Kaepernick, Kelly are best served giving coexistence a try
For now at least, the marriage is still on, however tenuous. Colin Kaepernick remains a 49er, and Chip Kelly remains the coach tasked with reviving his quarterback’s evaporating game. The reality is they both have something to prove in San Francisco this season, and wouldn’t it be so neat and tidy if they proved it together?
Kelly and Kaepernick both got kicked to the curb last year and failed like they’ve never failed before, and that should serve to unite them, not divide them. That’s why it’s the best-case scenario for each of them that Thursday afternoon’s deadline came and went with nothing changing, other than Kaepernick’s $11.9 million 2016 base salary officially becoming guaranteed. Because now CK and CK at least have a little time to figure out if they’d be O.K. as a team.
I for one would like to see the tandem of Kelly, the outside-the-box-thinking coach and quarterback guru, and Kaepernick, the outside-the-pocket dual threat who can make plays with both his legs and his arm. The trade rumors aren’t completely dead yet, and the draft becomes the next pressure point in this ongoing saga. But once the 49ers report for the start of their off-season program on Monday, the next four weeks buy some breathing room for Kelly and Kaepernick to get to know each other and decide whether there’s any magic to be made together.
History says there will be. At least statistically, and in the short term.
All I know is that Kelly turned the middling Nick Foles into a playmaking machine in their first season together—remember that seven-touchdown game in Oakland?—and that Houdini act still represents the best coaching job of his brief NFL career. And despite a slow start last year in Philadelphia, Sam Bradford in his one season under Kelly registered career highs in completion percentage (65.0, almost five points higher than his next best season), yards per attempt (7.0) and passing yardage (3,725). Even Mark Sanchez completed 64.3% of his passes for Kelly the past two seasons, after being a mere 55.1% passer with the Jets.
If I’m Kaepernick, I’m taking extreme interest in those numbers and giving Kelly and his up-tempo, quarterback-friendly offense my undivided attention in the coming weeks. For all that has been wrong with Kaepernick’s game the past two seasons, with his declining accuracy and questionable decision-making, the worst call he could make now is to keep agitating for a trade before he fully grasps the opportunity he would be walking away from in San Francisco.
And that’s even if a path to a potential starting job in Denver, for the defending Super Bowl champs, exists. If I’m going to gamble, sorry, but I’m betting on Kelly’s recent track record with quarterbacks even more so than Gary Kubiak’s, new ring and all. Kubiak did good work piecing together his quarterback situation in Denver last year, and was a boon to Joe Flacco in Baltimore in 2014. But I also still recall how he couldn’t fix Matt Schaub’s game when it went south almost overnight in Houston in 2013.
Kaepernick would be wise to give Kelly the benefit of the doubt and embrace the possibility that he’s just the kind of athletic and multi-dimensional quarterback who can be effective in the zone-read game that Kelly’s offense once was built around. While Kelly made do and had a fair amount of success with Eagles quarterbacks who weren’t legitimate running threats, Kaepernick’s mobility would seem to make him ideal for Kelly’s desire to challenge defenses on the edge.
And that dovetails nicely with Kaepernick when he was at his best in San Francisco, creating room in the passing game by keeping defenses honest with his dynamic ability to escape the pocket and run. If Kelly can improve and address his quarterback’s accuracy issues—granted, a big if—Kaepernick might again be one of the most devastating dual-threat weapons in the NFL, as he was in his breakthrough season of 2012.
We don’t know yet whether Kaepernick and Kelly will mesh well, or at least successfully coexist, but there’s plenty of reasons why the quarterback should be willing to give the 49ers’ latest coach a legitimate chance. Kaepernick has seen his career steadily regress since nearly winning the Super Bowl in early 2013, and under Kelly he would get the fresh start he needs without the bother of having to relocate to another NFL market. If he can mount a comeback season in San Francisco and return to a semblance of his Pro Bowl form, Kaepernick would also prove that his earlier stardom wasn’t solely because of Jim Harbaugh’s quarterback whisperer skills, as has been theorized.
Even if all goes swimmingly and both Kaepernick and fellow veteran Blaine Gabbert are on hand in San Francisco this season, the 49ers still are very likely to invest a draft pick in a potential starting quarterback, perhaps even with their first-round pick at No. 7. But if Kaepernick can revive his career under Kelly, playing the role of bridge quarterback to a Carson Wentz, Jared Goff or Paxton Lynch, he’d be much more attractive trade bait next off-season than he is now. That's a win-win scenario the 49ers would no doubt love and he might even welcome, given the restoration of his reputation and earning potential.
This month and how it unfolds should tell the story of whether Kaepernick and Kelly can manage to join forces and launch their comeback together in 2016. It’s worth their best efforts to put a fresh foot forward and project the image that they were made for each other and have some shared skin in this game. They both have something to prove, and their best bet may be on each other.