Colin Kaepernick: Into the Black

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Quarterbacks are always in high demand and short supply in the NFL. If a team finds an even halfway competent starter, they don’t mind paying him to stay in town. Currently, 22 quarterbacks have a contract that will pay them an average of at least $15 million per season, and 14 are making at least $20 million per season. Every other relevant quarterback is either on a rookie deal, or a stop-gap veteran making $6 million such as Brian Hoyer (49ers) or Josh McCown (Jets). No quarterback is making between $7 million and $15 million at this time.

NFL training camps open later this month, but one notable quarterback remains without a contract: Colin Kaepernick. One would assume that a healthy quarterback with a unique skill set, Super Bowl experience, and the second-lowest interception rate (1.8 percent) in league history would easily have a job lined up for his age-30 season.

However, that is not the case. After opting out of his contract with San Francisco on March 3 to become a free agent, Kaepernick has gone unclaimed after four months. In that time, he has reportedly only worked out for Pete Carroll and the Seattle Seahawks. Ultimately, Seattle passed on Kaepernick and signed career never-was Austin Davis to back up Russell Wilson. Carroll’s explanation did not exactly pass the sniff test. “He’s a starter in this league,” Carroll said in June. “We have a starter, but he is a starter in this league and I can’t imagine somebody won’t give him a chance to play.” Well, Seattle has known for more than four years that Wilson and Kaepernick are both starting quarterbacks in this league, so this “he’s too good to sign” excuse rings rather hollow.

Any insight into the salary demand or role that Kaepernick is willing to accept is speculation as his camp has been rather quiet this offseason. The fact that he took the Seattle tryout and has been keeping up with his workouts should be more than enough proof that Kaepernick wants to play a seventh season in the NFL. Is that really so much to ask for in a league where Rex Grossman lasted more than a decade?

So why is Kaepernick not getting that chance as teams have continued to sign inferior quarterbacks this offseason? To say that all 32 teams have purely football-related reasons for not signing Kaepernick would be foolish. Quarterbacks of Kaepernick’s caliber do not just fade into the black all of their own accord.

The Elephant and the Jackasses

There is a large elephant in the room waiting for us to address the taboo subjects in sports of racial inequality and politics. It is impossible to tell Kaepernick’s story without those topics, because one of the leading theories is that Kaepernick’s 2016 protests during the national anthem are the main reason he is currently unemployed. Beyond not standing for the anthem, Kaepernick spoke out about racial inequality and police brutality, two boundary lines that athletes will rarely ever cross publicly.

Whether or not you agree with Kaepernick, he has his First Amendment right to freedom of speech. There is also no doubt that his actions have sparked plenty of opinions even to the point where many people believe the league has colluded to blackball Kaepernick by not signing him this year. Of course, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell dismissed the blackball theory. “And I think that’s what’s great about the NFL is that we’re a meritocracy”, Goodell said in June, “and you earn your opportunities and you get to keep your opportunities on the way you perform, ultimately.”

That sounds professional, but what in Kellen Clemens‘ performance has allowed him to keep a job for 12 seasons now in the NFL? Clemens is Philip Rivers’ backup for the Chargers, and he still has more interceptions (20) than touchdowns (16) while not starting any games since 2013. Maybe he stands tall and puts his hand over his chest for every anthem, but there is nothing in his actual football performance that suggests Clemens is more worthy of his job than Kaepernick.

Clemens is just one example. Former NFL quarterback Vince Young, the first quarterback taken in that 2006 draft class, recently opened up to Sports Illustrated about the state of terrible quarterbacks still holding onto jobs. “I’d see a quarterback and be like, ‘Dude is garbage, and I’m over here in the kitchen cooking turkey necks,'” Young told SI. Young, a black quarterback always noted for his athleticism, name-dropped Ryan Fitzpatrick, who has never made the playoffs in his career, but has managed to start 116 games in the NFL. Fitzpatrick signed a one-year deal for $3 million to back up Jameis Winston in Tampa Bay.

That has been a recurring theme this offseason: a team signing a quarterback who is clearly inferior to Kaepernick. Blaine Gabbert, who wrongly started the season for the 49ers over Kaepernick last year, went to Arizona even though he’s a poor scheme fit for a Bruce Arians-coached offense. EJ Manuel was a bust in Buffalo, but if Derek Carr gets injured again in Oakland, he could be the starter rather than Kaepernick. Nick Foles signed a two-year deal for $11 million to return to the Eagles as a backup after a few irrelevant seasons away.

