Remember Colin Kaepernick the QB? It's time the 49ers did again

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Charles Robinson
·NFL columnist
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The San Francisco 49ers need to look at Colin Kaepernick again. Not just through a prism of protest or social awareness, but as a starting quarterback. It has taken 10 starts to show that Blaine Gabbert is what he is – a serviceable, bottom-10 starting NFL quarterback. A guy who isn’t the future or the answer or a long-term cornerstone.

He’s not the answer at quarterback. And Kaepernick still might be. That’s reason enough to start thinking about a change.

After 10 starts and two games into the Chip Kelly era, the 49ers should already know what Gabbert isn’t. More specifically, Kelly should know. He has seen this guy before. He has seen Nick Foles, Mark Sanchez and last-gasp Michael Vick. He has seen not good enough. And that’s what Gabbert is. Good enough to show some flashes. Just good enough to keep in the mix for a fringe starting job. Never good enough to blossom into true a franchise quarterback.

49ers Eric Reid (L) and Colin Kaepernick continued their protest against police brutality on Sunday. (AP)
49ers Eric Reid (L) and Colin Kaepernick continued their protest against police brutality on Sunday. (AP)

That’s what Gabbert was against the Carolina Panthers. Good enough to fall behind 31-10 against a superior team before piling up fourth-quarter garbage stats that made his performance look better than it was. This after an opening-week win in which he dinked and dunked his way to 170 passing yards and one touchdown, but was mostly along for the ride against a Los Angeles Rams team that had an awful season debut.

This is vintage Chip Kelly stuff. We’ve seen repeatedly how his offense makes mediocre quarterbacks initially look like more tenable options than they really are. People forget that Vick efficiently threw for 631 yards and accounted for six touchdowns against no interceptions in his first two games under Kelly. Then he slid off the map. Foles? He took over for Vick and lit the NFL up for a little more than half a season. Then he regressed to a backup slot that has been more of a reflection of where he fits in the NFL. Even Sanchez briefly resurrected himself in 2014 under Kelly, putting up eight solid starts and deceptively cutting the image of a middle-of-the-road NFL starter.

Two games into Kelly’s 49ers tenure, Gabbert seems to be trending in the same direction as that trio. And even that might be overinflating his start. But one thing is clear: His final stats (243 passing yards and three total touchdowns) were an up-and-down odyssey born out of a running game that never got moving. And very little aside from a nicely thrown 28-yard touchdown to Torrey Smith should inspire anyone to believe Gabbert remains an unchallenged starter in San Francisco.

All of which should begin turning the conversation back to Kaepernick. His status as a football player has been entirely drowned out by the shouting over his civic activism the past month. Almost from the moment it was revealed he was protesting the national anthem before games, his status as a quarterback became an inconsequential detail. And surely for the 49ers, that has been a distraction at times.

Of course, there’s more to the story that has little to do with Kaepernick’s national anthem posture or media interviews. There’s still a troubling subplot that revolves around his relationship with general manager Trent Baalke, and that is something that hasn’t improved since cratering in the offseason. Long ago, Kaepernick lost trust in Baalke and that had a significant impact on the QB’s approach this offseason, one source close to Kaepernick said.

From a mental standpoint, Kaepernick was slow to buy into anything the 49ers were doing this offseason, seeming distant and disinterested in football, a source said. While Kelly hoped his offensive system would rejuvenate Kaepernick’s previous success, that hope developed serious doubts during a tumultuous offseason. And at some point, Kaepernick’s weight loss became a pressing concern for the 49ers’ front office – a telling detail leaked to multiple national media members toward the end of the preseason, right around the time the 49ers were headed for roster cuts.

But two things have happened since Kaepernick and the 49ers seemed to be heading for a divorce. First, Kelly stated publicly that Kaepernick was one of the two best quarterbacks on the roster and then Kaepernick subsequently was kept on the 53-man roster. Second, the 49ers have kept Kaepernick on the active roster in the first two games, potentially exposing him to playing, which isn’t something you do when you’re merely carrying dead weight.

Could San Francisco still be carrying Kaepernick to simply avoid a public-relations thump related to his protest? Yes. That’s always possible. But those who know Kelly say it’s more likely that he wants to get one more look at Kaepernick before he’s cut loose. And even if the front office has doubts in Kaepernick’s long-term viability, it’s worth remembering that Gabbert is in the final year of his deal and nobody in San Francisco has shown interest in changing that anytime soon.

Those two factors – Kaepernick remaining on the roster and Gabbert having no long-term deal – translate into a door that is still cracked open. And it will only open further if Gabbert can’t become a more consistent, dependable player. So far, he hasn’t been any better under Kelly than he was in eight starts last season, a few flashes mired inside of mediocrity. And standing on the sideline is Kaepernick, still representing the same lingering question about what he would look like with a sustained opportunity in Kelly’s offense.

For now, we don’t know. But it’s time to start asking that question again. Whether his critics like it or not, the 49ers can’t encapsulate Colin Kapernick’s entire NFL existence in the few minutes he takes a knee before the game. He’s still on the roster for a reason. He’s still active on game days and cashing millions in paychecks to be an NFL quarterback. At some point – sooner rather than later – the 49ers need to give him another opportunity to do that job.

Two games in, Blaine Gabbert is the same player he has always been. And that’s not a long-term solution. Chip Kelly should know that better than anyone.

(Yahoo Sports)
(Graphic by Amber Matsumoto/Yahoo Sports)

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