Colin Kaepernick, starting again, ready to be judged on field

If we thought Colin Kaepernick was a lightning rod over the past six weeks because of his decision to kneel for the National Anthem and speak out in protest to social injustice, we might have just been experiencing the opening act.

Kaepernick took his polarizing stance this summer as a former Super Bowl starter and a recognizable product pitchman who was relegated to backup duty by Blaine Gabbert -- a castoff seen as the 49ers best option at quarterback.

Kaepernick didn't play so, for the most part, he was heard and not seen.

With the 49ers 1-4, Gabbert having played his way out of the job and Kaepernick reassuming the starting role for Sunday's game at Buffalo, we now have one of the NFL's 32 starting quarterbacks not taking part in one of the NFL's most beholden pregame traditions.

Kaepernick was only judged -- and man, was he judged -- for not standing for the anthem and standing up for people of color, whom he said have not been fairly treated in America, especially by police and the judicial system.

He'll now be judged on whether he can still handle one of the toughest and most scrutinized jobs in professional sports.

"My biggest thing is focusing on football," Kaepernick said.

Does he still have it? Nobody knows. He hasn't started a real game since Nov. 1, 2015. Since Jim Harbaugh, the coach who drafted him in the second round in 2011, wasn't retained after the 2014 season, Kaepernick hasn't been the same player.

Coach Chip Kelly says that Kaepernick, physically, isn't the chiseled, hyper-athletic guy that he was two years ago. Kaepernick is struggling to gain and maintain weight -- something he said has always been an issue and something, he said, should not be blamed on him changing to a vegan diet months ago.

Kaepernick said his strength, not his weight, should be the only concern and his strength is up to par.

Wide receiver Torrey Smith said Kaepernick looked good in practice Tuesday, consistently hitting big plays. Smith also brought up Kaepernick losing his job to Gabbert last season.

Several conversations I've had with people within the 49ers said that there wasn't much difference between Kaepernick and Gabbert in terms of performance. Gabbert got in more practice time because Kaepernick spent the summer recovering from thumb, shoulder and knee procedures. So Gabbert performed better when real games weren't being played and got first dibs to run an offense short on playmakers and frontline talent when real games were being played.

Gabbert was not happy being demoted but he, as usual, was handling things professionally and fessed up to his shortcomings.

It was hard to tell if any player in the locker room championed the move to Kaepernick. However, it was hard to tell if any player was cool sticking with Gabbert. Maybe because so many players are complicit in the 49ers' 31st-ranked offense that none of them have a concrete base to offer up an opinion on any personnel change.

One of the most intriguing things about all of this: Kelly said that the move to Kaepernick was strictly a football decision. Maybe to Kelly because his longevity and fading reputation as an offensive Svengali depend on scoring points and winning ball games. That hasn't happened.

However, Kaepernick confirmed what NFL Network Insider Ian Rapoport reported last week, which was Kaepernick's representatives and the 49ers are reworking his contract. Nothing is final and Kaepernick would not get into specifics, but in a nutshell, according to Rapoport, the team and player can part ways after the season without any financial ramifications.

Kaepernick has a clause that would guarantee him $14 million for 2017 should he get injured and not be able to pass a physical by April 1. That also means the team holds his rights for the season -- unless it trades him, which wouldn't happen (again) because of the price tag.

Kaepernick said nothing has been finalized with his contract and that he feels no pressure to sign things before Sunday's game. Why should he? If this is a "football decision" and Kelly has committed to him, he seemingly is holding some leverage.

Regardless of how Kaepernick fares on the field, this puts the 49ers in a tough spot.

If he doesn't play well, then the fan base is going to increase its frustration as to why the team didn't try harder to address the quarterback spot in the offseason. Los Angeles and Philadelphia traded up in the draft to select Jared Goff (has yet to play) and Carson Wentz (who has played well). Minnesota traded a first-round pick to Philadelphia during the preseason after starter Teddy Bridgewater got hurt for Sam Bradford (who has played very well).

All three teams sit atop their respective divisions and all three teams might have their quarterbacks for the present and future.

Should Kaepernick play well, then why was he on the bench for five games? Was there more than football at play? Was it the fear that he would get hurt and trigger the expensive clause in his contracts? He dressed and played in garbage time of the season-opening victory against the Rams, so he was at risk then?

Was it his political stance? That would be hard to believe. The 49ers could not have been more supportive of Kaepernick and all of his teammates, nor could they have handled things any better. Was it simply football, which means they could have misread things about the quarterbacks for months?

Those would be minute concerns if Kaepernick plays well and the 49ers start winning. That is the cure-all.

Kaepernick would rebuild his career, Kelly would rebuild his reputation and the 49ers would rebuild some good will with its fan base.

Much of that depends on Kaepernick.

He's set so much in motion off the field by simply taking a knee and a stance. It will take so much more to set his playing career and the 49ers on such a similar, captivating trajectory.

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