Kaepernick and Kelly: turns out to be a good match

Alan Truex

There’s probably no athlete in America who’s more polarizing on the field and off than Colin Kaepernick. Talk about a dual quarterback.

You could make an argument here for Dez Bryant, who calls himself “America’s most hated.” But unlike with Kaepernick, there’s not much dispute about Bryant’s athletic skills or his emotional immaturity.

Nobody thinks it’s good for Dez to erupt on the field, the sidelines or in the locker room and thereby disturb the fragile chemistry of the Dallas Cowboys. The polarity concerns whether you’re willing to accept the bad Bryant to enjoy the good.

There’s almost nothing about Kaepernick, of the San Francisco 49ers, that’s so clear-cut, indisputable, ever since he was one of football’s acknowledged stars in 2012-2013. He quarterbacked in two NFC title games and one Super Bowl, which he very nearly won in the final seconds.

Since then his play has drawn mixed reviews, more bad than not. I suggested in this blog a year ago that he might be “the dumbest quarterback in the NFL.”

That was harsh, but how else to explain how someone with his height (6-feet-4), 40-yard speed (4.5) and reasonably accurate power arm could get benched in favor of Blaine Gabbert?

Kaepernick seemed unable to decipher defenses once the coordinators committed themselves to confusing him and shutting off his outside runs.

My doubts about his intelligence increased when he declared war on the national anthem, decided to remain sitting in the arena while it played. He soon modified his method of civil protest, adopting a more respectful kneel-down. But still, many did not appreciate it, including his own mother.

What he did was very brave — millions admired him, millions did not. But what sort of career move? He was denounced by coaches, owners, players and just about all of Trump America.  

He received death threats. He was called out by Donald J. Trump himself prior to his election to the presidency.

And speaking of elections, Kaepernick didn’t exactly shine as a role model when he announced he was not voting, as part of his opposition to trigger-happy police.

“I think it would be hypocritical of me to vote,” he said. Having inveighed “against the system of oppression,” he was “not going to show support for that system.”

But let’s put all that aside for a moment.

Perhaps we can agree, in due course, that black lives matter, cops’ lives matter, that we love our troops and the first amendment, and even the second. Keep “The Star Spangled Banner,” but maybe we also could add a verse of “Kumbaya.”

Whatever your feelings on Kaepernick as a moral crusader, let’s look at his quarterbacking, now that he’s getting an opportunity to play for a revolutionary-minded coach, Chip Kelly.

In order to encourage the 49ers to start him, Kaepernick offered to delete some worker’s compensation from a contract that had three more years to run. He agreed to let the company off if he’s injured, as he was most of last year. He gets the option to go elsewhere when this season ends. So for him this is basically play-for-pay.

In his first two starts this year, against Buffalo and Tampa Bay, he showed the rust accumulated from being attached to the bench: 46 percent completions.

But following a much needed bye week to study and practice Kelly’s unique offense, we saw glimpses of the way Kaepernick was when Jim Harbaugh was his coach.   Against New Orleans and Arizona he completed 41 of 69 passes, and while 59% is below the league average, keep in mind that his receivers and blockers are mostly below average.

And note that Kaepernick has to bring his own running game. He’s the team’s leading rusher over these two weeks, carrying 15 times for 78 yards and a touchdown.

During this same period he’s passed for three TDs and thrown just one interception.

But while he’s a sudden boon to fantasy leagues, in his four starts he has not brought his team a victory. The 49ers have lost eight straight games and are two-touchdown underdogs at home when the New England Patriots visit them Sunday.

A word of caution before you load up on Patriot bets. Kaepernick’s downtrodden team almost upset Arizona on the road last Sunday. He tied the game with a 4-yard scramble and 1:55 left in the fourth quarter. The Cardinals had enough time to win, but narrowly, 23-20, on a 34-yard field goal from Chandler Catanzaro.

Don’t be shocked if the 49ers have a slight revival in the second half of this season, boosted by Kaepernick’s quiet surge and the improving health of a couple of key players, running back Carlos Hyde and nose tackle Glenn Dorsey.

Granted, Kelly’s efforts at transporting his warp-speed college offense to the pros have not been very encouraging in 2 ½ seasons. But there may be a bright future for the Gold and Red if they can draft a fast receiver, say, a Torrey Smith with hands.

Until now Kelly as an NFL coach hasn’t had a game-breaking pass catcher or a thrower who can run like Marcus Mariota did for him at Oregon in an offense that was almost sack-proof. If Kaepernick, 28, can be a late-blooming Mariota, the 49ers might control the ball enough to give their defense some rest. Then perhaps it will be the other team’s defense that tires out, instead of Kelly’s.

It could be that Kaepernick embodies what Kelly and his bosses want. With an escape-minded quarterback, like Wilson at Seattle, Newton at Carolina, Luck at Indy, Rodgers at Green Bay, Mariota now at Tennessee and Big Ben in Pittsburgh, a team does not have to invest so heavily in pass protection.

Along with the strategic compatibility, Kelly seems genuinely unbothered by his quarterback’s radical expressionism. The two men appear to be on the same page, whether playbook or Facebook. Bad news for much of America weary of Kaepernick. He’s likely to stick around for a few years.


Click here for Alan Truex’s forecast of the 49ers-Patriots game.


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