The nation had been watching San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick kneel during the national anthem this season in protest against police brutality and racism. What it had not seen in quite a while was Kaepernick throwing a football, or scrambling out of the pocket.
In his first start since last season, Kaepernick gave 49ers fans something to cheer with a 53-yard score to Torrey Smith in the second quarter of Sunday’s game at Buffalo. It was a brief celebration. Glass-half-empty Niners fans probably noticed that Smith was wide open on the play but that Kaepernick underthrew him, and Smith had to come back and catch it at his heels.
Ultimately, the 49ers were thoroughly outplayed by the Bills, who won, 45-16. Kaepernick finished an uninspiring 13 of 29 for 187 yards and that lone touchdown.
LeSean McCoy had two touchdowns for the Bills before going down with an injury late in the half. He returned in the second half for touchdown No. 3.
Kaepernick was making news as a football player for the first time this season after weeks of headlines about his decision to kneel during the national anthem. He knelt again this week and faced jeers and chants of “U.S.A.” from some Bills fans. Outside the stadium, there were T-shirts for sale with ugly messages about the quarterback.
“To be honest, I was focused on football, so I really wasn’t listening to what was going on in the stands,” Kaepernick told The Associated Press after the game. At his postgame news conference, he wore a T-shirt bearing an image of Muhammad Ali.
Kaepernick had some support in the Bills’ backyard. A few dozen Buffalo fans gathered outside the stadium to kneel in solidarity with Kaepernick.
After five weeks on the bench, Kaepernick got the call from coach Chip Kelly to replace Blaine Gabbert and try to turn around the struggling 49ers (1-5). In a very windy Buffalo, the Niners received the opening kickoff. After a handoff, a quarterback scramble, a shovel pass and two first downs, Kaepernick completed a pass for 7 yards to Jeremy Kerley. The drive stalled at the Bills’ 40, though, and San Francisco punted it away.
Kaepernick avoided an interception on the day, but he also had just the one touchdown. He rushed eight times for 66 yards. And the Niners’ defense was terrible, allowing 312 yards rushing.
Barring a startling return to form, it looks very much as though this 49ers season will be remembered primarily for Kaepernick’s protests, not for his play on the field.