Who forgot Kaepernick was a QB?
The Niners’ lightning rod is going back to his day job
We learned much more about Colin Kaepernick during his time on the bench than we ever did when he balled out. By risking his career to stand – or in his case, sit and then kneel as well – with those who believe that black lives should matter, Kaepernick became a hero to millions. Now, we’re about to find out whether the woke quarterback can reclaim what previously defined him: being an NFL star.
The one-time electric dual-threat passer, who led the San Francisco 49ers to a Super Bowl appearance, is finally getting back in the game (the only surprise is that it took this long). Kaepernick is scheduled to start on the road Sunday against the Buffalo Bills. For the first time since Week 8 of last season, Kaepernick is atop the 49ers’ depth chart. But can he still be that dude?
Kaepernick’s game hasn’t been tight since the 2014 season, which was a lifetime ago in NFL years. Although Kaepernick is supposedly fully healed after undergoing shoulder, knee and thumb surgery in the offseason, no one knows whether he has his groove back. And then there’s the off-the-field burden Kaepernick may bring with him into the huddle.
Kaepernick ignited a nationwide debate by choosing not to stand during the national anthem in an effort to draw attention to the oppression of black people and people of color. Many NFL players have supported Kaepernick with ongoing displays of unity, and he has become the face of a movement that has spread to other professional sports as well as colleges and high schools. Kaepernick’s supporters and detractors will have a strong rooting interest in his performance and that of the 49ers, and he’ll also be auditioning for a new contract – most likely with a new team.
There’s a lot at stake personally for Kaepernick and those whom he has inspired. In other words, it’s about to be on. Ryan Clark is eager to see what happens next.
The former longtime NFL safety has been an outspoken supporter of Kaepernick. Clark wants to see the veteran signal-caller win again and, judging by what Clark has observed, many others do as well.
“All you have to do is take a quick look at social media at the things being posted. That’ll show you how excited black people, African-Americans, are to see him back out there and having a chance to succeed,” said Clark, an ESPN analyst. “It doesn’t matter what team they support. They also support Kaepernick. What we’re seeing … it’s because of his protest.
“It’s because there are so many people out there who believe in what he started. Any further conversation we’ve had, the protests by all these other athletes, what we’ve seen spread all over the country, it all started with him. On some level, we need to acknowledge that and respect that. So now that he’s back on the field, people are behind him.”
However, here’s what Kaepernick is returning to: a bad team.
When Kaepernick lines up under center Sunday afternoon at New Era Stadium in Orchard Park, New York, he’ll lead a group that’s much different from the one he directed in his first two-plus years as a starter. In its first season under head coach Chip Kelly, San Francisco is a 1-4 mess. Kelly picked Blaine Gabbert to open the season and, predictably, he played like, well, Blaine Gabbert.
In theory, Kaepernick is ideally suited to operate Kelly’s zone read-type scheme, which utilizes a whole lot of play-action and one-read passing. Also, Kaepernick isn’t your typical only-break-glass-as-a-last-resort backup. In 2013, his first season a full-time starter, Kaepernick passed for 3,197 yards and 21 touchdowns with only eight interceptions. The next season, he had a personal best 3,369 yards with 19 touchdowns and 10 picks.
Kaepernick has been there before. And has done it better than many others.
As a runner, Kaepernick was the truth. In 2013, he added another 524 yards (with a 5.7-yard average) and four touchdowns. His 2014 rushing totals were even better: 639 yards and a 6.1-yard average with one touchdown. That boy was good.
“He wasn’t a guy who started from the first snap of his rookie year,” Clark said. “He was thrown into the mix in the middle of a season and played well throughout [that] season. He knows what it’s like to prepare from the perspective of a backup who ends up being a starter. So he’s uniquely qualified to do this.
“This team is a lot different from those other teams he was on. And he’s different. But he can use the experience of having done the exact same thing before, because he went from being a backup to a guy who won. He brings that confidence that it can be done. He brings that belief in himself. And he brings the understanding that he knows what type of work it takes to do it.”
Of course, Kaepernick could be rusty. In the NFL, starters get the majority of first-team practice reps each week. For the season’s first five weeks, Gabbart was out front. From a technical aspect of playing quarterback, Kaepernick is behind where he needs to be with the Bills up next. Kaepernick definitely crammed this week in practice, former quarterback Jason Campbell said.
During a nine-year career with five teams, Campbell was both a starter and a backup, and “obviously, I’d rather be a starter than a backup,” he said. “You get all the reps in practice [with the first-team offense] to make your mistakes, so you can correct them before the game.
“A backup doesn’t get that. Then, every time the starter gets hit hard, you start looking for your helmet. When a backup does have to go in, the average fan expects him to be Wonder Boy and play as well as the starter without the practice reps.”
Campbell, though, agrees with Clark: Kaepernick’s experience should help him.
“I think he’ll be fine,” Campbell said. “He was injured. During the time he had to heal, he had time to think through a lot.
“It may take him a little time to get caught up with everything in the offense, back up to speed and regain his rhythm. Not just for him, but for the guys around him, too. They have to get used to him and his style again. But as long as he stays in there for a while, it can happen.”
The 49ers’ recent big move at quarterback coincided with Kaepernick’s willingness to restructure his contract. The team reportedly removed injury guarantees, which could have had the 49ers on the hook for $14.5 million in 2017. Kaepernick now has the option to end the deal after this season. If he balls out again, Kaepernick could both get paid again and inspire his supporters even more. Talk about a win-win.
When athletes speak out on social issues, their performance often is integral to their message, USC law professor Jody David Armour said. Just look at boxing champ Muhammad Ali.
“Muhammad Ali’s ability to back up his political stances with winning records in the boxing ring … was part of his protest,” said Armour, who studies the intersection of race and legal decision-making. “And we root for good or evil to prevail – as we define good and evil.”
There’s a clear line that divides us on Kaepernick. Since the season started, that much hasn’t changed. But he has job back now – and you can best believe that how Kaepernick performs won’t get lost in the conversation.