ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. – Over bratwurst and Bud Lights, the parking lots surrounding the Buffalo Bills stadium here were full of pointed discussions such as why the NFL can penalize a guy for dancing in the end zone, but not kneeling for the national anthem.
Others tried to organize how they would greet Colin Kaepernick as he took the field – there were plenty of boos and a “U-S-A, U-S-A” chant. Some flew American flags. T-shirts featuring the crosshairs of a gun scope on Kaepernick were hawked. At one tailgate a tackling dummy was dress-up like Kap and video of fans taking turns blasting it flooded social media. One cop theorized, out loud, that maybe Kaepernick should just renounce his citizenship, if what he believed mattered that much.
That was one side. There was another.
A plane tugging a pro-Kaepernick banner flew over the place. A group supporting San Francisco’s quarterback and the Black Lives Matter movement held a rally outside one gate. There were plenty of Kaepernick jerseys being worn by individual fans, a more silent show of support.
Mostly though, people just enjoyed the day, focusing on the Bills’ improved play and the short-sleeves-in-mid-October-weather, a warm wind blowing colorful leaves through the air.
In the end, Kaepernick was but a small part of the show, a personal political statement in his first start of the season that quickly turned into a guy trying to quarterback a terrible football team.
In many ways, that’s what he said this was about. He’d make his point and then … let’s play. For that, it was just another Sunday in the NFL, the fans less interested in social justice debates than the final score – Buffalo 45, San Francisco 16.
This is for many meant to be an entertainment diversion, of course, a reprieve from the real world, the election or grind of the times. Watching the Niners defense get run over was of far more interest than whatever they did during the anthem. Plenty of fans got to leave early, the game over by the early fourth quarter.
Kaepernick was never great nor terrible on Sunday. He finished 13-for-29 for 187 yards and one touchdown. He ran for 66 yards. He made some great throws. He made some bad ones. He had some effective scrambles. He got strip sacked. His TD pass went for 53 yards but was the result of blown coverage as his pass was painfully underthrown.
In fairness, he didn’t have a ton to work with. San Francisco’s defense was abysmal. Offensive weapons are scarce. The team is now 1-5.
Kaepernick is probably a better option than previous starter Blaine Gabbert. If that remains true, then he’ll play out the season in a starter’s spotlight, this but the first of hostile road environments that the Niners schedule stretches to Arizona, Miami, Chicago, Atlanta and L.A.
He can expect more jeers (and cheers) at those places, and assuredly some at the Niners’ Levi Stadium home.
Kaepernick had been the back-up all year, including the preseason when he began sitting and then kneeling during the national anthem to protest social injustice, specifically police violence against African Americans and other racial minorities. The fallout was as considerable as it was predictable – political battle lines passionately drawn.
Through it all Kaepernick stuck to his decision and slowly shaped his message. Meanwhile the 49ers continued to struggle. Sunday brought the first chance to see Kaepernick play under the offense of new coach Chip Kelly, and there were glimmers of what is possible.
There was also a smack of reality about how far things have to go.
Kaepernick might note that’s what he’s been trying to say all along.