Only once was there any pre-snap confusion that forced a timeout. Gone were the delay-of-game penalties, a Harbaugh staple. The 49ers set a stiff early pace, which appeared to take a toll on the Vikings by game’s end.
That said, the 49ers dictated all terms with Hyde and their defense. Kaepernick wasn’t asked to flash his wheels and rally his team from behind. Those challenges are upcoming, perhaps Sunday at Pittsburgh.
Here are the two essential points: Tomsula had his team ready to go, and Kaepernick – if not at his jaw-dropping best – did what was required.
As Kaepernick took the final kneel-downs, offensive coordinator Geep Chyrst and his fellow coaches celebrated in the booth next door to the media section. Clearly, the 49ers enjoyed their us-against-the-world night.
And when it was over, Kaepernick handed Tomsula the ball.
“It was amazing. He’s done a lot for this team, a lot for this organization in a very short amount of time,” Kaepernick said. “And he was one of the people that’s been good to me since I ever got here.”
For better or for worse, Harbaugh is a decreasing-in-size figure in the 49ers’ rear-view mirror. Kaepernick’s important reboot also is under way.