With three games to go in the 2016 season, a depressing air of resignation stunk up a seemingly half empty Levi’s Stadium last Sunday as the once-proud 49ers and their rising star Colin Kaepernick suffered another demoralizing setback in what is turning out to be the franchise’s worst season in history.
I have been following Kaepernick since his 2007 freshman season in college – we share the same alma mater, Nevada – and as the only quarterback from the Reno campus who has started a Super Bowl game, he has provided many wonderful moments for a school that has not had many on a national stage.
There is no denying it has been a rough go of it lately for Kaepernick and the 2016 season has been a disaster in many respects, while a revelation in others. Inserted as the starter in the sixth game after requiring three different surgeries in the off-season, Kaepernick stepped in after Blaine Gabbert was ineffective. While he has had a few impressive games, the team Kaepernick took to the Super Bowl in 2012 has not won under him this year. After Sunday’s 23-17 overtime defeat to the New York Jets, the team capped a 12-game losing streak, which is the worst in franchise history.
However, what has really catapulted Kaepernick into the national spotlight has not been his play on the field. Kaepernick’s pre-season decision to kneel during the playing of the national anthem before each game to protest black oppression became a polarizing issue across the country, criticized by the likes of Presidential candidate Donald Trump, Supreme Court Judge Ruth Ginsburg, police officers and war veterans, among others. However, he also received his share of support. President Barack Obama favorably mentioned him by name and other NFL and non-professional players, including former Nevada teammate Denver linebacker Brandon Marshall, publicly supported him by also kneeling. Kaepernick has been the subject of virtually every regular and sports talk show in the country and he has been blamed for being responsible for the NFL’s low early-season TV ratings.
During the height of the controversy, Kaepernick appeared on the Oct. 3 cover of Time magazine. It was not hard remembering the glory days of the 2012-2013 seasons when he made the covers of magazines like Sports Illustrated and ESPN the Magazine (the Perfect Issue, no less) for his exploits on the football field.
As someone who began rooting for the 49ers specifically because of Kaepernick (I grew up a Los Angeles Rams fan, but stopped when they moved to St. Louis in 1995), Kaepernick’s fall has been rough. I was at Mackay Stadium in Reno the frigid night in late November of 2010 when he led Nevada past No. 3-ranked Boise State in a nationally televised ESPN game. It was easily the biggest win in Nevada football history and the best game I have ever seen live.
Kaepernick, who was the only player in college football history to pass for over 9,000 yards and rush for over 4,000 yards in a career, ran Coach Chris Ault’s Pistol offense to perfection. Nevada ended up 11-1 and ranked a school-best 11th in the nation that year. Drafted in the second round by San Francisco in 2011, Kaepernick made his Super Bowl run in part by running a modified version of the Pistol, and Ault was everywhere. Nevada grads like myself cheered, me especially, since I was the sports editor of the campus newspaper when Ault started his long run as coach in 1976.
For a moment, it seemed like the future of the Pistol and the Kaepernick prototype able to run it, was the future of the NFL.
Well, that didn’t happen, and the team disintegrated while its embattled coach, Jim Harbaugh, who had so controversially elevated Kaepernick as the starter late in the 2012 season, was let go after a rough 8-8 2013 season.
Kaepernick is now 10-21 as a starter the past 2 ½ seasons and 0-7 this year. It is hard at this point to envision a future in San Francisco for him, but there is so much swirling around about his future it is difficult to know where to start. He can opt out of his contract after this season and can go anywhere he has wanted. One of the storylines going into the Jets’ game was that Kaepernick had recently sold his condo in Santa Clara and purchased a townhouse in Manhattan. Would a long-rumored move to New York be in his future?
On Tuesday, it was reported that Kaepernick took the GRE test, which is required for entrance to many graduate school programs. He’s obviously thinking of his post-NFL future.
But no matter what happens in San Francisco, his NFL career will most likely continue into 2017, and if he stays healthy, he can still run. In just seven games, Kaepernick is second in the league among quarterbacks in total rushing yards, and his 7.6 yards per rush leads everyone. When surrounded by playmakers and a good offensive line, he has shown he can play at a high level.
Still not 30 and with an impressive 4-2 playoff record, Kaepernick knows how to win in the NFL; he just needs a supporting cast around him to do it.
Photos by Steve Martarano