I have tried to avoid writing this piece for nearly a year. Since Colin Kaepernick was first noticed sitting on the bench for the national anthem last season and questioned about it, the media frenzy around him has been unrelenting. Regardless of how many people joined his protest, or made their own in other ways because of his example, it has been his cross to bear, and his alone.
When he opted out of his contract at the end of last season I thought it was a brave move that could end up costing him his career but not because of the protest, or his “outspoken” nature. Because, quite frankly, he’s not that good.
At this point, my arguments are unlikely to swing anyone. Views have become extremely entrenched, people are either convinced that the NFL is out to prevent Kaepernick from ever working again, or that he isn’t good. There have even been calls across social media to boycott football until Kaepernick is signed.
Let’s start with the basic stats of Kaepernick before we dig a little deeper.
The career numbers
He has a career completion percentage of 59.8%. That doesn’t sound too bad right? Well just slotting that number into 2016’s standings puts him at 25 in the league. Or, 0.3% more accurate than Trevor Siemian and 0.8% better than Brock Osweiler, who you may remember was taped to a second round pick and thrown at Cleveland as hard as possible after the season.
He has a career QB-rating of 88.9. Sounds high! Except among 2016 quarterbacks it would be 19th, not even top half of the league.
It’s not like he’s an overwhelming talent. It should come as no surprise that teams were not clamoring to sign him. Let’s compare him to two other available quarterbacks who didn’t get quarterback jobs before draft day either, Jay Cutler and Tony Romo.
Both have a better completion percentage than Kaepernick. Cutler has turnover and injury problems, Romo has injury problems but also elite numbers when on the field. Both have their own issues and unique circumstances, but they too failed to get work in their preferred field. Why?
It’s not so easy to just sign a quarterback. Firstly, the going rate for a quarterback is about $4.5 million a year, but that includes third string rookies making less than $1 million. Let’s take them out of the equation and look, more realistically, about the kind of contract Kaepernick could expect to see.
Mike Glennon signed a $15 million per year free agent deal with the Chicago Bears this year, Alex Smith, widely regarded as the best bad quarterback in the league, is making $17 million this year.
If you’re signing Kaepernick to be a starter, that’s the kind of cap investment you have to make. And the truth is very few teams can do that. Teams are either invested in a quarterback already, so stacking money on top of that at the position, such as the Jaguars and Blake Bortles, makes no sense, or they aren’t trying to win at all like the Jets.
After the Jay Cutler signing, the active roster cap hit for the QB position, by team, is $17.7 million. Those paying less than that either have a legendary quarterback taking a team-friendly deal (Tom Brady & the Patriots) or guys on rookie deals. Dallas, Denver, the Rams, Houston, Philadelphia… All have invested draft picks, time, and coaching resources, in their guys. We can all sit here and say that Jared Goff is bad, that the Jags should move on from Bortles, but it is financially very difficult to get out from a quarterback’s contract early. Just ask the Houston Texans.
I’ve seen plenty of people say “Colin Kaepernick took a team to a Super Bowl, how can he not have a job?!” and use the early success he had in San Francisco as evidence for institutional racism and collusion against him. It’s one of the most ridiculous points I’ve ever heard.
The 2012 San Francisco 49ers had a great defense, a strong offensive line, a good ground game, and went 6-2-1 under Alex Smith before he got a concussion and Kaepernick had to come in. Now there is no doubt that he played well, but as a passer he was barely better than Alex Smith. Here are their 2012 stats:
Kaepernick’s bigger arm led to more yards, and his legs added even more, but Smith was extremely effective as well, thanks to the team around them.
But that team is long gone, broken up into the wind of the league. Jim Harbaugh is in Michigan, Mike Iupati is in Arizona, and half the defense has retired. As that team broke up, so did Kaepernick’s performance.
He excelled in a time when the NFL offense was tailored to his skill set. The read-option was in vogue. Russell Wilson and Cam Newton were using it to great effect in Seattle and Carolina, and Harbaugh was no different in exploiting the unpreparedness of NFL defenses for read-options and variations of it. The adoption of Nevada’s pistol package helped open all sorts of lanes for Kaepernick and allowed the 49ers to get around his Achilles heel – reading defenses and going through progressions.
But as with the wildcat before it, NFL defensive coaches soon caught up and began to take away read option lanes. Some teams, like Green Bay, were slow on the uptake and still got burned by Kaepernick’s feet, but for the most part it was quickly wiped out by defensive coordinators.
With the designed runs drying up, the great offensive line breaking apart, and the defense weakening, the pressure came on Kaepernick’s right arm and he quite simply couldn’t do it.
His highest yards total is just 3,369. Trevor Siemian, whose team actively chased Tony Romo in the offseason, got 3,401 in 14 games last year. So why should they be after Kaepernick again? He has proven over his career to be a one-read and run quarterback, and like Tim Tebow, Pat White, and Terrelle Pryor before him, it’s proven to not be a popular or successful option in the current NFL.
That limitation, the need for a unique system tailored to him, also prevents him from being a backup somewhere. He can’t come in and run Andy Reid’s west coast, he can’t run a million checks like Tom Brady or be a pocket distributor like Matt Ryan. It’s why Adam Gase went and got Jay Cutler, because with Tannehill out Cutler can seamlessly take over and run the same playbook. Kaepernick simply can’t.
I will admit that Kaepernick brings baggage with him. As a non-American, the reaction to his silent, non-violent, and unobtrusive protest was fascinating. I understand why some teams, even if they needed a quarterback, would not be interested in him. Jeff Fisher even opened up training camp for the Rams last year, as documented on HBO’s Hard Knocks, discussing how the team would line up and present itself for the national anthem. The protest does not seem very ‘Patriots Way’, or in-line with expected sensibilities of the old, white, people that own football teams.
However, that does not mean the 32 owners, together with their personnel bosses and head coaches got together in a room and came to a decision that they would blackball him.
If Colin Kaepernick had not protested and simply been released this offseason then I don’t think anyone would have really noticed or cared. While the NFL has been a quarterback-crazed league for a while now, and the plaudits for San Francisco’s success went to him, it was really a perfect storm of coaching, a deep roster, and a trending play. Without those factors Kaepernick was long ago exposed as barely average, and a barely average quarterback is more of a hinderance than a benefit in the NFL these days.
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