What a topsy-turvy career. The first time I saw Colin Kaepernick in person, during a 2011 training camp practice, I thought he looked awful. He couldn’t complete throws to receivers during QB/WR drills, and this was without any defenders around. Alex Smith looked like Joe Montana by comparison. Kaepernick was exciting as hell on late-evening ESPN2 games when he was setting records at Nevada, but as a rookie NFL quarterback he looked out of place.
He didn’t look much better before the 2012 season, either. I remember him taking off early and running to the sideline during a 7-on-7 drill, and the defensive starters chuckled on the sideline after one of them derisively muttered “running quar … ter … back.”
Then the Bears game happened. It was one of my most memorable experiences in a press box. Everyone was blown away when he completed that bomb to Kyle Williams. The Chicago writers in the press box were nearly screaming “OH” and “WOW” throughout the game, because they had no idea who this kid was and he looked like the best quarterback in the league. Afterward, Harbaugh stared vacantly past the reporters in Candlestick’s cramped press conference room, as if he had seen a ghost. He didn’t name the following week’s starter that day, but anyone who could read Harbaugh knew which way he was leaning.
Kaepernick stomped Green Bay in the Divisional Round almost single-handedly, then he led the 49ers to a comeback win in Atlanta to send the 49ers to their first Super Bowl in 18 years. Besides a bad interception on a pass across the middle to an apathetic Randy Moss, he played very well against the Ravens, completing 16-of-28 passes for 302 yards and rushing seven times for 62 yards. He was the most dynamic player in the NFL over the second half of that season, and while some skeptics noted that teams would figure out the read option relatively quickly (Carlos Rogers said this after the Super Bowl loss), the world ignored these warnings. Kaepernick seemed too strong, fast and modern to get handled that easily.
He was the essence of new. But in terms of utility, the ingenuity of his game didn’t age like Nike Air. More like Reebok Pumps … or L.A. Gear Lights.
The job was his after 2012, as Alex Smith was jettisoned to Kansas City for multiple draft picks. Suddenly the 49ers had a total bargain at quarterback and more chances to add to their already talented roster. Kaeperick enjoyed a fairly good season in 2013. Not as strong statistically as 2012, but a rating over 90 and 524 rushing yards was by no means awful. No, the true disappointment came in Seattle, where it so often did for Kaepernick.
It was all downhill from there. Kaepernick, once a golden boy who became one of the NFL’s hottest “brands,” got buried under an avalanche of criticism. Being a one-read passer who didn’t/couldn’t see the field was the one that stuck out above the rest. However, people also quibbled with everything from his supposed refusal to study photos with his coaches on the sideline between possessions, to his brevity and the accessories seen around his neck at press conferences, to his social media behavior. Jim Harbaugh and Greg Roman decided that with defenses ready for the read option and Frank Gore getting slower, they needed to turn Kaepernick into a different quarterback — almost like a mobile Philip Rivers, flinging the ball everywhere. Much like everything else during Levi’s Stadium’s rookie season, Harbaugh’s vision didn’t work out as planned.
Kaepernick stood by his head coach, then his head coach was, um, parted with mutually. Kaepernick didn’t know it, but that’s when he replaced Harbaugh as the piece that didn’t quite fit in Santa Clara due to style, personality and expense.
He embarked on one of the most overblown training sessions of all time when he spent a small chunk of his offseason in Arizona with Kurt Warner’s people. Instead of becoming a refined pocket passer, Kaepernick showed up to training camp looking more confused than ever, and that remained the case throughout the first eight games of the 2015 season.
Before and during this season, 49ers announcers Ted Robinson and Tim Ryan repeatedly mentioned how the 49ers needed Kaepernick to carry the team. A few local writers and radio hosts followed suit. If the 49ers, who had a group of key departures that greatly outnumbered their offseason additions, had any hopes of returning to the playoffs, the most highly-paid player on the team would have to prove that he was a franchise quarterback. Instead, Kaepernick regressed. Badly. A player who burst onto the scene with swagger that rivaled the likes of Justin Bieber or a mid-2000s Kobe Bryant suddenly looked like he might catch a shotgun snap and crumble to the ground in a puddle of his own tears at any moment.
The stories started leaking — check that — streaming out of Santa Clara. The locker room was supposedly divided on their quarterback due to his aloofness and girlfriend choices. One day after offensive coordinator Geep Chryst said “you know that the hand that you’re dealt,” Albert Breer reported a source saying Kaepernick “begged” Harbaugh not to replace Chryst as the team’s quarterbacks coach and Kaepernick’s affection for Chryst played a part in Chryst’s promotion to offensive coordinator.
The 49ers are last in the NFL in points and yards, by the way.
Everyone knew that Kaepernick would get replaced soon, and unlike that famous game against Chicago, he couldn’t provide any magic whatsoever. Instead of saving his job, his performances against the Seahawks and Rams were among his most pathetic. He was replaced by Blaine Gabbert, known up to that point more as a punchline than a true quarterbacking option for an NFL team, and Kaepernick’s last pass as a 49er came after Gabbert had a brief concussion scare. It was a decent, yet slightly inaccurate, throw that bounced off the hands of Vance McDonald. Typical.
One got the feeling that Kaepernick wouldn’t take well to standing on the sideline, and now he won’t have to. He’s on injured reserve, set to have surgery to repair a torn labrum in his left shoulder.
He appeared almost indestructible when he steered the 49ers to victory on a brutally cold afternoon in Lambeau, wearing short sleeves and looking as comfortable as someone chilling on a beach in Kauai at midfield while doing a postgame interview with NaVorro Bowman, whose teeth appeared to be chattering slightly. Now Kaepernick is known as a system quarterback in a constantly-adjusting league that no longer respects his weaponry, a player who needs “the perfect situation,” when in reality, quarterbacks are paid to fix salary cap mistakes made by general managers and schematic errors made by coaches. He’s still young and relatively healthy, and the league’s quarterback pool is pretty shallow. But he’s a humbled man who needs to wipe away everything that’s happened since Richard Sherman tipped that pass away from Michael Crabtree.
Perhaps a fresh start is what he needs. Perhaps his body failing him now will teach him that muscles aren’t the protective coat of armor he thought they were, and he’ll take Steve Young’s advice to focus on the finer points of the position, the “tedious challenge” of being a quarterback, the tasks that have nothing to do with pumping iron and looking jacked on Instagram. Perhaps he’ll capture lightning in a bottle once again, or perhaps he’ll knock around the league as a backup for a couple years, before younger, faster, stronger quarterbacks from weird college systems push him to third string and eventually to a new career entirely.