San Francisco 49ers  

 

Colin Kaepernick keeps attention away from inept 49ers

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ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. -- San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick answered question after question Sunday about crowd reaction toward him not standing for the national anthem and how he was treated, good or bad, before, during and after his first start this season. The social issues of how minorities are treated in the United States and Kaepernick's controversial stance to help find solutions clearly superseded sports for these few moments.

Yet, somehow, as Kaepernick stood in a tiny interview room in the bowels of New Era Field, I couldn't help wondering how Kaepernick's 49ers had just been embarrassed 45-16 by the Bills and how it seemed so immaterial.

He actually played fairly well, especially for someone who hadn't started in a regular-season game in more than a year. Yet, the rest of his team, especially on defense, was laughably bad, sometimes seemingly nonchalant in losing its fifth-straight game.

"It felt great to be on the field again," Kaepernick said, more than once. "I was very excited to be back on the field with my teammates."

For a while, it looked like they were excited to be on the field with him. Then, as the Bills gained control midway through the third quarter, it didn't look like a lot of 49ers were excited to be on the field at all.

Still, Kaepernick barely had to talk about the train wreck of his team's performance -- and maybe the train wreck of a team he plays for -- because he has become such a public lightning rod, and his team, sadly, has become forgotten.

The 49ers still have tradition and history, but now, it also has problems that Kaepernick, Joe Montana, Jerry Rice, Deion Sanders, Patrick Willis and Ronnie Lott couldn't fix. The offense is punchless. The defense is a punching bag. The talent doesn't match up against most teams in the NFL. The coaching isn't getting it done.

Even so, Kaepernick is the story.

Although some teammates might eventually get tired of talking, reading or hearing about him, they should beg him to keep being the figurehead for causes much more worthy than theirs. He's provided and is providing cover for a playmaking-strapped team that either can't defend or opts not to.

For the fifth straight game, an opposing running back gashed them for 100-plus yards. This time, it was LeSean McCoy, who joy-sticked his way to 140 yards and three touchdowns against his former Eagles coach, Chip Kelly, for whom he hasn't much love. San Francisco defenders allowed Bills quarterback Tyrod Taylor to join in on the fun and tag them for 68 yards on the ground and two passing touchdowns.

After a while in this massacre, it really looked like some players made some business decisions, football code for side-stepping contact for self-preservation. Kelly admitted after the game that defenders were in position to make plays but didn't.

"We have to go in and correct things," Kaepernick said. "We can't make the mistakes we've been making."

As for Kelly, once regarded as an offensive innovator, Bills head coach Rex Ryan paid him the best non-compliment postgame, saying that Buffalo didn't have to make many halftime adjustments on defense. The score was 17-13 at halftime.

So, without making many adjustments, the Bills allowed just three more points.

That's because the 49ers kept running many of the same read-option-based plays that worked at times in the first half. If not for Kaepernick's rushing effectiveness (he had 66 rushing yards on eight carries), things could have been more bogged down.

As for Kaepernick, he played better than former starter Blaine Gabbert has, at least moving the chains and not routinely doubling down on three-and-outs. Kaepernick wasn't great by any means, but you saw more of the guy who helped the 49ers get to the Super Bowl a few years back than the guy who lost his job to Gabbert last season.

"I was impressed," said Bills linebacker Lorenzo Alexander, who recorded his league-best eighth sack. "To be able to come of the schneid like that ... he came out, was effective, he extended a lot [of] drives and made some plays with his legs. At the end he had to sit in the pocket, and I don't think he's ready for that yet, but kudos to him."

As for those questions about reaction to Kaepernick, he was cheered by some and booed by others. Photos appeared on social media of fans outside of the stadium wearing and selling shirts with Kaepernick's likeness in a rifle-scope and other images of him with derogatory remarks. There also were signs and shirts of support, as well as groups of people outside the stadium who supported Kaepernick and the Black Lives Matter movement.

After the game, I walked with him for a ways, trying to figure out if Kelly's questions about his physical wellness was as big of an issue as Kelly has made it out to be for weeks -- especially since Kaepernick played and looked fast and healthy. Before he could answer, he was mobbed for minutes by fans and supporters wanting to take selfies, some thanking him for taking a stand against injustice and leading a conversation and a cause some don't want to allow.

When he finally got to his health, he simply said, "I feel fine."

As with the entire six-week saga involving Kaepernick that has played out on sidelines, in locker rooms, on presidential stumps, in hallways and now, on a football field, it will be intriguing to see how things evolve.

Especially if he plays well or if he plays poorly -- or if that will even matter.

Follow Steve Wyche on Twitter @wyche89.

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