Only 16 months ago, Colin Kaepernick stood shoulder-to-shoulder with the NFL’s top tier.
He had just signed a six-year $126 million contract attached to a relatively modest $12 million bonus. His record as the starting quarterback of the San Francisco 49ers was 21-8 and he’d already escorted the team to a Super Bowl and two NFC championship games.
Kaepernick was young, cutting edge and the freshest definition of now. His No. 7 jersey topped the NFL sales charts. He projected a unique approach both on and off the field. The uber-athlete out of Pitman High blinded observers with the sheer brilliance of his skills. He figured to improve with experience. What could possibly go wrong?
As it turned out, everything went wrong.
Today, Kaepernick is the 49ers’ backup quarterback. He’s being replaced by Blaine Gabbert, whose career record is 5-22, which means Kaepernick is more yesterday than yellowed newspaper pages. When the 49ers welcome the Atlanta Falcons to Levi’s Stadium on Sunday, Kaepernick will hold a clipboard and wear a cap. The tools of a No. 2 guy.
Think about it: Kaepernick has downsized from the heir to the throne of Joe Montana and Steve Young to an NFL non-person. The reserve quarterback is important only when the starter gets hurt. Until then, Kaepernick has been deemed no longer relevant by the 49ers.
Kaepernick’s fall from grace has been swift and staggering. Why was he demoted, you ask? At one level, the reason is painfully simple: Since he signed on the dotted line in June 2014, the 49ers are 10-14 and freefalling faster with each passing week. If you’re a quarterback in the NFL, you either win or you’re gone.
The 49er offense, with Kaepernick uncertain behind center, has plummeted to the NFL basement. The 49ers haven’t cracked 200 net yards in four games, a stat that would be almost comical if it wasn’t so damning. The team is 2-6 and Kaepernick has thrown only six touchdown passes in eight games. He hasn’t seemed himself since his back-to-back pick-six giveaways at Arizona. His passer rating is 78.8, usually a prelude to a ticket out of the league.
But here’s where all the black and white numbers fade to gray. Fact is, the 49ers have failed Kaepernick more than he’s failed them. What we’ve witnessed, starting last season, is an all-systems flameout that has eroded Kaepernick’s confidence. His comfort zone has skipped town.
Let’s examine Kaepernick’s supporting cast: The offensive line is so bad that Kaepernick’s head spins on a swivel waiting for the next pass rusher to turf him. Michael Crabtree, at one time his favorite target, now is targeted by Derek Carr at Oakland. Tight end Vernon Davis, another familiar weapon, was traded to Denver this week. Frank Gore now works in Indianapolis while the 49ers’ top three running backs all were hurt last week.
The collapse was initiated by owner Jed York and general manager Trent Baalke, who orchestrated the “mutual parting” of former head coach Jim Harbaugh and most of his staff after last season. Under Harbaugh, the 49ers awakened from almost a decadelong slumber and fell only a few yards shy of their sixth Super Bowl title.
Harbaugh convinced the front office that Kaepernick is the team’s future. The coach envisioned Kaepernick’s strong arm and fleet legs carving wide paths through NFL defenses. When the defense was strong and the offense was well-stocked, he was right.
All that has vanished along with Harbaugh. York and Co. grew weary of Harbaugh’s assorted weirdness, success notwithstanding, and ushered him out after a vicious whisper campaign. And that triggered a mass exodus of talent off the roster. It was a classic unforced error, the kind that banishes NFL teams into the wilderness for years.
Minus Harbaugh, Kaepernick’s unique talents no longer are desired. This year, Kaepernick was the focus of similar sabotage that undermined Harbaugh. Stories leaked about Kaepernick being “an island in the locker room.” Accurate or not, these are the types of stories that always surface around teams that are losing.
To be sure, Kaepernick’s development has at least leveled off. The 49ers struggle whenever they reach the opponents’ 20-yard line, and that always falls on the quarterback. Kaepernick still lacks the instinctive split-second decisions, whether in or out of the pocket, that separate the good from the not-so-good. Sometimes his elite athleticism bails him out of jams. But these days, now that defensive coordinators have figured him out, his options are far fewer.
He also miscalculated off the field. His five-word answers alienated the media, and this was during the good times. He often came off as rude and sullen. Now, when he could use the benefit of the doubt – or at least a modicum of sympathy – he receives little if any. It was not good business for him to frown at the NFL media one day, only to turn on the charm for the talk shows the next. Ironically, his press-conference demeanor has improved this season.
It is quite probable, according to your humble oddsmaker, that Kaepernick will return to the field this season. Gabbert clearly is not the long-term answer. That said, Kaepernick’s days with the 49ers appear to be numbered.
If the 49ers drop him before April 1, they’ll be out only $25.9 million from Kaepernick’s $126 million deal. All signs point toward a dramatic restructuring of the team and a quarterback yet to be drafted. The coaches and players who will pull the 49ers out of the mud are not yet even employed by the team.
Through it all, I feel bad for Kaepernick. It wasn’t his fault that the team’s bosses appear more married to the Levi’s Stadium money streams than to on-the-field success. Replacing a proven winning leader with a defensive line coach was not the quarterback’s gaffe. That the team seems willing to scapegoat the quarterback for all the above may be convenient, but it isn’t right.
How strange and unfortunate that it may be ending for Kaepernick with S.F. With him at quarterback, the team enjoyed its best days in nearly a decade. In many ways, his success was ours. He carried the Valley torch, from his admirable work with Camp Taylor to his stunning performances in the NFL playoffs, with distinction. Given a solid supporting cast, I still wouldn’t bet against him in the NFL.
Why? How can you doubt an athlete who predicted his 49er future as a fourth-grade student? Kaepernick, 28 this week, is still the same guy. Unfortunately for him, the NFL is still the same thankless league.