Alex Smith had a front-row seat to Colin Kaepernick’s rapid rise, losing his job as the 49ers’ starting quarterback as Kaepernick seized the reins during the 2012 season.
Two Kaepernick starts while Smith recovered from a concussion turned into seven in the regular season, and then three more in the playoffs as the 49ers finished the season arguably a Frank Gore hand-off away from winning Super Bowl XLVII. The world was Kaepernick’s oyster, with the dual-threat QB on what Smith termed an “absurd” trajectory after his first extended NFL playing time.
Just as absurd, in Smith’s eyes? No NFL team signed Kaepernick four years after that run.
“It was hard to kind of see that trajectory because he was playing so good, and doing things nobody had done,” Smith told ESPN Radio’s “The Dan Le Batard Show with Stugotz” on Friday. “I think he still holds the single-game rushing record for a quarterback. It was crazy.
“So with that said, it was so absurd -- I think equally -- that it was only a few years later when you’re like, ‘This guy doesn't have a job.’ That was hard to imagine. It still is, a guy with his ability and his trajectory that all of a sudden isn't playing.”
Kaepernick threw for 2,406 yards, 14 touchdowns and five interceptions in 10 starts during the 2012 regular season and playoffs, completing 62.5 percent of his passes while also rushing for 502 yards in that span. The 49ers traded Smith to the Kansas City Chiefs the following offseason, and then-ESPN analyst Ron Jaworski infamously opined that Kaepernick could be one of the greatest quarterbacks in NFL history.
The 49ers made it to another NFC Championship Game in Kaepernick’s first full season as the starter, with the then-Seattle Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman deflecting Kaepernick’s pass into the arms of linebacker Malcolm Smith. San Francisco wouldn’t make the playoffs during the QB’s final three seasons with the team, firing a different head coach after each.
Kaepernick didn’t enter the 2016 season as the starting QB as he worked his way back from an injury to his left shoulder. The spotlight still shined on him, as Kaepernick first sat, then kneeled during the playing of the national anthem before games to protest police brutality against African Americans and systemic racism in the United States.
The 2016 49ers were a far cry from their contending predecessors, yet Kaepernick finished the season 17th in passer rating (90.7) -- and just behind Smith -- among qualifying quarterbacks. Every single QB behind him started at least three games in 2017, while Kaepernick wasn’t on a roster.
Kaepernick asked for his release from the 49ers heading into the 2017 offseason, after incoming coach Kyle Shanahan deemed the QB wasn’t a fit for his offensive system. He remains unsigned, and Kaepernick settled a collusion lawsuit with the NFL last year.
“My desire to play football is still there,” Kaepernick told USA Today’s Jarrett Bell in February, after announcing he was writing a memoir. “I still train five days a week. I’m ready to go, I’m ready for a phone call, tryout, workout at any point in time. I’m still waiting on the owners and their partners to stop running from this situation. So I hope I get a call this offseason. I’ll be looking forward to it.”
Smith spoke to Le Batard and Stugotz “from a pure football standpoint,” calling Kaepernick “really, really competitive” and “a great teammate” during their two seasons together.
It has been over seven years since that Super Bowl run, and more than four since Kaepernick last took an NFL snap. Considering how he began his NFL career, both those facts are, as Smith put it, “hard to imagine.”