The absurdist Kremlinology of the San Francisco 49ers is the kind of thing that provides amusement in difficult times, but it is not typically meant for happy moments like Monday.
Yet it re-revealed itself in the aftermath of the 49ers’ 28-0 boa constrictage of the Los Angeles Rams, and best of all, it revolved around the team’s backup quarterback, one of the few people in the NFL to have a quarterback rating lower than Case Keenum’s.
Yes. Colin Kaepernick. The Face O’ The Franchise.
Kaepernick caught a bit of grief and a bit of support at the start of Monday night’s game, and put in three difficult handoffs at the end of it. He took the anthemic knee that has become his de rigueur statement on police brutality, some players supported him physically, most took a neutral stand, and the nation endured as it always has.
But sometimes the devil is in the sidebar.
Kaepernick highlighted his postgame press conference by effusively (for him) praising club president/owner Jed York for being supportive of him and his stance both in word and check, an exchange of peacemaking gestures on both their parts that might have ushered in the era of mutually beneficial post-Kaepernickia.
But ESPN’s Trent Dilfer, who has long been presumed to be the designated media conduit of fellow York employee and team general manager Trent Baalke, had taken a few moments of Monday’s pregame to carve Kaepernick a new one for all the old reasons – for being a distraction, for being an attention whore, for being a backup and therefore unqualified to speak on weighty matters, and blah-blah-blahity-blah-blah.
The last of those being the most coherent argument.
But it isn’t the quality of Dilfer’s arguments that is at issue here, but his role as Baalke’s principal (and almost only) defender and presumably the conduit for Baalke’s own opinions, that made Kaepernick’s dismissive postgame response an event that fell well north of interesting and just short of actual newsworthiness.
The episode speaks to Baalke’s view of Kaepernick at the same time that their mutual boss is giving Kaepernick a seven-figure olive branch. It dovetails with the growing assumption that Baalke will be the designated scapegoat of this season ends as most people believe it will, and a perceived frostening of the relationship between the two men.
It is, in short, not a good look for Baalke, at a time when he could actually use one. And why does this speculation happen? Because neither York nor Baalke ever tried to create relationships with the local beat writers or selected other medioids (no, not me; I wouldn't wish that on anyone) that might help them explain themselves, their relationship and their positions in a meaningful and helpful (for them) way. They let the narrative run away from them, as they usually do, using national media types as their unconvincing leak-ees, and now their first win of the Chip Kelly Era is being used to reveal cracks in the organizational facade.
Does this matter in the longer run? Of course not. None of it matters, if truth be told. The Kaepernick protest is losing national steam (though not the cause for which he speaks), and rather than enjoy the peace and quiet of that, it is now a new referendum on the front office and its inner dysfunctions.
Which, as we know, is exactly the play they were going for, he said sarcastically.
York has never quite understood that the only way his media strategy works is if he talks to nobody at all, ever. Baalke doesn’t even get that benefit, because part of his job, whether he thinks so or not, is to gently convince potential team critics not to be so critical. His mentor, Bill Parcells, could be witheringly dismissive early in a game week but religiously spent Friday cultivating the beat writers, winning their undying loyalty along the way.
If the 49ers go 11-5, this matters not at all. But if they go 5-11, as most people suspect, this ruins one of the few good weekends York and Baalke . . . well, okay, Baalke . . . will have this year. That’s simply unsound tactical thinking, repeated again and again and making the criticism they hate so much so easy to distribute.
But maybe this is the way it’s supposed to be with this team – no moment too good to be impervious to potential ruin. And maybe it is precisely what Trent Baalke deserves for being so aggressively tone-deaf to the requirements of media relations in better times. At some point, you see, he will need another job (because general managers always get fired eventually), and owners are more interested in media opinions on job openings than they let on.
So the 49ers win, and the prime next-day takeaway is the relationship between the general manager and the backup quarterback. Sometimes you wonder how they can get their shoes tied for all the knots.