Colin Kaepernick burst into the National Football League as a futuristic vision of what a quarterback could be. He rocketed passes 70 yards in the air. He sprinted past defenders with gazelle-length strides. He took a rugged 49ers team to within five yards of a Super Bowl title. For a time in 2012, a debate raged: Who would make the better franchise quarterback: Kaepernick … or Robert Griffin III?
Judgments of NFL quarterbacks can change in swift and harsh fashion. It may seem like an overreaction, in the wake of the 49ers’ 47-7 embarrassment in Arizona, to question Kaepernick’s status in San Francisco. It would also be a pleasant fiction to believe the question will not come. Kaepernick threw four interceptions, took two sacks and completed nine passes for 67 yards. Once the clear quarterback of the future, Kaepernick now must fight for his job.
“Colin is our quarterback,” 49ers Jim Tomsula said afterward, and that is exactly the kind of thing coaches must say at a time like this. It means there is doubt, and change often follows doubt.
Kaepernick’s performance Sunday forced the 49ers to at least view playing Kaepernick as a decision to make. He remained dangerous on the ground, rushing seven times for 46 yards. It’s not like the 49ers have a decisively attractive option behind him in Blaine Gabbert, a former top-10 pick who bombed in Jacksonville.
But Kaepernick’s clock is ticking after Sunday, the worst performance of his career. He fired pick-sixes on consecutive drives. He didn’t complete a pass longer than 14 yards. He led the 49ers to 10 first downs in 12 possessions. The 49ers’ offense has a dearth of credible playmakers, but Kaepernick’s play was beneath the standard NFL threshold.
It would be less concerning if Kaepernick’s horrendous day came in isolation. But Kaeperick is regressing. In the second half of last season, a stretch that included a four-game losing streak, Kaepernick posted a 76.6 quarterback rating and averaged 177 passing yards per game. He began his career with a 17-6 record; he has gone 9-10 since.
The 49ers still have another 13 weeks to evaluate him, but after the season they will have a decision. Kaepernick will make roughly $2.5 million of his signing bonus next season. If the 49ers do not cut him before April 1 of next year, they will owe him his full salary of roughly $16.8 million. There will be more than $13 million at stake when the 49ers decide if they still want Kaepernick to be their quarterback.
Entering the season, it may not have seemed like a pressing issue. After Sunday’s dismal performance, it does now.