Colin Kaepernick is the most ballyhooed unemployed quarterback since Tim Tebow.
Let’s play scout: Kap is a quarterback who has consistently struggled to progress through his reads at the NFL level, with the 49ers reportedly simplifying playbooks to make the QB position more manageable for him. He has also had significant accuracy issues, hitting receivers in the feet from less than 10 yards away with alarming regularity.
Kaepernick has also had tremendous success, leading the 49ers (or at least helping lead them) to Super Bowl XLVII and setting playoff records with his legs. His running ability is still an asset, and while he has never set the world on fire with his passing acumen, he did finish last season with 16 TDs and just 2 INTs for an offense in crisis. Simply put, he’s a guy with apparent flaws but equally apparent abilities and legitimate pelts on the wall when it comes to NFL success.
I would not sign Kaepernick if I was an NFL GM who had competently managed the QB position in the preceding years to this one. Unfortunately, that describes less than one-third of current NFL GMs.
By my count, there are two teams in the NFL that have essentially zero use for Kap: the New England Patriots, who have Tom Brady starting and a young backup they love in Jimmy Garoppolo; and the Kansas City Chiefs, who have Alex Smith playing his best football and a first-round draft pick waiting in the wings.
There are a handful of teams with established starters and reasonable backups — the Raiders, Packers and Panthers to name a few — who have no particular need for Kaepernick, and a flagrant tanker or two (like the Jets and 49ers) who essentially gain nothing from improving at the QB position.
Everyone else has no excuse.
I probably don’t have to go through too many of them, because you have eyes and you’ve seen the carnage around the league with them, but indulge me a little. The Colts are currently starting Jacoby Brissett (a late-3rd-round QB who they had to trade a first-round WR for), and he may have some potential, but they began the season with Scott Tolzien, who definitely does not.
Meanwhile, the Cardinals persist with Carson Palmer, who I believe passed away in 2015, and Blaine Gabbert; the Bengals are torturing AJ Green by starting Andy Dalton; Jacksonville continues to trot Blake Bortles out; the Vikings had to go with Case Keenum this week; and the Browns turned to Kevin Hogan in the absence of rookie DeShone Kizer.
The most dramatic absurdity in the bunch is Tolzien, who has been in the league for years and consistently shown he’s not capable of playing at the NFL level. He’s older than Kaepernick, just as inaccurate and unsuccessful from the pocket.
Then, there’s the terrifying list of backup QBs, all just one ugly hit away from taking the reins. That group includes people you may never have heard of: Nathan Peterman (a Bills 5th-round rookie), Jake Rudock (a 6th-rounder in his second year, backing up Matt Stafford in Detroit), and Austin Davis (who started a bit for St. Louis in 2014 and now backs up Russell Wilson).
More upsetting, though, are the names you have heard of: The Giants are employing Geno Smith to back up Eli Manning (who honestly may not be better than Kaepernick at this point); if Marcus Mariota goes down again, the Titans will have to turn to Matt Cassel (who turned 35 this summer while you were wondering if he was still in the league); the Super Bowl-contending Atlanta Falcons actually have 36-year-old Matt Schaub (who has barely played since 2013 and hasn’t played well since 2012) backing up MVP Matt Ryan.
None of those guys has accomplished what Kaepernick has in the league. With a couple of potential exceptions among the group of youngsters, none of them has any qualities that would make them a more appealing option for the near future. In most cases, it’s utterly inarguable.
This is why the conversation has turned to the concept of a blackball — because there’s no logical reason that Kaepernick remains unemployed. It becomes even more curious when you see how many players around the NFL have adopted some form of the anthem protest that Kap famously pioneered last year.
Clearly, NFL teams are not simply refusing to sign players who won’t stand for the anthem. Equally clear, Kaepernick has more than enough ability to slide into an NFL depth chart. Anyone who has watched Weeks 1 and 2 can see that.
The fact that Kap is sitting at home despite saying that he wants to play and consistently reinforcing that he is not demanding big money has the strong stench of spite on the part of the league. It appears that the NFL as a whole is saying, “You forced us to reckon with real-world issues and the hypocrisy inherent to our way of doing business, and you will NOT get away with it.”
For a cabal like the NFL owners, all it takes to blackball a player is innuendo and back-channel hints. A raised eyebrow here, a well-placed frown there and it’s done, the message is conveyed — that muckraker is persona non grata.
Given that dozens of anthem protesters around the league are now more or less accepted and/or ignored, it’s hard to view the blackballing of Kaepernick as simply a response to his stance. What the NFL and its owners really hate is the image of a player standing out from the crowd and speaking his mind.
The league knows its fans will adapt to almost anything — an increased presence in the police blotter, a problematic concussion issue that has literally seen lives lost to neural degeneration, a sprawling weekly schedule that has led to some truly embarrassing mid-week football. (Don’t forget to tune in as the 49ers play the LA Rams this Thursday at Levi’s Stadium!) The reactions to anthem protests have already quieted considerably, and soon a few kneelers will be nothing more than a blip on the radar.
What is dangerous to an organization as control-obsessed as the NFL is players who think for themselves and challenge the established order of things. That’s what Kaepernick did — he looked at the world around him and recognized issues he cared about, and he spoke out, not only with a wildly effective anthem protest but also with his words (which have had mixed results but seem well-intended) and with his wallet (from which he has donated $900,000 of his $1 million pledge).
The phrase “protect the shield,” often parroted by NFL representatives, is an insidious M.O. — it’s code for a money-over-everything.
It’s why nobody can take Roger Goodell at his word or trust the league to manage any disciplinary situation with common sense. It’s why players with horrifying histories of violence and domestic abuse can find employment, but potheads cannot. And it’s why I am completely confident that what’s happening with Kaepernick is an actual blackball and not just 32 general managers independently agreeing that he’s not good enough.
Matt Kolsky is a sports media professional (or something like that) and lives with an aging Shih Tzu/Schnauser mix in Berkeley. You can hear his podcast, The Toy Department, on iTunes or wherever else fine podcasts are free. Find him on Twitter @thekolsky to share your personal feelings about this article or any other topic, he will respond to most tweets that do not contain racial slurs.