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Week Under Review: Buried under losses, Colin Kaepernick finally finding his stride

Lost in the attention dumped onto the Dolphins after their sixth straight win was the fact that 49ers QB Colin Kaepernick played arguably his best game this season. Maybe the search for the next 49ers QB should be called off?

Welcome to Week Under Review where we have 12 musings from Week 12 including thoughts on last night’s “Decision in Denver” and a no-brainer decision that looms in Los Angeles, but first a bright spot on one of the NFL’s bottom-feeders…

Beneath the kneeling, the t-shirt bearing Fidel Castro’s likeness, the cloud of controversy, the constant spotlight—oh, and a pile of losses—is a quarterback on the rise. For a month now, Colin Kaepernick has quietly been improving. His grasp of Chip Kelly’s modified system, his chemistry with San Francisco’s rag tag group of receivers, his rediscovery of how to best utilize his insanely talented legs—they have all been all on the brink of coalescing.

Despite San Francisco’s 31–24 loss to Miami, their tenth straight, Kaepernick was close to spectacular, throwing for 296 yards and three touchdowns, while rushing for a stunning 115 yards. He connected with nine different receivers (bonus points if you can name nine different 49ers receivers without Google), including a 35-yard strike to tight end Vance McDonald. There was less hesitation from Kaepernick when it came to decision-making, particularly when opting to turn on the jets. There was no going off the rails on a couple of occasions when his targets missed easy catches or tight end Garrett Celek fumbled away a 16-yard gain at the Dolphins’ 16 on a crucial late drive. Despite a lack of urgency in the game’s final minutes when the 49ers were seemingly trying to pull out an improbable comeback, his one weak spot, Kaepernick’s progress is undeniable.

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In six weeks since assuming the starting role from Blaine Gabbert, Kaepernick has morphed from a deer in headlights to a confident gazelle. San Francisco’s ground game as a whole has been solid all season—they rank fourth in the league—but having a kamikaze like Kaepernick showcased he can be Sunday adds a whole new dimension that causes opposing coordinators to lose sleep. Combined with a marked improvement in overall efficiency—he has hovered around a 100 passer rating each of the past four weeks—Kaepernick was become one of the NFL’s most intriguing, if not most dangerous, quarterbacks.

The losses have clouded the upward trajectory, as losses rightfully tend to do. Quite frankly, the 49ers have no business winning any games with their 2016 roster. Yet Kaepernick’s rise, plus an upcoming feather of a schedule that includes the Bears, Jets and Rams suggest the team’s ten-game losing streak will soon be halted.

Ironically, Kaepernick’s improvement could negatively impact the 49ers’ standing in the race for the No. 1 draft pick, in which most have assumed they would draft a quarterback early. Though there is hardly a quarterback in the 2017 class that experts agree can alter the course of a franchise.

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Kaepernick’s latest success has many thinking that perhaps the 49ers already house their franchise quarterback; the evidence is certainly trending in that direction. The QB continues to improve his relationship with coach Chip Kelly—the man that many thought would be the best bet to revive Kaepernick. Moreover, Kelly has unquestionably proven immune and stoic in the face of his quarterback’s off-field controversy.

To keep Kaepernick next year, the 49ers would have to again restructure what is currently quite the team-friendly contract. As it stands, Kaepernick has a player option for 2017: stay with San Francisco at his current salary of $16.5 million with no guaranteed money or become an unrestricted free agent. The latter had been the plan from San Francisco’s standpoint.

But consider the current quarterback landscape. Look at the free agent money spent on busts Ryan Fitzpatrick and Brock Osweiler. Look at the ginormous question marks that are Jared Goff and Carson Wentz. If you have a proven talent like Kaepernick, why let him walk for the unknown?

Right now, it’s easy to march forward with plans to start fresh under center in 2017 given that the 49ers are a factory of losing. But if Kaepernick continues his revival, the result is going to be wins—and a very interesting decision by 49ers brass.

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12 musings from Week 12

1. Remember back in September when Jeff Fisher was supposed to receive a contract extension for reasons no one could explain? Well, turns out we’re still waiting, and as Pro Football Talk pointed out, Fisher has just five games left on his current contract. With the Rams losing six of their last seven and Goff being straight-jacketed for nine weeks too long, could Jeff Fisher’s era of mediocrity finally be coming to an end in Los Angeles? For the sake of the ambitious, we can only hope.

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2. Others that should be on the chopping block: Chuck Pagano, Marvin Lewis, Gus Bradley, Trent Baalke, Ryan Grigson. Maybe John Fox. As it stands, it could be a lighter than normal Black Monday in five weeks.

