When Colin Kaepernick is asked a football question, he rarely gives an answer without a cliché. And that’s nothing against him.
Most football players treat their interaction with the media as a game of word control. Say as little as possible while still appearing to be all about the team, and writers will soon move on to a more interesting subject.
So when Kaepernick was asked about how the 49ers mount a turnaround in 2017, and he gave a real honest answer, it opened an unexplored drawer of where the franchise should be headed.
“That’s always hard to tell. It can be pieces here and there that make a huge difference, and it can also be the culture of this team changing, which it needs to,” Kaepernick said, before pausing. “We have to be able to create our opportunities and go out and create wins for our team…We have to create a culture of winning, and winning by any means. Right now, our culture isn’t that. We have to be able to improve and create that.”
Chip Kelly, in a bullish mood on Murph and Mac Monday morning, did not exactly agree with Kaepernick’s premise of the culture needing to change.
“I know that winning needs to change to a degree,” Kelly said. “You know, I don’t know what the culture part of it means. I know we need to win football games. And part of being in a winning culture is winning. So it’s tough to say you’re in a winning culture when you’re not winning.
“I don’t have a reaction to that. I don’t — I’m not — anything on that. I don’t think anything happened. I think Kap’s like everybody else, he’s frustrated. Kap goes out and prepares each week and competes each week. I love the way he prepares, I love the way he competes. I don’t have any — I don’t really think of that, to be honest.”
There seems to be a subtle disagreement about NFL culture. Is culture winning, or is it a head coach implementing his footprint on a team and moving them in the right direction?
Kelly knows that culture is an imperative buzz word, especially when he’ll be fighting for his job on Jan. 1. The question Jed York has to answer: Did Kelly damage an already suspect culture further in 2016?
Because York and GM Trent Baalke’s own missteps of hiring Jim Tomsula have without a doubt trickled into 2016. Players form a patchwork of different habits when coaching staffs are shuffling in and out the building year after year. Continuity is key in the NFL and the 49ers have none of it. Kaepernick’s comments weren’t necessarily aimed directly at Kelly — a coach who has stuck his neck on the line for his quarterback. Everyone from the top down has an impact on culture.
But Kaepernick is clearly comparing Kelly’s culture to the one Jim Harbaugh established from 2011-2013, where beating the crap out of the opponent was the expectation on a weekly basis. The culture was that the 49ers — loaded with veteran leaders — fully bought into Harbaugh’s hard-nosed philosophy. San Francisco was going to physically dominate and make enough plays on offense to win. The brand of football was the culture. Winning breeds believing, and believing is the root of establishing an NFL culture. But Harbaugh helped create that mindset before the success was delivered.
One area where Kelly seems to be off base about culture are his constant quotes on how everything the 49ers do is on a week-to-week basis. Compartmentalizing is a strength if you’re winning; it’s an impairment if you’re losing. All of the 49ers’ issues have persisted the entire season — run defense, second half offense, lack of a pass rush. Week-to-week, nothing has really changed. There seems to be no system of accountability when players mess up.
Really, the only hint of culture Kelly has been able to set up in his first year is that the 49ers are a relatively drama-free 1-13 team. Is avoiding conflict actually setting up the proper culture, though? And what about the lack of frustration from players during this losing streak — aren’t they just ripping a page from Kelly’s attitude? The 49ers don’t expect to win every week.
On the other hand, how was Kelly supposed to establish his culture when the 49ers don’t have one top five player in the NFL at any of their respective position groups? The team has a handful of good players, but they truly have zero superstars. Kelly coaches a systematic offense that requires top-notch accuracy from the quarterback (Kaepernick is 30th in the NFL in completion percentage), and highly skilled playmakers that defenses have to prepare for (the 49ers have none). In a sense, Kelly was setup to fail.
“The one thing we can control is our effort and our attitude,” Kelly said Monday, another telling quote. This man had his hands tied behind his back with the roster Baalke gave him.
49ers players like Chip Kelly. But do they truly believe in him? Can he build a brand of football like Harbaugh, that leads to the establishment of a winning culture?
That’s the answer York has to figure out. And the answer is not black and white.