Sporting Samsara

There’s been no news out of Santa Clara, California lately. No news is usually good news, unless you’re guarding nuclear arms. However, in the case of the NFL facility in Silicon Valley, the only arm in question is the not-so-clear arm–and other assets–of quarterback Colin Kaepernick.

Kaepernick has been spotted attending 49er workouts, in between mile-high brunches with the Denver Broncos’ brass. That was as of this past Monday; since then, there’s been no resolution of Kaepernick’s status. He seems not to want the 49ers, they seem to not want him, but apparently nothing is going to happen quickly. So the 49ers are, at the moment, stuck with Colin Kaepernick. Or Colin Kaepernick is stuck with the 49ers. It’s hard to say which is which, or how this story really should be told.

But there are some things about this story which can be, somewhat definitively, stated: It’s a story about mistakes. It’s a story about how not to run a professional sports franchise. It’s a story about how not to go about your professional sports career. It’s a story about the San Francisco 49ers. It’s a story about owner Jed York and G.M. Trent Baalke. It’s a story about Colin Kaepernick.

And it’s a story about Alex Smith–and it’s a story about the universe.

The DFR: Football Kaepernick, at his advent, was supposed to be the model for the NFL quarterbacks for the next couple of decades. The 49ers, after roaming the desert for a good long while, had returned to their promised land of relevance, if not actual championships–ground they had occupied so well in the ’80s and early ’90s.

Fast forward to today and everything is in shambles. Kaepernick was hurt, as well as ineffective, for most of last season and part of the year before that. He lost his job to Blaine Gabbert. The guy who was Kaepernick’s biggest backer in San Francisco, Jim Harbaugh, is into his second year as Michigan’s head coach and will not be walking through that door wherever Kaepernick hangs his helmet next season.


 “Where Kaepernick and the 49ers stand now may not be the product of QBR, but of karma.”


You have to wonder what might have happened if York and Baalke had not gotten so twitchy about Harbaugh. Had they not had to push the coach out of door, Kaepernick might have continued to be a top-flight NFL quarterback. Perhaps, too, some of the high-level teammates who surrounded Kaepernick during the team’s 2012 Super Bowl run might have stuck around, instead of abandoning the building like their hair was on fire during last off-season. Things might have kept rolling, instead of decaying into the rubble we see today.

Most of the blame for that rubble, as noted above, tends to fall squarely upon the shoulders of York and Baalke, mostly for their damaging spat with Harbaugh. (Baalke also routinely gets bashed for his drafts, which have been frequently unproductive.) Certainly, those two deserve a good deal of approbation for what’s happened.

Then again, something else happened during the 49ers’ last few seasons that should not be forgotten. Back in 2012 Alex Smith was the starting quarterback, until he got hurt (concussion) during a Week 8 game against the then-St. Louis Rams. Kaepernick replaced Smith at quarterback, in that game and for the rest of the season.

It was understandable then why Harbaugh would have wanted to go with Kaepernick the rest of the way. Smith had had a shaky career in San Francisco until 2011, when Harbaugh came aboard and turned around the fortunes of the entire franchise, Smith included. Everyone looked at Kaepernick’s obvious physical gifts–in fairly stark contrast to the relatively short, small-handed, and weaker-armed Smith–and assumed that whatever the 49ers could be with Smith under center, they could be that much better with Kaepernick replacing him.

And for a while, they were right. Kaepernick came in and performed well, sometimes brilliantly, in helping the team get to that Super Bowl. In the moment, the switch seemed justified, and met with the overwhelming approval of 49er fans and the local media.

Still, the move went somewhat against the traditional grain. It’s not true that players are never supposed to lose their jobs due to injury, but it usually happens when the new player far exceeds the production of the old; Lou Gehrig replacing Wally Pipp is the classic example.

The change from Smith to Kaepernick did not follow that pattern. Before his injury, Smith was having the best season of his career. The 49ers lost two games with Smith at quarterback, and two under Kaepernick, during the regular season. The pro-Kaepernick observers cite the team reaching the Super Bowl as proof the move was correct, but the team did not win the NFC Championship the previous year because of two Kyle Williams fumbles (that led to ten points, including the game-winning OT field goal) against the New York Giants–two plays that can hardly be held against Smith. (Smith had two TD passes and produced a 97.6 passer rating in the game.) To say that the 49ers never would have won a Super Bowl with Smith as the quarterback simply does not follow from the evidence.

I will confess that I too was a believer in Colin Kaepernick; I stated in another venue that I thought his selection by the 49ers would help foster the team’s return to prominence. Even so, I questioned the move to replace Smith–though I later questioned my own judgment on that matter and accepted the standard view that Kaepernick was the wave of the present, not the 49ers’ future.

It looks now, given the fiasco detailed above, that my mea culpa was premature. Obviously, hitching the franchise’s wagon to Kaepernick turned terribly wrong, and, despite the initial success, the seeds of that destruction may have been sown when Smith was sidelined. Perhaps everything came too quickly for Kaepernick; while the team was rolling he was fine, but when adversity came, he was not prepared for it. Another year or two of seasoning behind Smith might have made a huge difference in the long run for Kaepernick’s career, and for the 49ers current trajectory–especially if they had reached and won that Super Bowl after 2012 with Smith at quarterback.

Ultimately, replacing Smith when he had done nothing to deserve it may have been one of those actions that brings penalties–not on the football field, but in life. Where Kaepernick and the 49ers stand now may not be the product of QBR, but of karma. According to the eastern religions–Hindu, Jain, Buddhist, and others–everything in the universe goes through samsara, or the turning of life’s wheel. Make mistakes now and you pay down the road–just like we’re seeing in Santa Clara today.

One wonders now what it will take for the 49ers and Kaepernick to achieve their nirvana and put their bad karma behind them.  Time, for certain. And maybe a quick trade to Denver would help, too.

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