Loss to Ravens makes it very clear that Bengals should move on from Marvin Lewis

3. Broncos coach Gary Kubiak is already taking all kinds of heat after trying to beat the Chiefs in overtime by attempting a 62-yard field goal instead of punting, which, best case, would have lead to a tie. It didn’t work out for Kubiak and the Broncos but I will always side with the risk-taker if he’s sporting a fresh Super Bowl ring. Hopefully the big decision doesn’t overshadow Northwestern grad (and oh yeah, Broncos starter) Trevor Siemian’s performance—a master class in third-down conversions. Juxtapose Siemian’s Week 12 performance (and most if the season) to yet another Brock Osweiler stinker in Houston, and just give John Elway the Executive of the Year for life. Seriously, the masses (myself included) thought Elway was nuts for letting Osweiler walk and neglecting to sign Kaepernick. Trust in Elway should be everyone’s mantra moving forward.  

4. When Jordan Reed returned to the Thanksgiving Day classic against Dallas nursing an AC sprain, we called him a beast, tough and made of stone. Why do we glorify someone playing while injured? I get it helps or fantasy (and regular) teams and staying on the field is almost every player’s no. 1 objective for fear of losing their job. Yet if we made more of an effort to illustrate how many ex-NFLers have arthritis at 35 or hip replacement surgeries at 50, I bet we'd slow the applause.

5. Has anyone been an anomaly to their position like Justin Tucker is to kicking these days? While all other kickers have missed at least two field goals this year (and most far more), Tucker is perfect. While most have missed at least one extra point (and many far more), Tucker is perfect. He’s the best kicker in the NFL, and arguably the best player on the Ravens. He kicked three field goals of 50+ yards in Week 12. So if you want to be a successful kicker in the NFL just …  become a trained opera vocalist. How hard can it be?

Justin Tucker followed up his monster day with a painfully corny joke

6. The Titans’ secondary and the Bears’ receiving corps were in constant battle for most dysfunctional Sunday, but let’s not forget the phenomenal second half from Bears quarterback Matt Barkley. Barkley, in his first career start, almost led the Bears from 20 points down, orchestrating drives of 13 and 14 plays in the fourth quarter. Barkley made some poor decisions in first half that resulted in two costly turnovers but overall there was a lot to like. Sound familiar?

7. Love the annual outpouring of respect and admiration for Sean Taylor who was tragically murdered nine years ago yesterday at the age of 24. Here’s Washington safety Su’a Cravens, who was 12 when Taylor died (36 was Taylor’s first number before switching to the more synonymous 21 after Fred Smoot left):

And Kirk Cousins tweeted a Taylor picture. Taylor’s brethren from Miami all expressed their love. There were many more, of course. Too often we move on from the departed and their memories fade. But Taylor holds a special place in the heart of so many, including fans that admired both his spirit and immense talent.

8. Major props to NBC sideline reporter Michele Tafoya for detailing Tyreek Hill’s questionable past moments after Hill sped 86 yards to the end zone on a kickoff in the second quarter. As Tafoya mentioned, Hill was a controversial fifth-round pick for Kansas City given that he pled guilty to punching and choking his pregnant girlfriend in 2014. Mike Tirico and Cris Collinsworth continued the conversation by reminding the audience about Javon Belcher the troubled Chiefs linebacker who killer his girlfriend before fatally shooting himself at the team facility in 2012.

Usually off-field issues are mentioned as a quick aside at best, and mostly ignored. NBC displayed real journalism Sunday night, something you rarely see from other broadcast booths.

9. On a somewhat related note, the New York Giants are now 8–3. With kicker Josh Brown, accused of domestic violence, on the team, the Giants were 3–3. Since his release they are 5–0.

10. Speaking of Tirico, no one (including any NFL referee) is better at understanding the NFL rulebook. He did a masterful job of explaining why a presumed stop of Chiefs receiver Tyreek Hill right before the goal line on the last play of regulation was likely to be overturned because though Hill’s hand was down he didn’t establish control until he had crossed the plane.

11. How does Ryan Fitzpatrick give the Jets the “best chance to win?” I don’t get this at all.

12. The best team in football top to bottom is Dallas, and the networks are doing us a favor by putting them in primetime for three of the last five weeks: Week 13 (TNF at Minnesota), Week 14 (SNF at New York Giants) and Week 16 (MNF vs. Detroit). RedZone is like manna from heaven, but at this point in the season, there are some teams that you want to ingest their full schematics without distraction. The Cowboys are definitely one of them.