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WHEN SO MANY NFL TEAMS NEED QBS, WHY NO CALLS FOR KAEPERNICK?
You know the answer: NFL owners are holding a grudge over his landmark protest movement, preferring to blackball him than grant him a chance when more than half the league’s teams have QB questions
The industry within an industry is in crisis mode. Quarterbacks Inc. is experiencing a market correction. Millions of American teens continue to dream, gunning for glamour and riches as a QB1 in the NFL, in the parlance. But for every Tom Brady, who has spent more time in the league than the rest of his years on Earth, there are scads of flops and wannabes whose names never should have been called on Draft Night by Roger Goodell.
By my count, only six of the league’s 32 teams boast true superstar QBs right now — soon-to-be-45-year-old Brady, aging anti-vaxxer Aaron Rodgers, Patrick Mahomes, Joe Burrow, Josh Allen and Justin Herbert. On a level just below are Lamar Jackson, Russell Wilson and Matthew Stafford, who is winking at us in phone commercials. Dak Prescott, Derek Carr and Kyler Murray haven’t arrived yet but could get there.
Deshaun Watson is in a holding bin, figuratively if not literally. It’s beyond practical comprehension how the massage king of Houston, accused by 22 women of sexual assault and harassment, was gifted a record-obliterating, fully guaranteed $230 million contract by the Cleveland Browns. But that madness only exposes the desperation of franchises not to atrophy at the most important position in sports. When more than half the teams are in some version of QB limbo — waiting for stardom to kick in (Trevor Lawrence, Tua Tagovailoa, Jalen Hurts); settling for it-is-what-it-is veteran slogs (Ryan Tannehill, Kirk Cousins, Jameis Winston, Matt Ryan); hoping kid projects aren’t busts (Justin Fields, Zach Wilson, Trey Lance, Davis Mills); praying for miracles (Jared Goff, Carson Wentz); or either pondering tank jobs for the Class of 2023 or an eyes-closed trade for Baker Mayfield or Jimmy Garoppolo (Panthers, Giants, Falcons, Steelers, Seahawks) — well, you do wonder why one accomplished quarterback continues to be blackballed.
Remember Colin Kaepernick? Played in a Super Bowl. Came within one end-zone catch of a championship. Revolutionized the sport for a minute. Graced the cover of GQ. All of which came as a function of quarterbacking excellence, before he became the Black activist who changed the world.
The NFL owners have selective amnesia about all of it. Many are racists, after all, the evidence of which continues to be wheelbarrowed into public view and placed in massive piles. They’ve disgracefully rejected the Rooney Rule time and again. A lawsuit by Brian Flores threatens to take down Miami Dolphins owner Stephen Ross and further shame the league. Jon Gruden’s incendiary e-mails mocked Players Association chief DeMaurice Smith as “Dumboriss Smith’’ with “lips the size of Michelin tires.” Those who run the league, mostly old white men, are still stinging over Kaepernick’s landmark protest movement. That’s right, a movement that started six years ago and ran its course in 2017.
He interrupted entire football seasons to fight racial injustice and police brutality, leading a crusade of Black players kneeling on sidelines during the national anthem. If his campaign eventually grew long-winded and annoying to the masses and broadcast networks, it was global and historic in scope and prompted Goodell to utter the words that should have brought a cultural sea change, after the death of George Floyd: “We, the National Football League, believe black lives matter. … We were wrong for not listening to players earlier.”
That was an entire pandemic ago, yet the owners haven’t forgotten. Otherwise, Kaepernick wouldn’t be ignored in his attempted return from exile while the failed likes of Sam Darnold, Mitchell Trubisky, Daniel Jones and Geno Smith are topping depth charts. NFL owners have signed felons out of prison and taken on players wth multiple league suspensions. But they won’t call Kaepernick for a sitdown interview? One workout on a back field?
It’s a copout to still maintain he’d be a distraction in a team’s market, a polarizing figure in a community. It now seems surreal that Baltimore Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti asked fans to pray for him as he briefly considered signing Kaepernick, saying in 2017, “I kind of liked it a lot when he went from sitting to kneeling. I’m Catholic — we spend a lot of time kneeling.” America has moved on from Donald Trump, who urged owners to address anthem protesters by getting “that son of a bitch off the field right now.” People are trying to raise children in a fraught and complex world, deciding whether to get a booster shot, wondering if Vladimir Putin is coming for us all. At this point, in a league of unprecedented prosperity and popularity, fans just want to win games and gamblers just want to win bets. Can Colin Kaepernick play? That is the operative question. And how will teams ever know unless they give him a legitimate, sincere chance?
