Colin Kaepernick has become one of the most polarizing athletes in sports history with his decision not to stand for the national anthem and, more recently, his controversial remarks expressing support for some of the late Cuban leader Fidel Castro’s legacy. He’s regularly booed when he plays on the road and occasionally derided at home games, and Kaepernick’s push to draw attention to racial oppression has been a hot-button topic since his anthem protests began in the preseason.
What has been largely ignored is Kaepernick’s status as a football player, particularly in light of the fact that the 49ers (1-10) are nearing the end of one of the worst seasons in franchise history. But with all the attention focused on what Kaepernick has done off the field, it should not go unnoticed what is happening on it. After replacing Blaine Gabbert as the starter and getting off to a sluggish start, Kaepernick is beginning to flash the kind of dynamic playmaking ability that had turned him into one of the league’s most electrifying players.
Though he has not been able to stem the losses that have piled up, Kaepernick’s football future looks much more promising. And despite his unwillingness to publicly address whether he prefers to remain with the 49ers next season, his improved play ultimately could set the stage for his departure. Kaepernick agreed to a restructured contract earlier in the season that allows him to become a free agent in 2017.
With several teams needing help at quarterback, including the Jets, Kaepernick could become an intriguing possibility. At 3-8, the Jets appear almost certain to part ways with Ryan Fitzpatrick after the season and let younger quarterbacks Bryce Petty and Christian Hackenberg compete for the starting job. But with the 29-year-old Kaepernick potentially on the market, team owner Woody Johnson might be tempted to nudge general manager Mike Maccagnan and coach Todd Bowles into investigating whether signing Kaepernick makes sense.
Johnson hasn’t spoken publicly about his quarterback situation this season, and Maccagnan said he won’t discuss any roster issues until the conclusion of the regular season.
Kaepernick was in play with the Broncos during the offseason, as GM John Elway had intensive discussions with the 49ers about a trade in the days before the draft. But Kaepernick’s contract demands were considered too pricy, and Elway opted to draft Memphis quarterback Paxton Lynch in the first round and go with second-year quarterback Trevor Siemian as his starter after Siemian beat out Mark Sanchez in training camp.
In his six starts, Kaepernick has thrown 10 touchdown passes and three interceptions and has a respectable 87.0 rating. His last three starts have been particularly impressive, with six touchdown passes and one interception. He’s also flashing his multidimensional qualities by running more often, and in his last three starts, he has carried the ball 24 times for 200 yards and a touchdown.
In last week’s 31-24 loss to the Dolphins, Kaepernick threw for 296 yards and three touchdowns and rushed for 113 yards.
“I feel very fresh, feel ready to go, ready to do whatever this offense needs me to do to try to help us get a win,” Kaepernick said in his weekly news conference.
And why the increased running yardage in recent weeks? Look no further than coach Chip Kelly’s quick-tempo offense, which thrives with a mobile quarterback.
“I think part of it is this offense lends itself to that,” Kaepernick said. “There’s more opportunities for that, especially being in three-receiver sets most of the time. There’s a lot more space out there, so scramble lanes are bigger.
“I feel like I’m getting more and more comfortable in this offense. Ultimately, I think that’s what it comes down to for a quarterback is getting comfortable in an offense, really getting your feet settled in, getting that foundation to be able to go out and just play freely, and this offense has been great for me in that way.”
Kelly has noticed a difference.
“Just getting comfortable with getting the game reps, that’s one thing with the quarterback position you can’t simulate in practice, because they don’t get hit in practice,” Kelly said. “So it’s really a different type of deal when you get into games. I think as we’ve seen, there’s progression each game with him, and the more he progresses, the more comfortable he is with the offense, the more you can expand what we’re doing.”
Kelly isn’t sure about Kaepernick’s plans next season, although the coach has indicated a preference to have him back.
Kaepernick confirmed reports this past week that he has put his San Jose home up for sale, saying it is an “investment decision.” He will not commit to being back with the team in 2017.
The 49ers have long been out of the playoff mix, but their final five games could be vitally important to Kaepernick’s potential value on the open market. And any team with a need at quarterback ought to be paying close attention.
That list certainly includes the Jets.