Then we have Chicago, which is essentially going to pay Mike Glennon, who hasn’t started a game since 2014, $18 million this season before transitioning to Mitchell Trubisky. They also brought in Mark “Butt Fumble” Sanchez, who enters his ninth season with as little competence as he started with back in 2009. It is one thing for the Chiefs (Patrick Mahomes), Browns (DeShone Kizer), and Texans (Deshaun Watson) to feel good about their rookie selections, but what about the Jets? Kaepernick could have gone there and easily been the best quarterback on the roster. Alas, when a team doesn’t want to win games, they call in old Josh McCown, who has helped lead his last three teams to one of the first two picks in the draft.

Now we know Kaepernick’s level of play in recent years has not been nearly the same as it was in 2012-13 when he looked so dynamic. Of course, no one could argue that any other team has seen a mass exodus of talent like the 49ers have with the retirements and releases of so many prominent players (and coach Jim Harbaugh) from a team that went to three straight NFC Championship Games in 2011-13. It is actually impressive that Kaepernick managed 16 touchdown passes with just four interceptions last year in a passing game that featured Jeremy KerleyQuinton Patton, and Garrett Celek. No 2016 quarterback had a higher rate of dropped passes than Kaepernick. No offense threw fewer screen passes (15) to help give the quarterback easy completions. Kaepernick had the most rushing value (134 DYAR) of any quarterback last season despite playing only 12 games. In fact, his runs were so productive that they boosted Kaepernick’s Total QBR to 55.2, which ranked higher than the likes of the more appreciated Ryan Tannehill (54.6), Cam Newton (53.1), Carson Wentz (52.8), and Eli Manning (51.8). Kaepernick was also stuck with a defense that became the second in NFL history to allow 21-plus points in each of the final 15 games of a season.

No one is pretending that Kaepernick is still on a path to greatness, but there is no logical argument that places him outside of the top 64 quarterbacks in the league right now. For that matter, you would be hard pressed to name 32 better starters in the league. Yet here we are in a situation where more than 64 quarterbacks have an NFL contract, and Kaepernick is not one of them.

Everyone seems to have an opinion on the topic. Reverend Jesse Jackson is trying to reach out to Kaepernick, who has even been blamed for the NFL’s ratings going down in 2016. Back in March, President Donald Trump had to weigh in on the quarterback that he doubts anyone had heard of before. “It was reported that NFL owners don’t want to pick him up because they don’t want to get a nasty tweet from Donald Trump,” he said. “Do you believe that? I just saw that. I just saw that.” Reportedly, an AFC general manager said that Trump’s tweets could scare teams away from signing the quarterback.

Kaepernick has received support from outspoken former Seattle rival Michael Bennett and former Nevada teammate Brandon Marshall, the latter of whom also protested the anthem at times last year. Both players believe the league is blackballing Kaepernick. Baltimore head coach John Harbaugh wouldn’t go that far, but he does believe Kaepernick will start games in 2017. His brother Jim, who started in San Francisco the same year that Kaepernick was drafted, still believes that Kaepernick will win championships in this league. Chip Kelly was fired as San Francisco’s head coach after one season with Kaepernick, but he only offered kind words this offseason and did not view the quarterback’s politics as a distraction.

The NFL has shown time and time again that bad deeds can be overlooked if the potential for talent is still there. This is why despite cases of domestic violence, Greg Hardy was still given a chance by the Cowboys in 2015, and rising star Tyreek Hill was drafted by the Chiefs in 2016. Cincinnati still drafted running back Joe Mixon this year even though there is a video of him punching a woman in the face in a restaurant.

In 2009, Michael Vick was signed by the Eagles 24 days after he was released from prison for his participation in a dog fighting ring. Again, everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but I like to think that killing dogs and assaulting women are worse offenses than not standing for the anthem. It was also reported by ESPN in March that Kaepernick would stand for the anthem in 2017, but he has to find a team first.

Kaepernick: One of a Kind

One could argue that this is a unique time in NFL history where a large number of teams have handsomely-paid starting quarterbacks in place, or have chosen their quarterbacks of the future with high draft picks. It is true that out of the top 64 job openings for quarterbacks in 2017, many were already filled by the time Kaepernick became a free agent.

However, NFL history has taught us that bad quarterbacks can hang onto a job for a very long time. The supply of viable starters is just never that high. For Kaepernick’s career to just end a few months shy of his 30th birthday while he’s still healthy would be extremely unusual and difficult to explain. Jay Cutler just walked away for good at age 33, but he has had numerous injuries over the years and was never all that successful anyway. Similarly, Daunte Culpepper called it a career at 32, as he was never the same after a knee injury back in 2005. Kaepernick is going into his age-30 season. This should still be his prime. He started 11 games and threw 331 passes last season.

