His limited-edition headphones are lathered in gold, but nothing else about Colin Kaepernick’s football profile is regal these days. In fact, he let a comment slip this week that suggests he’s an emotionally beaten quarterback. There was an inevitable question about his future job security, a fair subject knowing the 49ers can dump him by April 1 with only a minimal financial penalty.
First he said he doesn’t play for job security, that he doesn’t worry about it when he’s inside the team facility. But then he said something that hints at a wobbling mental state as his once-glittering career free-falls toward failure.
“Whether football’s here or not,” Kaepernick said, “I will be fine.”
If it has crossed his mind that he could live without professional football, consider it more evidence that No. 7 is not the answer in Santa Clara. In times of struggle, you want to hear the quarterback fire back with fighting words and vow to succeed in the end. Kaepernick voiced a wishy-washy assurance about not needing the sport that, at least temporarily, has made him wealthy and famous. This Sunday, after a horrendous four-game start that finds him 33rd in QB rating and last in passing yardage for the NFL’s lowest-scoring offense, Kaepernick flies 3,000 miles for a prime-time night game in front of 25 million viewers against a Giants defense aiming to leave him flattened on the New Jersey Turnpike.
Oh, and did I mention that Joe Staley and Alex Boone are banged up on what already is a shaky offensive line?
In my mind, it’s Kap’s Last Stand. If he continues to play scared, hold onto the ball too long, throw skittish passes, take off on happy-feet whims and wane on the basics — touch, ball placement, reading defenses — the 49ers must see what they have in Blaine Gabbert, a bust himself with a 66.8 career passer rating but a backup who did show preseason progress. And once that switch happens, the chances of Kaepernick returning next season are nil. The reason the 49ers did a series of one-year deals with him is because they didn’t trust him enough to grant a long-term lump guarantee. Now almost 28 and showing no signs of stopping an alarming two-year regression, he’s about to become the symbol of everything wrong with an organization that has a lot more wrong with it than Colin Kaepernick.
But the beauty of the NFL is that the draft allows a double-digit-loss team to recover quickly. And the beauty of the 2016 draft is that the top quarterback, by consensus, is right up I-880 at Cal, allowing the 49ers a potential re-do for a mistake that has haunted them for years. They drafted Alex Smith with the No. 1 pick in 2005, rejecting Aaron Rodgers in Berkeley. A franchise that screws up that badly doesn’t deserve a second chance, but Jed York and Trent Baalke may get one anyway in Jared Goff, whom a national audience will see Saturday night in Cal’s biggest game in years, at No. 5 Utah, a night before a national audience views Kaepernick in decline.
Remember the doubters who said Goff was a fortunate byproduct of Sonny Dykes’ spread shotgun offense? With every passing clinic and Cal victory, the skepticism is melting into praise and projections of an outstanding pro future — many of the raves coming for his maturity and football intellect. He appears to have it all except an extra 15 pounds, which quickly can be added as lean muscle mass on the next level. He’s plenty tall at 6-4, blessed with a strong arm, fine accuracy and ball placement and a better touch than Kaepernick ever has exhibited. He reads the field well, moves on his feet, waits and maneuvers to let receivers find open spaces. Better still, he’s growing as a leader, even as Dykes points out that he’s “shy.” Watch Goff on the sideline. He’s cool, never rattled. His pitch-and-catch act with receiver Kenny Lawler should be playing in an NFL stadium near you.
Goff is the anti-Kaepernick, actually, a polished passer at a time when dual-threat artists have been figured out by defensive coordinators. Teams want the next Rodgers now, and if the next Rodgers is on the same campus, well, the 49ers cannot blow this twice now, can they?
They’ll have to lose at least a dozen games, but that seems very doable. And they’ll have to hope that teams with more losses won’t be picking quarterbacks, also possible. Tampa Bay is locked into Jameis Winston. Miami is locked into Ryan Tannehill. Detroit is locked into Matthew Stafford. Where the 49ers could lose out is if Cleveland, Chicago and Houston — all QB-needy — draft ahead of them. Any of those teams would opt for Goff. But the Niners travel to Cleveland and Chicago in December and can help their Goff cause by losing.
It was only two years ago when ESPN’s Ron Jaworski, in a remark that will live in infamy, actually said, “I truly believe Colin Kaepernick could be one of the greatest quarterbacks ever. I love his skill set. I think the sky’s the limit.”
Now, we hear Geep Chryst, no wizard himself as coordinator of the 49ers offense, breaking down Kaepernick’s lapses and comparing him to a baseball pitcher who loses his stuff after losing confidence. In his case, the four-interceptions, two-pick-six game in Arizona may be the fiasco from which he never recovers.
“Is a pitcher getting shelled?” Chryst said Thursday. “There’s no doubt that there’s a component to your mindset. You turn the ball over four times in a game, two are returned for touchdowns. What’s the natural pendulum swing? The swing is back to, ‘Whatever I do, it may be ugly, but I want to give this team a chance to win at the end.’ And that’s where it’s disappointing when you don’t hit those opportunities in the red zone [in recent games], because you’ve also learned the lesson that not doing something sometimes causes problem as opposed to trying too hard to do something. So, we’ve got to find that, and all that we can go on is what the tape said and how we’ve been practicing.”
At one point, Chryst said “there would be changes made” if Kaepernick ever went “0-for-19 throwing.”
Be careful what you wish for.
Jay Mariotti is sports director and lead sports columnist at the San Francisco Examiner. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read his website at jaymariotti.com.