Colin Kaepernick

Before his protests during the national anthem drew worldwide attention, Colin Kaepernick was the next big thing, a fastball-throwing quarterback who could beat you with his rocket arm or nimble legs.

How did Kaepernick go from a transcendent player to one struggling to keep his job on a terrible team?

Alex Smith, Colin Kaepernick

"So many things have changed since I was there, so it's tough for me to even speculate," Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith said last year. "I'm certainly shocked, looking at it from afar, that it's gone the way it's gone. It's surprising."

After Kaepernick supplanted Smith as the 49ers' starting quarterback in 2012, the second-year player was a star on the rise. He threw for 263 yards and two touchdowns while running for 181 yards, an NFL playoff record for a quarterback, and two touchdowns against the Packers in the NFC divisional playoff game.

He led the 49ers to Super Bowl XLVII that year and to the NFC Championship Game the following season.

His touchdowns fell and interceptions rose during his next season, Jim Harbaugh's last with San Francisco, when the 49ers went 8-8.

And then the wheels came off in 2015. In eight starts Kaepernick completed just 59 percent of his passes, averaged only 179 passing yards per game, won only two contests and suffered multiple injuries.

Most glaring, though, were the gaffes he made as a result of poor reads.

Colin Kaepernick

He reached the low point when he lost his starting job halfway through the season to Blaine Gabbert, a former first-round pick who had washed out in Jacksonville.

For the past two weeks of the 2016 season, though, Kaepernick has regained his starting job in Chip Kelly's up-tempo, zone-read offense, a scheme seemingly tailored for his unique blend of athleticism.

"I agree with you 100 percent," said Chris Ault, Kaepernick's college coach at Nevada, before the regular season began. "What Chip does with his offense, I think will fit Kaep's abilities."


Kaepernick's play has fallen off the past couple of years for reasons, including health, mechanics and issues plaguing the 49ers franchise.

The former is a main reason for Kaepernick's struggles. He has undergone three surgeries -- to fix a torn labrum in his left (non-throwing) shoulder in November 2015, a torn ligament in his right thumb and a left knee injury in January 2016 -- in the past year.

Kaepernick injured his thumb during the 49ers' 20-3 loss to the Seahawks on Oct. 22, 2015, and then hurt his knee the following week in a 27-6 loss at the Rams. The next week the 49ers benched Kaepernick.

Colin Kaepernick

The rehabilitation from those surgeries not only held Kaepernick back during offseason practices while Kelly implemented his new offense, but it also prevented him from participating in his usual weightlifting regimen.

A bout of arm fatigue during training camp only exacerbated those issues.

Kaepernick looks skinnier, and Kelly has said he'd like to see the 6-foot-4 quarterback get closer to his former 230-pound playing weight.

Kaepernick's health issues, though, don't explain his poor decision-making last season.

During a 47-7 loss to the Cardinals in Week 3 of last season, he went 9-of-19 for 67 yards while throwing four interceptions, including Pick-6s on San Francisco's first two drives.

Backed up near the goal line during Week 8 against the Rams, he did not notice wide receiver Torrey Smith, who was as open a player as you will ever see.

Torrey Smith Open

No one was defending Smith, and because of the coverage breakdown, it would've been a 98-yard touchdown, but Kaepernick never audibled and handed it off to Mike Davis, who lost a yard.

Two plays later Davis was tackled for a safety.

And the 49ers started Gabbert the next week.

Early in his college career, Kaepernick had some mechanical issues throwing the football because of his baseball roots. Originally a star pitcher, Kaepernick threw a 94 mph fastball, tossed two no-hitters in high school and was offered partial baseball scholarships to Arizona State, Notre Dame and Tennessee. The Cubs even selected him in the 43rd round of the Major League Baseball draft, but Kaepernick opted to remain at Nevada.

The Nevada coaches worked with him, so that he kept his elbow higher -- more like a passer and less like a pitcher. At times with the 49ers, the nose of the footballs he threw pointed down, meaning he was not extending his arm enough.