We looked at all 144 quarterbacks in NFL history who threw at least 200 passes in their age-29 season. If Kaepernick remains a free agent through the rest of this year, he will be the only quarterback in that group to not be on an NFL roster in his age-30 season. Only seven other quarterbacks out of the 144 did not throw a pass in their age-30 season, and two of them (Sam Bradford and Andy Dalton) are current projected starters for the 2017 season. Simple explanation there.

Quarterbacks with 200+ Passes in Age-29 Season, No Passes in Age-30 Season
Player Age-29 Yr Team GP GS Att. Age-30 Yr Team Age-30 Season Notes
Eric Hipple 1986 DET 16 10 305 1987 DET IR (Thumb)
Neil Lomax 1988 PHX 14 14 443 1989 PHX IR (Hip; retired in January 1990)
Bobby Hebert 1989 NO 14 13 353 1990 NO Sat out entire season over contract; returned in 1991
Hugh Millen 1992 NE 7 7 203 1993 DAL/MIA Backup – no action (DAL/MIA)
Joey Harrington 2007 ATL 12 10 348 2008 ATL/NO Backup – no action (ATL/NO)
Andy Dalton 2016 CIN 16 16 563 2017 CIN Current QB1
Sam Bradford 2016 MIN 15 15 552 2017 MIN Current QB1
Colin Kaepernick 2016 SF 12 11 331 2017 TBD Free agent

Neil Lomax and Eric Hipple missed their entire age-30 seasons due to injury. Lomax’s hip caused him to retire in January 1990. Hipple, who was never a quality starter, fell out of favor as the Lions tried to get 1986 first-round pick Chuck Long going instead.

Hugh Millen was a poor starter for the Patriots in 1991 and 1992. He was traded to Dallas in April 1993 where he served as the No. 3 quarterback behind Troy Aikman and Jason Garrett. The Cowboys released Millen in November, and he signed with the Dolphins, who had lost Dan Marino (Achilles) for the season. Millen never played in a game for Miami either, and only started two more games (for an injured John Elway in Denver in 1994) in his career.

Joey Harrington was the No. 3 pick in the 2002 draft by Detroit, but only lasted four lousy years there. He replaced an injured Daunte Culpepper for Nick Saban with the 2006 Dolphins, and then tried to be Michael Vick‘s replacement with Atlanta in 2007. The Falcons kept him on in 2008, his age-30 season, but released him that August. He was scooped up by the Saints in mid-September to be a third-string quarterback, and was a frequent guest on the team’s transactions list that season. Harrington never played in another NFL game, and the Saints released him in final roster cuts prior to the 2009 season. He never signed another NFL contract.

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So with two active players, two injured players, and two lousy backups, we’re really just left with Kaepernick and Bobby Hebert. In New Orleans, Hebert became one of the league’s better undrafted success stories at the quarterback position. He was the primary quarterback for the first winning season in Saints’ history (1987). But by 1989, Hebert was struggling, so head coach Jim Mora benched him for John Fourcade for the final three games of the season. Hebert was not happy about that, and without free agency in existence yet, his only real choice was to hold out for the 1990 season. We hear players threaten this often now, but Hebert actually went through with his holdout and missed the entire 1990 season at age 30. He eventually signed a new contract and returned to the team in summer of 1991, leading the Saints to two more playoff appearances in 1991 and 1992.

Even Hebert’s story draws little comparison to Kaepernick, who is truly unique in this regard. Also, it’s not like Kaepernick lucked his way into playing a lot last season like a Hugh Millen may have in 1992. Lest we forget, Kaepernick was a high second-round pick (36th overall) in 2011, and helped the 49ers to a Super Bowl appearance in 2012. Expectations have been high for him, and while he has hit a rough patch the last couple of years, that’s not uncommon in NFL history either for a quarterback. Just ask Ken Anderson, who struggled in 1978-1980 (ages 29-31) before rebounding to win his only MVP and lead the Bengals to the Super Bowl in 1981.

We also looked at 117 quarterbacks who threw at least 1,500 career passes before their age-30 season. Ten of them are current projected starters for the 2017 season who are just turning 30 or are younger, including Blake Bortles (age-25 season) and Derek Carr (age-26 season). Setting those players and Kaepernick aside, only seven other players did not appear in a game at age 30. That again includes the injured Lomax and Hipple, as well as Harrington. That leaves four new examples.

Chad Henne was replaced by Bortles in Jacksonville in 2014, but he has stayed on as the backup. He did not see any action in 2015 when he was 30.

