Colin Kaepernick is the NFL’s most significant player off the field, a player whose simple act of declining to stand during the national anthem has led to wide-ranging discussions across America about race, police brutality, free speech and the role of sport in society. That has been the subject of thousands of commentaries.
But it’s not the subject of this commentary. Instead, I want to talk about why I also consider Kaepernick the most fascinating NFL player off the field. And the reason for that is simple: He has rapidly declined from a very good quarterback to a terrible quarterback, at an age when most quarterbacks are still getting better.
It was less than four years ago that Kaepernick took over for Alex Smith in the middle of the 2012 season and putting an absolute beating on the Bears in his first NFL start. Do you remember how good Kaepernick was that year? The game that sticks with me is when he went to New England in just his fifth NFL start. Everyone said Bill Belichick would have the key to stopping this upstart young quarterback. Instead Kaepernick threw for four touchdown passes as the 49ers put up 41 points in a win over the Patriots. Quarterbacks making career start No. 5 aren’t supposed to shred Belichick’s defense. Kaepernick did.
That year Kaepernick led the 49ers to the Super Bowl, with a ridiculous 263-yard passing, 181-yard rushing playoff win over the Packers along the way. In the Super Bowl he threw for 302 yards, ran for 62 yards and came up just short of delivering the game-winning touchdown. If the 49ers had beaten the Ravens, Kaepernick would have been the Super Bowl MVP.
In his second year as a starter Kaepernick was just as good, again leading the 49ers to the playoffs and this time coming up just short in an NFC Championship Game loss to the Seahawks. That was the year when Ron Jaworski famously said, “I truly believe Colin Kaepernick could be one of the greatest quarterbacks ever.”
People enjoy needling Jaworski for that hyperbole, but here’s the thing: At the time, everyone was saying Kaepernick had the potential to be a Hall of Fame quarterback. It’s easy to find people who criticize Jaworski’s statement now; it’s hard to find people who disagreed with it on the merits at the time.
And then Kaepernick began to decline in 2014. In 2015, that decline reached such a depth that he was benched for Blaine Gabbert, of all people. This year Kaepernick. has finally taken the job back from Gabbert, but he isn’t very good: Yesterday he averaged a pathetic 4.2 yards per pass and completed less than 50 percent of his passes in an ugly loss to the Buccaneers.
So what happened to Kaepernick? I think it’s three things:
1. Jim Harbaugh left. Harbaugh is a singularly great coach, a coach who has proven everywhere he’s been that he can get the most out of his players. When 49ers owner Jed York and General Manager Trent Baalke foolishly decided they couldn’t get along with Harbaugh anymore, they lost a coach who could find ways to win with Kaepernick’s skill set.
2. Defenses figured him out. Kaepernick always had a strong arm, but he lacks touch on short passes. Defenses seem to be taking away the deep ball and forcing Kaepernick to throw short, and he just doesn’t do that very well. That’s why his average yards per pass has declined every season, from 8.3 in his first season as a starter, to 7.7 in his second year, 7.0 in his third year, 6.6 in his fourth year and now just 5.2 this year.
3. He doesn’t have a supporting cast. In Kaepernick’s first couple seasons, the 49ers were loaded. They’re now a worse team across the board: Worse receivers, worse offensive linemen, worse running backs and a worse defense, which means the 49ers’ offense often ends up having to throw more and run less.
4. He has physically declined. Just looking at Kaepernick, it’s obvious that he’s skinnier and less muscular than he used to be. He had three surgeries that severely limited his ability to work out this offseason, and he has also lost weight after radically changing his diet. He’s just not the big, imposing athlete he was three or four years ago.
Kaepernick may some day find himself playing with a better supporting cast, and it’s possible he’ll get bigger and stronger, but I’m skeptical that he’ll ever be the same player he once was. I don’t think he’s going to end up with another coach who understands his skill set as well as Harbaugh did, and I think the deficiencies opposing defenses have found in his game are going to follow him around. Far from becoming “one of the greatest quarterbacks ever,” I don’t think Kaepernick is even going to be an above-average starter ever again. He had two incredible years, but the Colin Kaepernick of old isn’t coming back.
Here are my other thoughts from Sunday:
Smart move, Doug Pederson. After the Eagles scored a touchdown in the second quarter, they kicked the extra point. But the Vikings were flagged for roughing the kicker, and that’s when Pederson did something smart: Instead of declining the penalty and taking the extra point, Pederson accepted the penalty and went for two, from the 1-yard line after the half-the-distance penalty. Carson Wentz ran the ball in from a yard out, and the Eagles got an additional point. It surprises me how scared NFL coaches are of going for two. Pederson showed some guts, and it paid off.
Tom Brady is as great as ever. After Sunday’s win over the Steelers, Brady is currently leading the league with a whopping 132.6 psaser rating, a number that no quarterback has ever sustained for a full season. He’s showing no sign of age at 39, and he’s showing no sign of rust after his four-game Deflategate suspension.
This is a different Raiders team. We’ve become accustomed in the last decade or so to view the Raiders as an incompetent franchise, and so I think some people haven’t yet caught on to just how good the Raiders are. In Derek Carr they have one of the league’s best young quarterbacks, and they’re keeping him upright. You may remember that Carr’s big brother David was sacked an NFL-record 76 times as a rookie. Carr has now been in the NFL for two and a half seasons, and he still hasn’t been sacked 76 times: Carr has now been sacked 62 times in 39 NFL starts. There’s every reason to believe the Raiders will compete for a playoff spot this year, and for many years to come, with Carr as their leader.
Why play Shady? Playing LeSean McCoy yesterday may turn out to be a huge, season-altering mistake by the Bills. McCoy suffered a hamstring injury in practice last week, and there were conflicting reports about whether he could play. McCoy ended up playing in the loss to the Dolphins but left the game early after another hamstring injury. If this hamstring becomes a chronic problem for McCoy, it would seriously damage the Bills’ offense. The 4-3 Bills are fighting for playoff position, and they can’t afford to be at less than full strength.
An ugly game for Sam Bradford. When the Vikings traded a first-round draft pick and a fourth-round draft pick for Bradford, my immediate reaction was that they overpaid. In his first four starts for the Vikings, Bradford played very well, and rewarded the Vikings’ faith in him. But yesterday’s performance in Philadelphia was awful: Bradford was sacked six times, fumbled four times and threw an interception. The Vikings are using the washed-up offensive tackle Jake Long because they don’t have anybody healthy to play the position, and Bradford looked incredibly uncomfortable behind a patchwork offensive line. The Vikings’ trade for Bradford only makes sense if he can lead them to the playoffs, and he can’t do that if he keeps playing Kaepernick-like games the way he did on Sunday.