It’s hard to believe that Colin Kaepernick can no longer be a useful quarterback in the NFL. The league is filled with too many mediocre passers who possess little skill beyond an ability to parrot the jargon of a preferred system offense to deny a man who actually took a team to the brink of a Super Bowl victory.
All you have to do is look at the lackluster play of the NFL’s low-end starters, ball-cap wearers and clipboard holders to know Kaepernick still has a lot to offer. He is 29, an age that is hardly ancient, with a reasonably healthy body, a powerful arm, and an innate ability to run over or through many tacklers. He is a quarterback who absolutely should have a job in the NFL. Every day that passes without him getting a hint of an offer is an embarrassment for the league.
What isn’t easy to measure with Kaepernick is what happened to him after Jim Harbaugh, the coach who championed him in San Francisco, left for the University of Michigan following the 2014 season. Did the league catch up to his running-passing style and was he unable to adjust? Was he ruined by the constant dysfunction of the Niners organization? Was he stuck on a team so bad there was no hope of ever playing well?
So much of the perception of him has been clouded by the reaction to his refusal to stand for the national anthem last season that it’s hard to know what the league really thinks of Kaepernick as a quarterback. Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman, a longtime division rival of Kaepernick’s, recently said he thought the quarterback was being blackballed by the NFL. Browns tackle Joe Thomas tweeted that Kaepernick is a backup “and NFL teams accept zero distractions from their backup quarterbacks.” Both comments speak to a long and troubling truth about the NFL: coaches and general managers despise players, especially non-starters, who in any way compromise their carefully scripted locker-room order.
But Kaepernick, whose protest last year was not so much a statement about America but an attempt to ignite a conversation abut racial inequality, has also said he will stand for the anthem next season. Given that he’s never been open to much one-on-one introspection in the past, his “distraction” likely would be limited to a handful of training camp press conferences and then likely forgotten. He will not ruin a locker room, and he has a good chance to be an eventual solution to somebody’s quarterback problem.
The fact no one seems ready to sign him speaks to another great problem in the NFL.
Coaches and general managers are afraid to be good.
For all their proclamations about courage and toughness, most pro football coaches are an insecure bunch, living in fear of Twitter revolts and the whims of fickle owners. They make safe calls in games, feeling it better to lose without defying convention than taking an out-of-the-box gamble that might open them to criticism.
Carolina Panthers coach Ron Rivera talked about this a few years ago. Before the 2013 season, the Panthers had lost a number of games when Rivera chose to punt or kick a field goal on fourth-and-short situations rather than aggressively go for a bigger score. He promised to go for more first downs that year and then didn’t – afraid of doing the bold thing. It took a near car accident driving home a couple days after a close defeat to inspire change. Three years later, the Panthers were in the Super Bowl.
“Maybe that’s what it took,” Rivera said then. “Maybe that’s the revelation I needed.”
Too many coaches don’t get their near-accidents.
Perhaps the keenest analysis about Kaepernick and the NFL comes from Harbaugh, who said in an interview with ProFootballTalk.com that teams aren’t patient with quarterbacks, and suggested that Kaepernick will thrive if a coach takes the time to work with him.
“I think he’s an outstanding player, and I think he’s a great competitor who has proven it in games … and has the ability to not only be an NFL starter but a great NFL player,” Harbaugh told the site.
But Harbaugh, who got to that Super Bowl in 2013 by taking a risk few would choose in keeping Kaepernick as his starter when the dependable Alex Smith returned from a mid-season injury, has a mindset shared by few other coaches. As a longtime pro quarterback himself, he knows that the trajectory of most NFL passers is not linear. They often rise and fall, and the worst thing a team can do is make a judgment about a quarterback based on a small sample of games.
The general belief about Kaepernick the quarterback is that he is broken, unable to lead a team. Still, in 11 starts last year he completed nearly 60% of his passes and threw 16 touchdowns against only four interceptions. He also ran for 468 yards and two more scores. More importantly, late in the year he showed the ability to move in the pocket and pick out receivers that critics suggested he lacked. If anything, he has displayed the signs of becoming a more complete quarterback at an age that is still young for a NFL starter. It wasn’t his fault the Niners were a dreadful shell of the team that nearly went to three straight Super Bowls under Harbaugh.
Last year, a football scout told me privately he was shocked that people had already declared Kaepernick to be done. Though he did not know Kaepernick personally, he appreciated the quarterback’s stand, and said he still possessed the raw ability to be as good as he was in 2012 and 2013.
Given that most teams already have a starter in place or, like Cleveland, are looking to build with a sure thing, it’s unlikely a starting job or a big payday exists for him regardless of his anthem stand. But if a coach is smart and patient, and doesn’t overreact to a few bad passes or interceptions, Harbaugh is right. Kaepernick might be exactly what a lot of teams need.
If only they will allow themselves to see it.