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Let’s Check in With Colin Kaepernick, the 49ers QB Savior Turned Backup

Getty Images
Getty Images

You know those friends you see every year or so? The ones who, if you’re being honest, you meet less out of enduring closeness than routine? Hey, I’m in town, let’s get drinks. You fill each other in on the developments of the past 10 or 12 months — new girlfriend, vacation to New Zealand, brother’s engagement — and see if you still have enough in common to make it to drink three. How much changes from one catch-up session to the next?

On Friday, it will be Colin Kaepernick’s turn to check in with the Packers. San Francisco will host Green Bay in a preseason game at Levi’s Stadium. Aaron Rodgers will likely start. Kaepernick probably won’t. Can they make it past the talk of business relationships to get into how it’s really going?

For a while, after Kap unseated Alex Smith midway through the 2012 campaign and proceeded to humiliate most every defender who had the nerve to challenge him, he looked like the future — both of the 49ers franchise and of the entire NFL. In his first career start, against the Bears on November 19, he threw for 243 yards on 23 attempts en route to a 32–7 victory. But it was the Niners’ blowout of the Packers in the divisional round of that season’s playoffs, in which he rushed for a quarterback-record 181 yards with two touchdowns, that solidified Kaepernick’s place in the league imagination. Kap, the dual-threat promise of tomorrow, had solved football. The following September, he again shocked the Packers; when they met once more in a January NFC wild-card game, he melted them at a frigid Lambeau Field.

“He leads, and we follow,” then-49ers guard Mike Iupati, now with the Cardinals, said of Kaepernick after the wild-card performance. “He’s a special cat, man.”

You know what happened next: Everything went to shit. After an 8–8 effort in 2014, the Niners and head coach Jim Harbaugh decided it was in their “mutual best interest to move in different directions.” Last season, after shedding veterans during free agency and seeing a number of others — including Anthony Davis, Justin Smith, Patrick Willis, and Chris Borland — retire in the offseason, the team went 5–11 under first-year coach Jim Tomsula, the franchise’s worst finish since 2007. Twitter has grown fond of passing around the Niners’ Super Bowl XLVII roster. A year ago, seven members of that starting lineup remained with the franchise. Today, that number is four: Kaepernick, offensive tackle Joe Staley, and linebackers NaVorro Bowman and Ahmad Brooks.

The result last season was a team that was hard to watch. Kaepernick floundered, losing his starting job after a 27–6 blowout loss to the Rams in Week 8, a game in which Kap at one point failed to see a frantically waving, wide-open Torrey Smith. Fans — especially in San Francisco — were left scratching their heads.

Tomsula was fired in January, and with that came what should have been hope for the benched QB. Kaepernick, with his speed and tremendous arm strength, seems like the perfect player for new head coach Chip Kelly’s offense; Kelly, surely, would be the one to rejuvenate the quarterback’s career.

And then. Kaepernick’s camp requested a trade in February; in April, word spread that a deal with the Broncos was imminent. He stayed, reportedly over a $4.9 million contract dispute. Kelly is now said to favor starting Blaine Gabbert — Blaine Gabbert, who threw 24 interceptions and 22 touchdowns during his three-year stint with the Jaguars from 2011 to 2013. As of Thursday, Kaepernick, who is coming back from offseason surgery and rejoined practice at the start of the week, is listed as a co-starter with Gabbert, who has completed 10 of 19 pass attempts for 132 yards in two 2016 preseason games.

So now the 49ers will again face the Packers. Last October, Kaepernick started against them in Week 4; the Niners lost 17–3, capped by linebacker Clay Matthews shouting “You ain’t Russell Wilson, bro” at Kap during the fourth quarter. It’s been scarcely three and a half years since his breakout playoff performance in 2012, but it feels like eons.

Kap is still in San Francisco, and still, in theory, has mostly the same job. This should be his chance to come full circle. But when the question of how he’s doing gets brought up against Green Bay, this time he might not even get the chance to answer.