It may seem like a sudden fall from grace for a 28-year-old signal-caller who led the 49ers to the Super Bowl three seasons ago and signed a six-year, $114 million contract extension last year, but it may also be the best possible scenario for him.
Just ask Jim Plunkett, who knows better than most that sometimes all a struggling quarterback needs is a new team and a second (or third) chance.
"A change of scenery was certainly beneficial to me," Plunkett said. "It turned out really well for me."
Plunkett was a Heisman Trophy winner at Stanford and the first overall pick in the 1971 draft by the New England Patriots. After five seasons, he was traded to the 49ers, who released him following two uneventful seasons. He then signed with the Raiders to be a backup but wound up starting for two Super Bowl-winning teams after injuries to Dan Pastorini in 1980 and Marc Wilson in '83.
"I was surrounded by a lot of really fine players, and that always helps if you're a quarterback," said Plunkett, the only quarterback to start and win two Super Bowls who is eligible for the Pro Football Hall of Fame but has not been enshrined. "Sometimes, it's not the quarterback's fault."
Plunkett, 67, still lives in the Bay Area and has followed Kaepernick's career since the 49ers drafted him in the second round in 2011. Kaepernick, who took the 49ers to Super Bowl XLVII and the 2013 NFC Championship Game, was benched last week in favor Blaine Gabbert, who is trying to make a fresh start of his own after washing out with the Jacksonville Jaguars. Plunkett believes Kaepernick can once again become a successful quarterback with a team that plays to his strengths.
"He needs to be able to run with the football, and when you take that away from him, he's lost out there," Plunkett said. "That's not to say things won't change. You can go somewhere and get surrounded by better players and the situation improves and he can rise to the top again."
When Plunkett was released by the 49ers after the 1977 season, he was 30 years old and unsure if he'd ever play again.
"After I got let go from San Francisco, I just felt like quitting and getting out of football," Plunkett said. "Maybe the critics were right: I just didn't have it anymore. I took a lot of abuse physically with weaker teams and got knocked around a lot. I didn't have a lot of success, and I thought that was it for me. But then I signed with Oakland, and it was the right situation for me."
Plunkett believes a change of scenery would also be beneficial to Robert Griffin III, who won the Heisman Trophy at Baylor in 2011 and was the second overall pick in 2012 by the Washington Redskins. Griffin's career has plummeted since he was named a Pro Bowler and the NFL offensive rookie of the year in 2012, and he's behind Kirk Cousins and Colt McCoy on the depth chart this season.
"It's another example of a guy that if he can't run he's just not the same player he was when he was able to run, but there does seem to be a lot of other issues involved there," Plunkett said. "He's quite a talent, and hopefully, he can find a place where he can get back to being a starter, or at least compete for it. There's no reason why he has to drop to third and run the scout team and not even suit him up. To me, that seems a little unfair. I don't think he's dropped off the map, unless there's other factors involved there."
Plunkett finished his career with a 72-72 record as a starter and threw more interceptions (198) than touchdowns (164). He looked destined to be nothing more than a journeyman until he found himself on the right team, at the place, at the right time. Plunkett knows better than anyone that a quarterback, even one sitting on the bench, is just one play away from rewriting his legacy.
"You have to stick to it and continue to work hard; there might be an opportunity out there for you," he said. "These guys are talented players, but they have to be in the right situation. If you're given the chance again, you have to make the most of it and you never know what will happen. It worked out for me."