Colin Kaepernick

That his 49ers tenure has coincided with an acrimonious relationship between the coaches and management is no secret. Harbaugh and general manager Trent Baalke were reportedly no longer on speaking terms by the end of 2014, and Kaepernick was Harbaugh's guy.

"I think the 49ers are going through a transition with the front office and with coaches," Ault said. "Kaep has really been caught in the middle of that in terms of coaching transitions and what they want to do offensively."

Likely, Kaepernick's controversial protests during the anthem haven't helped things on that front.

But perhaps most significantly, the 1-6 team Kaepernick now leads is a far cry from the championship contender he joined in 2011.

In one notable example of San Francisco's sloppiness and poor level of execution, punt returner Jeremy Kerley called for a fair catch against the Buccaneers, but his teammate, wide receiver Aaron Burbridge, ran into him, forcing a fumble just under three minutes into the second half of the Week 7 loss.

Only four of the starters from the season-opening, 34-28 victory against the Packers in 2013 -- left tackle Joe Staley, outside linebacker Ahmad Brooks, safety Eric Reid and Kaepernick -- also started Week 7 of the 2016 season.

Frank Gore, a leader on that 2013 team and now the Colts' running back, hasn't spoken to Kaepernick since he left San Francisco. He remains in the dark why things haven't worked out better for Kaepernick on the field.

"I don't know if the offense is different. I don't know what's going on," Gore said. "I wish Colin the best … I want to see him be successful."


Since reclaiming the starting job in 2016, Kaepernick has completed only 46 percent of his passes for 330 yards, two touchdowns and one interception.

"I have to be better throwing," Kaepernick said after a 34-17 loss to the Buccaneers. "That's not going to win in the NFL."

Colin Kaepernick

His opponents, though, were more effusive.

"He's still Kaepernick," said Buccaneers defensive tackle Gerald McCoy after Week 7. "This is his second game. I thought he looked better from last week to this week."

Indeed, he's early into his tenure as a starter in Kelly's up-tempo offense that had so much success at Oregon while being piloted by mobile quarterbacks like Marcus Mariota, Dennis Dixon and Jeremiah Masoli.

Those teams played at a breakneck pace, hiking the ball as quickly as possible. But the 49ers ran only 60 plays against the Bills. After the first quarter the following week, Kelly's offense usually let the 45-second play clock run down to the mid-teens before snapping the ball.

"It ain't as fast as you think," McCoy said.

As expected, though, Kelly is letting Kaepernick run. He has led his team in rushing both games and has 150 yards since becoming the starter. Buccaneers linebackers Kwon Alexander and Daryl Smith called him "slippery."

"He definitely still has the foot speed and the playmaking ability," Buccaneers defensive tackle Akeem Spence said. "The arm is very strong … He's still running like a gazelle."

Kapernick's best play in Week 7 came toward the end of the first quarter when he rolled to his left to avoid pressure before throwing a 17-yard touchdown pass to Shaun Draughn.

Colin Kaepernick Time Cover

"He looked like Kaepernick," 10-year veteran cornerback Brent Grimes said. "You've got to account for him all the time. He made a lot of plays when stuff broke down."

But Kaepernick also missed several throws. Against zone coverage he underthrew tight end Vance McDonald, and safety Bradley McDougald undercut the route for the interception. Six plays later the Buccaneers kicked a field goal. He also showed little awareness at times and held the ball too long when cornerback Jude Adjei-Barimah blitzed from his blindside to sack him and force a fumble, one of Kaepernick's two on the day.

In a league in desperate need of quarterbacks, personnel departments will take a long look at those negatives -- along with his positives.

The 49ers reportedly restructured his contract, alleviating the team's concerns regarding injury guarantees while also allowing Kaepernick, who turns 29 next month, to void it at the end of the league year and become an unrestricted free agent in 2017.

Before the national anthem played against the Buccaneers, though, 49ers co-chairman Denise DeBartolo York showed her support for Kaepernick, hugging him and then kissing him on the cheek.

Whether it's with the York-owned 49ers or someone else next year, will Kaepernick become a great player again?

"Yeah, I think he can be," Ault said. "I really do."

Follow Jeff Fedotin on Twitter @JFedotin.