The Emotional Rise and Fall of San Francisco 49ers’ Quarterback Colin Kaepernick

September 14, 2015; Santa Clara, CA, USA; San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick (7) passes the football against the Minnesota Vikings during the first quarter at Levi
September 14, 2015; Santa Clara, CA, USA; San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick (7) passes the football against the Minnesota Vikings during the first quarter at Levi /

The San Francisco 49ers have a quarterback in Colin Kaepernick that creates emotional investments from the fans. The emotional ties between Kaepernick and the fans have altered the quarterback’s career as a 49er.

The San Francisco 49ers are in the midst of a quarterback controversy. The decision is not whether to start one quarterback over another, although it will come to that as the regular season approaches. No, right now the 49ers have to decide what exactly to do with disgruntled quarterback Colin Kaepernick.

The opinions are all over the place. Should they grant his request to seek a trade? Should they deny it and expect him to play for them, if anyone at all? Should they release him sooner rather than later? Or, should they wait it out and force him to retire if he is so unhappy?

The choice will ultimately fall on San Francisco 49ers CEO Jed York and general manager Trent Baalke’s shoulders. New head coach Chip Kelly will have some influence and likely believes that, although Kap might not be the best-suited quarterback to run his system, he is exciting and could be productive.

The answers to those questions will come soon enough. For now, let’s revisit the exciting rise and disheartening fall of a quarterback that was recently considered to be the NFL’s next superstar.

The Kaepernick era began when the 49ers hired Jim Harbaugh to coach the team in 2011. He moved just along the 101 highway from Stanford University and took over a team that hadn’t seen success in a decade. Fans were demoralized and were watching talents like former running back Frank Gore and former linebacker Patrick Willis go to waste. These were all-time 49ers greats and they were playing on some of the worst teams in the franchise’s history.

Enter Harbaugh and suddenly there’s a sense of excitement. Enthusiasm comes right along with the new coach. It was palpable. It was engaging. It was hopeful.

In the first NFL draft since his hiring, Harbaugh’s team selected Kaepernick.

Kaepernick was a dual-threat quarterback from the University of Nevada. He had set records as a college quarterback in Chris Ault’s pistol formation with a big arm and an even bigger stride.

Kaepernick was seen as the future for the 49ers and it would begin under the tutelage of Harbaugh. If the 49ers were going to become relevant again, Kaepernick would play some role in that process. When, exactly, was unclear.

In his first season, Kaepernick would sit behind Alex Smith as he lead the team to the NFC Championship game against the New York Giants.

We don’t need to recall what happened. The pain still lingers. So, let’s fast forward to the next season when Kaepernick would finally get his chance to impress.

It’s November 2012 and 49ers quarterback Alex Smith runs from the pocket in a game against the St. Louis Rams. As he goes to the ground, he’s folded awkwardly at the same time that he takes a hit from Rams linebacker Jo-Lonn Dunbar. Smith is later diagnosed with a concussion and is out for the rest of the game.

So, here begins the 49ers gentle example of a quarterback controversy. After a 24-24 tie with the Rams, Kaepernick is named the starting quarterback for next week’s game. Monday Night Football against the Bears. On the biggest stage, Kap was given his chance. And the deep faith of fans begins to brew. 

Monday Night Football at Candlestick Park against the Chicago Bears and he absolutely dominated. In one of the most exciting 49ers games in years, Kaepernick looked explosive, dynamic and made incredible throws all over the field. Pair Kap’s performance with former-49ers outside linebacker Aldon Smith’s 5.5 sacks, and 49ers fans thought they had found a stud on each side of the ball.

At least momentarily, they were correct.

There’s no need to recount the season. 49ers fans know the story. Kap and the team went to the Super Bowl, eventually losing to the Baltimore Ravens.

But it was clear, Kap had secured the starting position and was the 49ers’ newest franchise quarterback. The team traded Alex Smith to the Kansas City Chiefs for a second-round pick and the message was sent: It’s your team, Kap. Let’s keep this up.

York rode the wave of excitement surrounding Harbaugh and Kaepernick, using it to secure funds to build Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara. The buzz of the team’s potential was now reaching farther than fans, it was reaching business prospects looking to tie themselves to the success of the NFL’s most invigorating pair.

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The following season saw the 49ers as one of the favorites to head to the Super Bowl again. There’s something to be said about that. For the first time in a decade, fans felt like they had a team that was on top. Consistently.

The end was only going to come when Kaepernick retired. The endorsements, commercials and headlines only served as examples that the 49ers had the most exhilarating player in the league and he was leading the team.

Take a moment to remember that. Kaepernick may be gone sooner than expected but, at least for those couple of years, that was fun while it lasted.

When he was on–and there were times when he was lights out–there might not have been a more exciting player to watch. The Green Bay Packers had multiple chances to figure him out and couldn’t. He went into Foxboro and battled the Patriots, leading to a late win. He led the team back from a major deficit to win the NFC Championship game on the road in Atlanta. We’ve seen him win time and time again. Each win drawing us closer to this larger-than-life assumption of who he is.

Have things fallen off the wagon? Absolutely. It’s messy and it hurts. Nobody is happy.

But Kaepernick was the fiery piece to the offense that ignited a spark that had been missing for years. When he was on the field flexing his biceps and outracing defensive backs, fans wanted to watch. We were captivated by this new-age quarterback that was built like a video game character and routinely dominated some of the best players in the NFL.

And that might be what makes this next part so difficult. Because whether we want to admit it or not, there is an emotional tie to Kaepernick and his career that is stronger than almost any other 49er. Yes, the release of running back Frank Gore and retirement of linebacker Patrick Willis were some of the most devastating moments of recent memory. Those are two Hall of Fame players that gave everything they had to the team. 

