“Obviously, it will split the locker room,” former Chargers quarterback Dan Fouts said before kickoff on Thursday.
Fouts is the television analyst for Chargers preseason games, and the broadcasts usually focus on the home team. But he began by discussing what was on everyone’s mind: Colin Kaepernick and his decision not to stand for the national anthem.
“No matter how you feel politically, it is a bad environment for a football team …,” Fouts averred. “So for the 49ers, a team that is in disarray to begin the season, now are in even worse shape because of what’s happened the last two weeks.”
The 49ers disagreed. As Fouts was speaking, television cameras showed Kaepernick – post-anthem – high-fiving teammates. Three other players, including starting right guard Anthony Davis, approached the quarterback and hugged him just before the anthem. And, of course, starting safety Eric Reid, the team’s union representative, knelt next to Kaepernick during the song, a show of solidarity Kaepernick didn’t have the previous weeks.
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Then Kaepernick led the 49ers on a 16-play touchdown drive. More high-fives, and helmet slaps, ensued.
The scene was one of camaraderie, not isolation. And the vibe in the locker room afterward wasn’t that the 49ers were crumbling, but rather that they were stronger following a players-only meeting last Sunday in which Kaepernick explained why he won’t stand.
“I’ve seen my team grow a lot this week,” Kaepernick said Thursday. “And it is an open discussion. Because I think in a lot of cases, there’s barriers up because, ‘You don’t know my background; I don’t know yours,’ and we just assume things based on race, based on where you’re from, based on what I heard your past is. And we can’t do that. We have to have these conversations, we have to understand each other better, and ultimately that brings us closer together, which I’ve seen with my team.”
Said tight end Vance McDonald to NinersNation.com: “At the end of the day, honestly, it probably brought us closer together as a team, as crazy as that sounds. But that’s just the way we feel as a team; that makes sense to us.”
First-year coach Chip Kelly also denied his team was distracted or disjointed. Kelly is about as emotional as C3PO, but he spoke eloquently, even lovingly, of the way team leaders – he mentioned NaVorro Bowman, Joe Staley, Antoine Bethea, Glenn Dorsey and Phil Dawson – handled what, judging from the national debate on the matter, could have been a wrecking ball to locker room unity.
“It is a very thoughtful group, and I’m proud of them,” Kelly said. “I’m really proud of how they’ve handled things. And if my job is to hand it off to them and let them handle it, I think they have done a really good job of that.”
Kelly and the 49ers must pare the roster to 53 players by 1 p.m. Saturday, and Kaepernick was no lock entering Thursday’s preseason finale. He seemed to be on more stable ground Friday.
Kelly said two things during the week: 1) Kaepernick was one of the two best quarterbacks on the roster, which Kaepernick seemed to reinforce against the Chargers. 2) Kaepernick’s anthem stance was not a distraction.
That suggests the 49ers will go into the season with Blaine Gabbert as the starter and Kaepernick as his backup.
Of course, all the goodwill and bonhomie from Thursday haven’t made some big, practical, matters disappear. The 49ers still would be on the hook for $14.5 million next season if Kaepernick were seriously injured this season. That’s not a far-fetched scenario given how much Kelly’s quarterbacks run the ball – 49ers passers had 12 rushes Thursday; Chargers passers had three – and the fact that Kaepernick was injured last season.
If the 49ers keep a third quarterback – Christian Ponder? – on their active roster or sign one off the street this weekend, it will signal that while Kaepernick is here today, he could be gone tomorrow.
For the moment, at least, there’s a feeling of togetherness in Santa Clara, even from a quarterback to an organization he wanted no part of six months ago.
“This is a phenomenal organization,” Kaepernick said Thursday. “I’ve had great conversations here. I’ve had great memories here. This team has given me the opportunity to become the man I am today. I’m grateful for that. I’m thankful for that. San Francisco has become my home.”
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