The quarterback is arguably the single most important position in all of sports. It is nearly impossible to win a Super Bowl without solid play under center. If you were to ask any football fan to name the last 10 signal callers to hoist the Vince Lombardi Trophy, they would more likely be able to do so than if you were to ask them to name the last 10 U.S. presidents.
If you proposed to an NFL general manager the possibility of a young, dual-threat quarterback with proven success headlining their offense, they would be intrigued. Add in the fact that this quarterback has led his team to the Super Bowl and holds the NFL’s single-game rushing record for quarterbacks, and most would consider it a no-brainer.
So why isn’t Colin Kaepernick on an NFL roster?
Kaepernick hasn’t played since the 2016 season, when he protested police brutality and racial inequality in America by sitting and subsequently kneeling during the national anthem before games. The result is an ongoing, messy battle between Kaepernick, fans, peers, the media, the NFL and even President Trump over the ethics of the protests and what it means to be a patriotic American.
Earlier this year, Kaepernick secured a victory when the NFL reached a settlement agreement over his grievance case. Kaepernick alleged that he’d been blackballed by the league — and as the fan divide filled the airwaves, he remained relevant as ever.
On Nov. 16, the door for Kaepernick’s return creaked open again. Initially invited to hold a workout at the Atlanta Falcons facility, the former San Francisco 49ers quarterback moved the workout to an Atlanta high school at the last minute, saying he wanted everything to be “transparent.”
This sudden change had an impact, as only eight of 32 NFL teams sent scouts to the new location and no contract negotiations have surfaced. It seems that the door has, once again, been slammed shut.
In his open workout, Kaepernick flashed the arm strength and raw talent that had fans, coaches and commentators salivating in a way not seen since Patrick Mahomes took the league by storm last season. Yet nearly a month has passed and he remains where he was before the workout — jobless.
“We’re waiting for the 32 owners, the 32 teams, Roger Goodell, all them to stop running. Stop running from the truth, stop running from the people. I’ve been ready, I’m staying ready and I’ll continue to be ready,” Kaepernick said following his workout.
Fifty-three quarterbacks have started for their respective teams this season. With so many marquee names going down with injuries, the 2019 season might be remembered as the year of the backup quarterback. Since Kaepernick opted out of his contract and became a free agent in 2017, 115 quarterbacks have been signed by teams, not including times those who have been cut and have signed with other franchises. With all due respect, guys like Sean Mannion, Nathan Peterman and Brandon Allen are not world-beaters, let alone future NFL starters.
This is why it’s so puzzling as to why Kaepernick hasn’t been signed. There are players who are clearly less competent with substantially lower ceilings, but nevertheless get significant reps right now.
Take the Cincinnati Bengals, for example. With the worst record in the league, the team has nothing left to play for except developing talent for next season. After benching longtime starter Andy Dalton earlier this season, Cincinnati turned to Ryan Finley. The rookie proceeded to lose three consecutive games as a starter, resulting in the Bengals’ decision to give the starting job back to Dalton.
With Dalton likely to move on after the season and Finley being benched so soon into his career, the Bengals have all but publicly stated that their quarterback of the future is not on the current roster. With three meaningless games left to play, why not sign Kaepernick? A team like Cincinnati could sign the veteran to a prove-it deal and see what he has left in the tank. Look no further than the way Ryan Tannehill has revived both his career and the Titans’ season in Tennessee.
At worst, it shows fans that you are exercising all options to make the team better, with the added satisfaction of knowing you tried. At best, you find your franchise quarterback in a seasoned professional with proven success against NFL defenses and give him reps and time to learn the playbook in preparation for next season.
Not only is the trajectory of your 2020 season flipped, but you come out looking gutsy for doing what the other 31 teams were not willing to — and gain positive publicity for showing support for racial equality, an issue important to many players in the NFL.
As the NFL transitions to an era of spread offenses spearheaded by dual-threat quarterbacks such as Lamar Jackson and Deshaun Watson, a quarterback’s legs are almost as important as his arm. Kaepernick was the pioneer behind this trend in 2012, leading the 49ers to a Super Bowl.
Critics call Kaepernick “unpatriotic” and “un-American” for wanting to promote improvement in an area he feels the nation is lacking. But one can look no further than the NFL itself to see that time and time again, the league demonstrates a seeming disregard for ethics so long as it contributes to a winning product on the field and in TV ratings.
Kaepernick is right. It’s time for the NFL to stop running. Players such as Kareem Hunt and Tyreek Hill continue to play professional football and headline promotions, despite having been at the center of domestic violence scandals. If fans are fine with such players continuing to star in their respective roles, why is it so blasphemous for Kaepernick to get signed in a backup role?
From a talent perspective, Kaepernick has all the intangibles and passes the eye test. In a vacuum, any player with those skills would likely be on an NFL roster right now. It’s his history, not his ability, which is keeping him off the field.
This could be the best redemption arc in sports in the last decade — not only for Kaepernick, but for the NFL. A hungry quarterback was abandoned by a league that promises progressiveness, but struggles to deliver. All that is left is for one team to believe again.
Kabir Rao covers men’s tennis. Contact him at [email protected].