Oct 22, 2015; Santa Clara, CA, USA; San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick (7) warms up before the game against the Seattle Seahawks at Levi’s Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports
Oct 22, 2015; Santa Clara, CA, USA; San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick (7) warms up before the game against the Seattle Seahawks at Levi’s Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports /

But Kaepernick is like the partner that you fall head-over-heels in love with. The relationship, although volatile, seems to be so much deeper than others. In reality, it probably isn’t. Gore played for a decade and left as one of the best players in franchise history. That’s a love worth remembering.

However, the relationship between fans and Kap seemed to outgrow the love fans had for Gore. While one was quiet and steady, Kap was big and boastful. Everywhere fans went, there was their quarterback.

He was on signs, billboards, clothing ads and in commercials. The image of Kaepernick had almost transcended the performance of Kap as a quarterback.

The 49ers signed Kaepernick to a contract that, at first blush, looked to make him one of the highest-paid quarterbacks in the league. For a couple of seasons of work, that seemed to be a little hasty. However, when looking at the averages per year, it was clear that Kaepernick was betting on himself and signed one of the most team-friendly deals in history.

The explanation was that Kap had structured his contract so that the 49ers would be able to re-sign the players that he had grown with. These were the players he felt comfortable with. They had reached the Super Bowl together. Why shake things up?

Over the next couple of seasons, the 49ers front office demonstrated that it had other plans. Those plans were altered and accelerated by the “mutual parting” between the team and Harbaugh. In addition, the legal issues that arose for key players like Smith and defensive tackle Ray McDonald didn’t help either. Needless to say, the players that were supposed to stick around with Kap have largely disappeared.

Things change in the NFL. That’s nothing new and it certainly isn’t exclusive to the 49ers. Kaepernick must’ve known this. But he thought he was doing the team a favor in his contract and now he likely feels taken advantage of.

We’re not here to analyze whether that was fair or whether Kap is justified in his feelings. He can feel however he wants and he can choose to play for the San Francisco 49ers or nobody. His contract alters things but we’re not here to pick that apart anymore. It’s been done enough.

Kaepernick’s development has slowed. Teams caught up to his ability as a runner and have found ways to force him to stay in the pocket. That skill hasn’t developed at the rate that it should have. Kap may never need to be an elite pocket passer but if teams believe that he is significantly less effective when doing so, they’ll find ways to build a defense meant to encourage that.

The league may or may not have figured him out. He might need to alter his style or commit to a new style completely. Regardless of where you fall on the spectrum, there’s bound to be passion behind your arguments.

If teams have figured Kaepernick out, and he continues to struggle so mightily, what is it that keeps fans so viciously protective of their once-heralded dream quarterback?

The duality of Colin Kaepernick may be the very quality that keeps fans so engaged. One minute he strolls through the locker room in headphones, avoiding socialization, and yet fans wait for those few hours on Sunday when he becomes someone much different. The quarterback that seems so reserved and uncomfortable is now a personality rarely contained.

He is our football version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. There is a reason that Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic story has remained relevant. It’s a story we love to tell and, in the case of Kaepernick, it is one we love to cheer for. 

In that duality, fans found a way to crown Kaepernick as the 49ers’ piece to revolutionize quarterback play in the NFL. It was evident in how they spoke about Kap and in the projections that were made about his career.

Spend a minute to watch some of this highlight video that a fan put together. Pay attention to the language that is used, as well as the song choice. Have we as fans, hungry for the team to be relevant and clinging to our fading star, forced an unrealistic expectation on Kaepernick?

The intersection of his character–one moment comfortably disconnected from the media and the next flexing a tattooed-bicep after racing to the end zone–may be the enduring image of Kap long after he is done in a 49ers uniform. Perhaps that was wasted, left to regress among a franchise’s front office that is disinterested in accepting who he is. The majority of fans may not have even bought in while he was the starter.

Why, then, are we so passionately wrapped up in the next move? When Gore left it was sad, but anger was never on the table. Sure, some had hoped the front office would’ve done more. But fans understood why Frank was leaving.

Not with Kaepernick. There’s a desire among some fans to re-kindle that magic. They hope he simply had an off year. The state of the franchise and recent actions serve as justifications that Kap hasn’t been fully supported.

As the 49ers usher in a new coach, the knee-jerk reaction is to assume that this will save Kap’s career. And it may. But why is the emotional tie here significantly stronger than most? One wonders how this generational group of fans might have behaved when Bill Walsh let Joe Montana go in favor of Steve Young. The fact that Kap won games over a relatively brief period is certainly not the only cause for such loyalty. Of course, the success plays into these emotions. At the same time, the image of Kap does as well. 

Here he comes, this big, athletic, fast and different kind of quarterback. He plays for our team. Not just the San Francisco 49ers. No, he’s the face of a new era, the next to succeed after the glory days.

Did we as fans put too much pressure on him? Interact like this, dress like that, keep flexing because it’s fun. We dared teams to stop him, expecting that they’d spend years trying to figure out how. Good luck trying to stop him, Packers. You’ll never win another Super Bowl as long as you have to go through us and our quarterback.

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That hasn’t lasted. Now,we’re left reconciling our expectations with the reality of this team. That it isn’t good. That it likely won’t be good soon. Whether we hope for any specific outcome, the image of our revolutionary quarterback has likely passed as well. We are left to hope that the next is more sustainable. That he can manage to do and be more. Or perhaps that we can manage ourselves more in his favor.

Either way, we’ve ushered a star out in the process of championing him above all others.

Next: 49ers Should Consider Navy Quarterback Keenan Reynolds

All statistics, records and accolades courtesy of and ESPN Statistics unless otherwise indicated.