A total of 350 days had passed since Colin Kaepernick had last started an NFL game. All that had happened since then was a national debate, a controversial protest, a backup quarterback inspiring athletes and angering football fans. The lightning-rod 28-year old hadn’t even thrown a pass this year, and he still became one of the most influential and provocative players in the league.
Protesting social injustice and police brutality, the San Francisco 49ers quarterback had taken a knee each week during the playing of the national anthem in the regular season. On Sunday he actually had to rise from that notorious knee and take the field, tasked to start for the first time this season.
He wasn’t exactly the Kaepernick of old, and nothing about his play will likely change the brightness of the spotlight he’s drawn this season. Kaepernick finished the day 13 of 29 for 187 yards and a touchdown in the 49ers’ 45-16 loss against the Buffalo Bills. This surely wasn’t the gameplan, but he was also the 49ers’ leading rusher, tallying 66 yards on eight carries.
“It felt great to be on the field again,” Kaepernick told reporters after the game. “Just very excited. It felt good to be out there and try to help my team win. Having the opportunity meant a lot.”
He might be a different quarterback than he was when he had last taken the field, but Kaepernick is certainly a different man — recognized, loved and loathed for his social stance more so than his ability to throw a spiral. Perhaps a nod to the role he’s taken on, Kaepernick arrived at New Era Field in Orchard Park, N.Y., wearing a T-shirt featuring Muhammad Ali under a dark blazer. When the anthem played, as expected, he took a knee, alongside teammates Eric Reid and Eli Harold. Bills fans booed him and countered Kaepernick’s protest with a “USA” chant.
“I don’t understand what’s un-American about fighting for liberty and justice for everybody — for the equality that this country says it stands for,” he said. “To me, I see it as very patriotic and American to uphold the United States to the standards it says it lives by.”
The environment appeared to be hostile at times, but Kaepernick was apparently unfazed, saying he “wasn’t really listening to what was going on in the stands.” He was unable to confirm a report that a beer bottle had been thrown at him during the first half.
“If they did, they didn’t have very good aim,” he said.
“I had some Bills fans before the game come up and say they support me,” Kaepernick noted. “I think it all depends on who the person is. But at the end of the day, I’m going to continue to fight for what I’m fighting for.”
For the better part of four quarters, it didn’t much matter whether he was kneeling, holding a clipboard, throwing or running, because the San Francisco defense had no answer for LeSean McCoy. The running back finished with 140 yards and scored three touchdowns, and the Bills rolled up 491 yards of total offense, finding the end zone six times.
San Francisco, meanwhile, struggled to find a rhythm. They converted just three third downs on the day and struck out on both tries inside the red zone. For the 49ers, it was a new quarterback but the same result, a fifth straight loss.
Kaepernick had lost his starting job to Blaine Gabbert after struggling through eight games last season. Recovering from offseason surgeries, he failed to win the job back in the preseason but still made headlines when his anthem protest drew criticism and praise across a divided football-loving nation. Even as all eyes watched him in the minutes before each game, he was still relegated to backup duty behind Gabbert each week when the clock started rolling.
But after the 49ers had dropped four straight games, San Francisco Coach Chip Kelly decided to make a change, naming Kaepernick the new starter earlier in the week.
While the controversy didn’t necessarily follow Kaepernick onto the field Sunday, the rust from such a lengthy layoff was apparent. Though he had only three incompletions in the opening half, Kaepernick’s timing was off, and he sent balls sailing over the heads of some receivers and skipping it at the feet of others.
His longest completion of the day, in fact, was a sloppy-looking affair. In the second quarter, Kaepernick underthrew Torrey Smith, but the former Maryland receiver was all alone and was able to come back, make the catch and still cruise into the end zone for a 53-yard score.
San Francisco trailed only 17-13 at the half, but in the third quarter the 49ers couldn’t find any semblance of rhythm. The running game sputtered and Kaepernick was only 2-of-7 passing for 24 yards. As he faltered, the Bills pulled away. Buffalo outscored San Francisco 29-3 in the second half.
“We had little mistakes here and there,” Kaepernick said. “We didn’t finish our drives.”
There were flashes, though, brief moments when Kaepernick was slightly reminiscent of the promising young quarterback who led the 49ers to the Super Bowl in 2012. Midway through the third quarter against the Bills, for example, San Francisco faced a third and eight. Working out of the shotgun, Kaepernick spotted an opening and scrambled around the right end for a 29-yard gain. It was the team’s longest run of the day.
Unfortunately for the 49ers, it was also only their second third-down conversion of the day. On the very next series, they attempted four straight running plays and turned the ball over on downs.
After watching Gabbert throw six interceptions over the previous four weeks, 49ers fans could take solace in the fact that Kaepernick threw many balls that neither team managed to catch and finished with no interceptions.
It’s a starting point, perhaps. For Kelly, Kaepernick and the 49ers to have any shot of salvaging their season, they’ll soon have to show an ability to make headlines for their on-field efforts, too.