ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. -– John York turned San Francisco 49ers CEO powers over to his son, Jed, nearly eight years ago. So, as the father left New Era Field on Sunday, he was mum about the result, a 45-16 whipping dispensed by the Buffalo Bills, but not about the quarterback. It was Colin Kaepernick’s first 49ers start in nearly a year and his first since he originated his protest of racial and social injustice.
John York was pensive.
And then York offered this:
"When you turn the franchise over to your son, you have to get out the way and let him be the voice and let him truly lead it. I have tried to do that. But I will say this about Colin. Colin believes in his stance. We all know there is a lot of work to do in this area for our country. We have tried to support him as best we can. We hope wherever it ends, it will be for the good of our nation."
Here is the football question people around the National Football League are asking: What is the good of it for the 49ers?
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There is a prevalent thought among various NFL league offices, team executives, coaches, and players I have spoken with about Kaepernick, his protest, and the 49ers that the stand he has taken is admirable and worthy even if the approach –- kneeling for the national anthem -– is not to everyone’s liking.
“He (Kaepernick) has no hatred for America or the flag, just for injustice,” one 49ers player said, requesting anonymity. “People are getting the message confused with the action. They may not like the message. They definitely don’t like the action. Even now wherever we go, it still seems raw.”
Especially among black players in this league, many find Kaepernick to be bold among them, fearless in his willingness to speak out and be at the center of this national issue. They recognize the tangled discussions he has already generated. They see the change he can help foster.
But most in the league see the quarterback, see the issues, see the team and think, “Thank God it’s not us.”
They are certain it is a distraction among the 49ers from top to bottom even though the franchise and players insist it is not.
Bills linebacker Preston Brown was cutting in this postgame thought: "It was fun playing Kaepernick with all the stuff he had going. We wanted to see what he could do. It is definitely a guy you kind of root for, see how he was doing."
Everything is not smooth among the 49ers. The pieces top to bottom are not interlocking. The team has lost five straight games. After this latest debacle in Buffalo, Kaepernick spent more time in his postgame news conference talking about social injustice than he did about 45-16 and what the hell is wrong with the 49ers offense, defense, special teams, coaching, management, you name it.
But a cause as big as Kaepernick’s should not rest on whether it is a distraction or not. The courageous path he has taken does not have to be a defining distraction for the 49ers. Now, even more so since he is once again the starting quarterback, the 49ers must get their arms all around and over how to manage Kaepernick and this entire roster. They must create a fresh understanding among all of their players that the main thing is the main thing -– and that’s winning football games.
They must create a plan for Sundays where football is first.
That does not mean muzzling Kaepernick, but it certainly means limiting the public discourse on protest to a specific day and specific hour. It should still mean Kaepernick exercising his right to expression by kneeling on Sundays. And it certainly should include a frank and final discussion with all of the 49ers players on how things will roll and what is expected in galvanizing the best in their final 10 games.
More emphasis on one voice, one accord, one goal.
"We’ve got to find an identity as a team," 49ers linebacker Ahmad Brooks said after the dud in Buffalo.
I asked him later exactly what did that mean? He said the team no longer had such veteran powers as Justin Smith and Frank Gore and injured linebacker NaVorro Bowman. He indicated there was a vacuum among them of people to lean on. But he also said that meant it was a special opportunity for new leaders, new voices to surface.
Brooks said that Kaepernick can change games for them. He believes as Kaepernick rebounds from shoulder, knee, and thumb surgeries, as he gets more first-team reps, that he can be a dynamic NFL quarterback again.
The key is for Kaepernick to prove it.
Some people say politics and sports don’t mix. Kaepernick is trying to reach a broad base of Americans with his protest. He can strengthen his position with top-flight quarterback play and by winning games. They go hand in hand. They make his platform sturdier.
Many of his peers say good luck with that because the 49ers are woeful. They’re horrible, many believe, and some throw Kaepernick front and center into that mix. Players after games are congratulating him for his stance, exchanging jerseys, admiring his commitment. They are scrutinizing how the 49ers around him and the organization are dealing with him –- and him with them. They are absorbing it all.
It’s sort of like a crash scene and the rubber-necking that follows. That is not Colin Kaepernick’s or the 49ers’ intent, to be a side show.
But they are, especially in NFL circles, until both create a better, winning brand of football.