Tim Couch was the No. 1 overall pick by the Browns (2.0) in 1999. He had a rough career, but if it means anything, he is still one of the best quarterbacks the Browns have had since 1999. Couch fell out of favor and lost his job to Kelly Holcomb. The Browns released Couch just shy of his 27th birthday in 2004. Injuries really did him in during his attempt at catching on with another team. Couch tried to make the Packers’ roster in 2004, but was cut in the preseason. Couch had shoulder surgery in 2005, but tryouts with the Bears and Bengals did not lead to a contract. He worked out for several more teams in 2006, but never signed a contract and had another shoulder surgery. Couch eventually played for the Jaguars in the 2007 preseason at age 30, but failed to make the cut again, effectively ending his career for good.

If anyone can challenge Kaepernick’s weird downfall, it is Josh Freeman. He looked like a rising star in 2010, but that was by far his peak. Tampa Bay’s hiring of head coach Greg Schiano did Freeman no favors, and the quarterback was released early into the 2013 season. The Vikings scooped him up and started him days later on a Monday night game that made us all question if we really want to cover professional football for a living. Freeman completed 20-of-53 passes that night with a whopping 16 overthrows. Oddly enough, the opponent that night, the Giants, signed Freeman in the next offseason, but he was cut before June, a rarity for veterans. The Dolphins didn’t really want him in 2015 either, and Freeman tried something called the Fall Experimental Football League. He ended up starting the 2015 Colts’ season finale, but didn’t finish the game healthy. The Colts released him in March of 2016, and he was last seen at a practice with the CFL’s Montreal Alouettes last month. Freeman is still only 29, but could use his own 30 for 30.

Then there is Doug Williams, the first black quarterback to win a Super Bowl. He was a five-year starter for the Buccaneers, but was the lowest-paid starting quarterback in the NFL. In fact, 12 backups were making more money than Williams. Rather than continue to be underpaid for his age-28 season in 1983, Williams left perhaps the league’s most dysfunctional franchise at the time for the USFL. He did not return to the NFL until 1986 (age 31) when he reunited with Joe Gibbs in Washington, and eventually led the Redskins to a Super Bowl win the following season.

The fact that Kaepernick, Freeman, and Williams are all black is likely just a coincidence, but it is interesting how they all hit major adversity after five seasons as starters for the teams that drafted them. Being black and generally not too good didn’t hinder Seneca Wallace (2003-2013) and Tarvaris Jackson (2006-2015) from decade-long careers in the NFL. However, the Seahawks, one of the more progressive teams in the league, helped both players hit that milestone. When the Seahawks are opting for Austin Davis over Kaepernick, then he really might have played his last down in this league.

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Then again, all it takes is one injury to a prominent starter for a team to go looking. Last season, the Teddy Bridgewater injury in Minnesota led to a desperate trade with the Eagles for Sam Bradford. If something were to happen to a player this preseason on a team expecting to compete without a good backup in place, how is Kaepernick not the first name that gets a call?

Of course, how is he not already on a team without a good backup? Some teams can justify this for strictly football reasons, but not all 32. Chances are he will sign somewhere eventually and that will render our table moot, but if not, then “blackballed” is going to be the narrative’s ending to Kaepernick’s NFL story.

In conclusion, it has been argued this offseason that Kaepernick created this unique situation by opting out of his contract. He’d still be on a roster had he just stayed in San Francisco. That simply is not the case. New general manager John Lynch confirmed in May to Pro Football Talk that Kaepernick would have been cut had he not opted out of his deal. With new head coach Kyle Shanahan in town, the 49ers have a vision for their offense that did not include Kaepernick, not even as a backup. Weeks later, Lynch had more to say about Kaepernick in an interview with KNBR. “I think the way you could best help yourself is not to have someone talk for you, not have statements, but go sit down and give an interview and let people know where you stand because he makes a compelling case as to how bad he wants to be in the league when you talk to him,” Lynch said.

So does that mean Kaepernick needs to do an interview with NBC Nightly News anchor Lester Holt where he tells America how much he wants to play this season? Do they bring in Bob Costas to handle the tough questions? Please, spare us that sight. We need that interview as much as we need a prime-time game between the Bears and a quarterback of Brock Osweiler’s caliber.

It is one thing for a player to look like Zack de la Rocha, but perhaps Kaepernick’s career is proof that you can’t actually rage against the machine and not face any consequences.

“For example, what does the billboard say? Come and play, come and play. Forget about the movement.”

— “Freedom” by Rage Against the Machine.

(EDITOR’S NOTE: Ordinarily, we try to keep political discussion out of Football Outsiders stories. In this case, though, politics are the story. As such, we are suspending our “No Politics” rule and allowing political comments on this page, so long as they pertain to Colin Kaepernick and the NFL. We ask that our readers please be civil and respectful with one another. Thank you.)


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