Sunday afternoon in Western New York features one of the most anticipated games involving a 1-4 team in quite some time. And it’s all due to San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who will make his first start — and for all intents and purposes his first real game-action — since beginning his controversial and much-debated national anthem protest in August.
Head coach Chip Kelly set this all in motion when he decided earlier this week to sit Blaine Gabbert — who currently ranks second-to-last in quarterback rating and dead last in passing yards among anyone with five starts — in favor of the 28-year-old former Super Bowl starter.
Any time a quarterback change is made as a result of poor play by the incumbent, questions abound. Some focus on the new guy’s experience, preparedness and skills. Others center on how long his leash is and what will it take for the head coach to make another change, either back to the original starter or to a third option.
But the situation surrounding Kaepernick takes those uncertainties to a whole new level. Not only is Kaepernick returning to the field after having not thrown a pass in a NFL game since last November, but he is trying to return to form following a series of injuries: A dead-arm issue from the preseason that contributed to his place on the bench, and three separate surgeries (knee, thumb, shoulder) during the offseason. Throw in the unpredictability of the public’s reception to his expected national anthem protest before this week’s game in Orchard Park — he will now be on the field and a much easier target for the media and the home crowd — and Kelly’s experiment with Kaepernick could be remarkably short.
That all depends, of course, on how well he plays. First downs, touchdowns, and wins silence a lot of critics and halt a great many questions.
In addition to his own personal baggage (distractions caused by his star-spangled boycott, his rust, his injuries) a handful of impediments await Kaepernick’s first significant appearance in more than 11 months.
First is the group of skill players that surround him, arguably the worst in football. Although Carlos Hyde has excelled this year and Jeremy Kerley has caught 14 passes for 190 yards and 2 touchdowns in the past two weeks, no one else has contributed very much. Kerley is the only player to average more than 31 yards receiving this year. There’s a reason why the 49ers’ Bradley Pinion leads the NFL with 32 punts.
Gabbert deserves much of the blame for those numbers: Just look at the throw he made two weeks ago against Dallas when he badly missed a wide-open Torrey Smith for what should have been a go-ahead fourth quarter touchdown. But even if Gabbert wasn’t playing so poorly and the offensive line was a bit more consistent, the 49ers still have no explosive, exceptional pass catchers. Remember: Last year, aside from Anquan Boldin, who they cut in February, not one 49ers player caught more than 33 passes and Kerley was the only significant addition this offseason.
Even if the 49ers’ paltry collection of pass catchers do somehow rally to play better, they are facing one off the best defenses in the NFL. Discounting a terrible showing in Week 2 against the Jets, Buffalo is surrendering an average of 10 points and 320 yards per game. Rex and Rob Ryan’s unit also ranks among the top five in interceptions, fumbles forced, sacks and passes broken up.
But Kaepernick does bring something to the offense that the man he’s replacing hasn’t in 2016. Blaine Gabbert is athletic and a good runner (he’s actually second on the 49ers in rushing yards by a huge margin), but he still doesn’t have the improvisational moves and breakaway speed Kaepernick flashed during his peak years. From 2012-2014, Kaepernick averaged more than 6 yards per rush. That running ability — which is considerably different from scrambling — does provide Chip Kelly’s read-option offense more credibility: The Bills should be more willing to respect the quarterback’s willingness to keep the ball on zone reads.
That alone might be just enough to eat up a few more yards, extend drives and help the 49ers put points on the scoreboard, while simultaneously giving the 49ers defense much-needed rest. The offense not sustaining drives and scoring points hurts the team on the scoreboard, but the 22 three-and-outs they have this year also take a toll on the defense.
And that’s the real measure of Kaepernick’s performance this week in Buffalo. It doesn’t matter if he throws for 300 yards and rushes for 75 and a touchdown if the 49ers can stay in the game and not fall behind quickly. Forget those individual numbers: The best way to measure Kaepernick’s performance is how many first downs the 49ers gain (more than 20?) and how often they piece together drives of more than seven or eight plays.
Pitting a bad 49ers offense — only the Rams are averaging fewer yards per game — against an excellent Bills defense means Kaepernick is not likely to consume yards and light up the scoreboard at New Era Field on Sunday. But he still can justify Chip Kelly’s lineup change, guarantee a second start and in the process gain another measure of support for his political protest. After all, the longer he’s in the starting lineup, the more people will want to listen to what he has to say.