It was a scene that would have been easy to imagine at one point this offseason: Colin Kaepernick signing autographs for a gaggle of adoring Denver Broncos fans.
It happened Wednesday afternoon after Broncos practice, but with Kaepernick wearing a 49ers jersey.
The fans didn’t seem to mind. They screamed his name and strained against a waist-high yellow rope to hand him something – a ball, a hat a jersey, a forearm – to sign. He happily obliged. The 49ers quarterback was the last player to leave the field and still was scribbling his name when teammates were boarding buses to go back to the team hotel.
It was a reminder that Kaepernick still has star power in a different NFL city and even when he’s not starring in practice.
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He made a few short throws on a side field Wednesday. General manager Trent Baalke said the plan was for Kaepernick to do a little more Thursday. But the 49ers clearly are being cautious with his throwing shoulder – which Baalke characterized as “fatigued,” not “injured” – and Kaepernick probably won’t play in Saturday’s preseason game against Denver. Kaepernick declined to talk about his condition after practice.
“Obviously, the goal is to get him out there and have him play,” Baalke said. “But we’re going to be very smart in how that’s done. He’s not ready right now.”
Kaepernick’s arm is slowly mending, and so is his relationship with the team.
Kaepernick asked for a trade in February, and in March, he met with Broncos general manager John Elway in the Denver area. The Broncos and 49ers had the parameters of a deal in place, and it seemed as if the quarterback would play for the defending Super Bowl champions in 2016.
The Broncos, however, wanted Kaepernick to take a significant pay decrease, and the deal fell through.
Kaepernick’s grievances with the 49ers were with the front office and medical staff. He’s had three surgeries since November, and all were done at a private clinic in Vail, Colo., not by team-affiliated surgeons.
Baalke said Kaepernick and the 49ers’ medical staff were “working very well together” on his latest issue.
Asked if Kaepernick, who didn’t go through a full practice in the spring because he was recovering from those surgeries, should have been eased into the summer sessions, Baalke said, “Hindsight’s always 20-20.”
“This isn’t a case of, who made a mistake?” he said. “This is just a young man who went out and his arm’s tired. So rather than push it further, let’s back it down, give him some time to rest it. We don’t have to be ready to play a game just yet. This is preseason football.”
Although Kaepernick met with Elway, he didn’t have a sit-down with Baalke until recently. Baalke said that meeting happened a couple of weeks ago.
“We had a good conversation,” he said. “Colin is here to compete. All this stuff from the offseason – that’s behind us.”
While Kaepernick made some light throws Wednesday, he hasn’t attempted a pass during any of the formal practice drills. His last complete practice was Aug. 10. That’s allowed Blaine Gabbert to take a lead in their competition, although Gabbert certainly isn’t pulling away.
After what coach Chip Kelly called an “up-and-down” outing against the Houston Texans on Sunday, Gabbert struggled in Tuesday’s practice. On Wednesday, no 49ers quarterbacks were crisp against a Broncos team that finished No. 1 in total defense a year ago.
All three passers – Gabbert, rookie Jeff Driskel and newcomer Christian Ponder – threw an interception on their final turn in team sessions. Gabbert, unofficially, was 5 for 9 against the Broncos’ top unit.
Baalke cautioned it’s still early, Kelly’s offense is complex and an incompletion or interception isn’t always the quarterback’s fault.
“Offensive football takes a little bit longer – always has, always will – at training camp, to get to the level where you want,” he said. “There’s a lot more moving parts. There’s a little more chemistry that needs to take place. The only way to get that is through repetition.”