In Seattle, Pete Carroll is on record as saying Kaepernick should be a starter in the league. Yet the Seahawks haven’t called him after trading Wilson to Denver, preferring a skittish journeyman in Smith while pondering a deal for the problematic Mayfield. Kaepernick spent 10 days last month traveling to eight cities, holding workouts with professional receivers he recruited on social media. His purpose: Show teams he’s still serious about playing, even at 34, even though he hasn’t taken a league snap since New Year’s Day 2017. His every showcase is followed by positive reaction from his pass-catchers, including Seattle’s Tyler Lockett, who tweeted: “Yessir!! That man Kap is ready!!”
The coach who created Kaepernick the game-changer, Jim Harbaugh, invited him to Ann Arbor to throw for NFL scouts at halftime of Michigan’s spring game. The current QB of the Wolverines, Cade McNamara, said, “He’s got a rocket and can sling it for sure.” Afterward, Kaepernick granted a rare interview to a Detroit TV station.
“We still get out there and sling it. Really, getting out here for the exhibition was to show that I can still do it,’’ he said. “It's one of the questions my agent keeps getting, so we want to make sure we can come out, show everyone I can still play, still throw it.”
So, what are the owners waiting for? He has budged from his original stance that he’d only accept a starting job, now saying he’ll be a backup if necessary. Are they worried about a divided locker room if he expects to start at some point? Last week, Kaepernick said on the “I Am Athlete’’ podcast: “I know I have to find my way back in. So, yeah, if I have to come in as a backup, that fine. But that’s not where I’m staying. And when I prove that I’m a starter, I want to be able to step on the field as such.” What do they want him to say? That he’s returning to be tethered to the bench? Are they concerned he’s pulling another stunt, as they viewed a debacle in 2019? That’s when Goodell hastily set up an open Kaepernick tryout for NFL teams in Georgia, only to see him flee the site in a dispute with the league over media access. Does it unnerve them that filmmaker Spike Lee constantly is by Kaepernick’s side, documentary crew in tow?
It takes only one owner. Mark Davis championed Kaepernick’s cause last week, telling a Bay Area TV station that he’d welcome him to the Las Vegas Raiders. “I believe in Colin Kaepernick. He deserves every chance in the world to become a quarterback in the National Football League,” Davis said. “I still stand by it. If our coaches and general manager want to bring him in or want him to be the quarterback on this team, I would welcome him with open arms.” As yet, head coach Josh McDaniels and general manager Dave Ziegler — both new to their jobs — haven’t added Kaepernick to a QB room that includes Carr and backups Nick Mullens and Garrett Gilbert.
Why doesn’t Davis just urge his braintrust to pick up the phone? “I think Colin is a very misunderstood human being,” Davis said. “I’ve gotten a chance to talk to him. I never really knew Colin, and I didn’t understand him. I didn’t understand the kneeling, what that meant initially. Over time, I have learned a little bit more about it.”
Thursday night, despite dazzling Vegas digs, the NFL Draft will lack its usual pizzazz for a specific reason: a dearth of elite quarterbacks. Kenny Pickett’s hands, as you might have heard, are unusually small by league standards. Malik Willis isn’t refined enough to start yet. And those might be your only first-rounders. When Goodell calls the names of edge rushers, offensive linemen, defensive backs and receivers, you’ll ask what happened to the Great American Quarterback.
Colin Kaepernick no longer is great, assuredly. But he’s American, and in this country, he shouldn’t be barred from working because he took a stand against racism. He won. The haters lost. Life carried on.
Why must they continue to hate?
Jay Mariotti, called “without question the most impacting Chicago sportswriter of the past quarter-century,’’ writes general sports columns for Substack while appearing on some of the 1,678,498 podcasts and shows in production today. He is an accomplished columnist, TV panelist and talk/podcast host. Living in Los Angeles, he gravitated by osmosis to film projects.