The one-time “It” QB sits and waits by the phone, wondering if he’ll ever start another NFL game.
Colin Kaepernick owns a unique distinction. He is the first QB in over 20 years to have led the San Francisco 49ers to two consecutive NFC title games. That he is not Steve Young or Joe Montana is obvious. The question more likely is be posed is whether he is more like Tim Tebow. And the larger question is will the political stance Kaepernick took last season come back to haunt him? And would the NFL really blackball a player just because of the on-field protests he engaged in last season? The NFL does not like distractions, but they also do not like hearing the word blackball thrown around. The connotations it carries with it are ugly and polarizing.
Kaepernick burst onto the NFL scene in 2012 when he replaced an injured Alex Smith as starting QB for San Francisco in mid-season. Smith never got his starting job back. Kaepernick’s strong arm, coupled with his remarkable speed and athleticism, were enough to propel the 49ers past Green Bay and Atlanta in the NFC playoffs, on their way to taking on the Baltimore Ravens in the Super Bowl. Kaepernick came remarkably close to going back to the Super Bowl again in the 2013 season. Had it not been for a spectacular pass deflection and a subsequent interception by the Seattle Seahawks in the final minute, he might well have gotten there.
But the next few years were not kind to Colin Kaepernick. 49er coach Jim Harbaugh had lost control of the team in 2014 and the Niners underperformed, losing four of their last five games that season en route to an 8-8 mark. After Harbaugh left, San Francisco replaced him with three coaches over the next three years and the 49ers have struggled badly ever since. If you want to talk about distractions, annual head coaching changes would be a good place to start.
But it was the beginning of last season that thrust Kaepernick back into the national limelight, and for reasons that went well beyond football. He made a dramatic political statement by kneeling during the national anthem, protesting the treatment of African-Americans by local police officers around the country. The blowback was fierce, but so was the support. Kaepernick was verbally roasted by political opponents, but not by opponents on the football field. The majority of NFL players are African-American, and many supported his right to take a stand. Or take a knee.
By the end of last season, the reviews of Kaepernick’s own 2016 performance were mixed. Kaepernick began the season riding the bench behind Blaine Gabbert, but took over as the starter in Week 5. His stats were not awful, earning a 59% completion rate with 16 TDs and just 4 picks. But he did fumble 7 times and only had a few exceptional games. And the 49ers performance overall was simply atrocious; the highlights of their 2016 season being a pair of wins over the equally hapless Rams.
It cannot be repeated often enough though, that football is a team game, and it is unlikely any QB could have led San Francisco back to the playoffs in recent years. Things should improve with Kyle Shanahan taking over as head coach in 2017, but Kaepernick will not be around Levi Stadium this year to see it, having chosen to opt out of his $16.5 million contract. To be fair, none of that money was guaranteed, nor was there a guarantee Kaepernick and Shanahan would hit it off. New head coaches often like to start fresh, especially when the team they inherit was a pathetic 2-14 in the past season.
Kaepernick has gone unsigned since the end of last season, and there is no issue with that. NFL teams pass on a lot of talent, and coaches often look hard at whether a player can fit into their scheme, especially at the QB position. What may be turning into an issue, however, is that no one has offered Kaepernick so much as a tryout. It’s still early, the draft has yet to happen, and perhaps once teams fully assess their needs, he will be brought in to compete for a job. The question is by whom, and the deeper question is will he be given a fair shot? Joe Thomas has gone on record as saying Kaepernick is not getting a chance because he’s simply not good enough. Thomas has a point. The Bengals for example, tolerate Adam Pacman Jones being a regular guest at numerous jail cells around the country, simply because Jones can produce results on the football field. The league will look the other way on certain things; getting beat on long TD passes is not one of them.
Colin Kaepernick is reportedly asking to compete for a starting job, which is not outrageous. He has been a starting QB for the better part of five seasons and led a team to a Super Bowl berth. But there are only a couple of NFL teams who are openly seeking a starting QB right now. And it has also been reported that Kaepernick is asking teams for as much as $10 million a year, a wildly high price for a guy who may spend the year prowling the sideline, holding a clipboard. If that dollar figure is anywhere close to being accurate, it would surely explain the reason Kaepernick is still waiting by the phone. Not everyone understands the intricacies of playing QB, the mental and physical demands, or the QB’s role in a cohesive offense. But everyone understands money.
Unlike some of his colleagues, Colin Kaepernick has never been charged with a crime. On the field, he has had moments of great success. But his political statement carries a lot of baggage and it carries a lot of media interest, something many NFL coaches would prefer not to touch. When Viking punter Chris Kluwe expressed his opinions on marriage equality in 2013, he discovered his services were no longer needed in the league. Football coaches prefer guys who stay out of trouble, avoid controversy, and keep their focus on football. They do not like distractions. They prefer to deal with x’s and o’s.
There are realistically only two NFL teams right now who are clearly in need of a starting QB. Unfortunately, one of them is the New York Jets, whose owner Woody Johnson, is openly supportive of President Donald Trump, whose politics just don’t line up with the controversial QB. It is hard to imagine Kaepernick doing his kneeling protest on the field of MetLife Stadium. The other option is the Houston Texans, whose hopes of landing Tony Romo have recently been dashed. But Kaepernick’s skills do not fit readily into Coach Bill O’Brien’s scheme, and the Texans may be looking hard at Jay Cutler or at trading up to get Mitchell Trubisky. It’s possible that they are maybe even waiting to see which QB is riding the Vikings’ bench, and then make a run at him. There are options out there. The options for Kaepernick may be limited, especially if he does not reduce his salary demands and accept the dour fate of a backup’s role.
Colin Kaepernick has his share of flaws. But at the very least, Kaepernick deserves a tryout. Any QB who can rush for 181 yards in a playoff game at Lambeau Field deserves some consideration. Even Tim Tebow got to spend a number of training camps working out with the Pats and the Eagles. Heck, Michael Vick got a shot after spending almost two years in prison. If Kaepernick lowers his salary requirements and doesn’t get a shot, the questions as to why will start to loom large and may carry repercussions. It’s one thing for players to take a knee in solidarity with a relevant social issue; it would be quite another for them to take a knee in solidarity for a player they think is being run out of the league for exercising his 1st amendment rights.
While Colin Kaepernick’s politics are going to follow him for a long time, the big question is whether he can be a productive member of an NFL team. If he gets his chance and doesn’t perform, that will say something about his abilities at this stage of his career. If he doesn’t get a shot, however, or if a team just goes through the motions with him, that will say something very different. In fact, it will SCREAM something. The type of thing the NFL does not want anyone to ever hear.