Sage Rosenfels is a former 12-year NFL quarterback who writes, does radio, and podcasts about the NFL and college football.
Last weekend, Donald Trump stated that Colin Kaepernick hasn’t been signed by NFL teams because, possibly, they are worried about getting a phone call from the 45th President of the United States himself. This set off a firestorm on Twitter, and again, Kaepernick became a national story. I’m going to try and break down the scenario from a football standpoint only.
First, the most important question is whether Kaepernick is good enough to be on an NFL roster. The easy answer is absolutely. If being on an NFL roster means you are one of the best 70 quarterbacks in the world, Kap certainly is among that group. Though he isn’t a future Hall Of Famer, which a few “analysts” suggested was the case after he brought the 49ers to the Super Bowl in his second season; he is certainly a respectable quarterback in the NFL. There have been a few QB’s signed since free agency began who aren’t as good as Kap. This is the easiest question of all to answer.
Is he starter material? As in, is he among the best 32 quarterbacks in the game? This is a more appropriate question to ask. If he would have stood during “The Star-Spangled Banner,” my guess is half of the NFL’s general managers would have said “yes” and the other half would have disagreed. Add the distractions and that number probably shrinks.
In my opinion, he is most definitely one of the top 32, and here’s why: Just look at his stats. Even in his first season as a full-time starter – in which everyone thought he and Cam Newton were the future of the NFL – Kaepernick didn’t put up great numbers. In the following years, his play declined. Obviously, he was at his best under Jim Harbaugh, but then multiple things occurred. Harbaugh left for Michigan, half the players on the 49ers’ roster retired or left, and the 49ers had new head coaches in back-to-back years. San Francisco immediately went into the cellar, but honestly, Kap’s play did not. Last year, he had a solid year on a disaster of a team, which was an improvement over the previous two seasons.
I have mentioned before that the win/loss record of a quarterback can be overrated (Osweiler in 2015). Kaepernick’s team had a disappointing season, but he did throw 16 touchdowns to only four interceptions with a 90-plus quarterback rating. A quarterback with these types of numbers is giving his team a chance to win every week. Remember, this league is all about turnovers. We hear it from head coaches nearly every single game throughout the season. A quarterback who has a 4:1 TD/INT ratio is giving his team the opportunity to be successful.
On the flip side, he isn’t carrying the team on his back either. NFL teams are looking for quarterbacks who can be the focus of the offense, not just a part of it. Kap’s best years were when the 49ers had one of the best defenses in the league, as well as a strong running attack with Frank Gore. Kap’s ability to play to his and his team’s strengths made him valuable. That 49ers team won because of their defense, led by Patrick Willis and Justin Smith, as well as Harbaugh’s “college” system, which took advantage of Kap’s ability to run. Since so many teams struggled to stop San Fran’s run game, they played an extra safety close to the box. This meant a lot of 1-on-1 on the outside. Kap, who does have a strong arm, didn’t have to be overly complicated in his reads and progressions. The 49ers rarely faced third-and-long situations so their QB wasn’t depended on to make the toughest throws. This certainly hurt Kaepernick’s long-term pocket passing development, but was extremely effective for the success of that team.
Once teams started to figure out how to defend Harbaugh’s spread attack, Kaepernick was less effective. As the 49ers’ roster turned over and became depleted, and as they installed two new offenses, their team became the laughing stock of the NFC West.
But … Kaepernick didn’t play that badly. No, he wasn’t a Pro-Bowl caliber quarterback, but if he played at the same level on a talented team, such as the Broncos, we wouldn’t be having this conversation. If I had to guess, I’d say Kap played as well as the 20th- to 25th-best quarterbacks in the NFL. That’s good enough to be a starter, and at worst a high-priced backup. But the stars have to align.
Since I’ve determined he is good enough to be a valuable asset to most teams, the next question is this: What role is Kaepernick trying to find? If he is looking for big money, I don’t see any teams interested in having him be their opening-day starter without competition. So, he isn’t going to make Mike Glennon money. I believe he is in the area of a $4-million-to-$6-million quarterback based on the fact he’d be one of the best backups in the league, and could push a low-level starter. Josh McCown just got $6 million from the Jets, and Kap would give a team a better chance to win week in and week out than McCown. That’s a fact.
Monday morning, Brian Billick brought up a great point on NFL Network. He said that near the end of his career, Randall Cunningham was brought in to be the backup to Brad Johnson in Minnesota. The biggest question was would Cunningham accept that role? Very quickly, Cunningham made it known that he’d embrace the backup role and was therefore signed on that premise. He ended up starting and having a great year anyway. But his acceptance as a team player is what allowed him to be signed in the first place.
This should be Kaepernick’s approach. Get a good backup contract and be the best dang teammate possible. If the situation changes, go play well and help the team win. That’s the backup’s job. With the lack of quality backups in the NFL, having a player with Kaepernick’s skill set and experience would be valuable to nearly every team. Approximately half of the teams pay their backups well, so his market shrinks. Add that to the teams who don’t want his distractions and his market becomes even smaller.
From the teams’ perspective, one of the main questions is “is he worth the distraction?” This is an important piece of the puzzle. Many have compared the situation to the distraction that came with the celebrity of Tim Tebow. There are multiple differences in this comparison. One, Tebow’s distraction wasn’ft because of negative press. It was primarily based off his infamy amongst SEC fans because of his success at Florida, as well as his ability to inspire people. But on the field, the guy was not an NFL quarterback. Two of the best QB guru GMs and coaches in the NFL, John Elway and Bill Belichick, didn’t think he was an NFL-caliber quarterback. If you want to know the quality of the beef, ask the best butchers in town. Off-the-field distractions weren’t Tebow’s problem, it was his ability to play the position. Nobody wants a backup QB who could be a headache, but Tebow wasn’t even a backup QB.
Another concern for NFL teams is Kap’s commitment to the game. While players are free to do whatever they please on their own time, as long as it’s not illegal, most NFL teams have old-school thinking. They prefer the gym rat, who is obsessed with the game, over someone who is spending time on other causes – even if they are charity based. Yes, Tebow had this issue with some of his missionary work, just as Kap is having issues with his outspokenness and charity work. Both have used their fame for causes to help those in far-off places, and the media coverage is part of this “distraction” which might bother teams. I know, crazy right??? Welcome to the NFL.
So are owners “blackballing” Kaepernick because they disagree with his non-football related attention? Only they would know. The real question is this: “Can he play in the NFL?” He can, but he needs one team to agree. If that team isn’t bothered by his distraction, he could be signed soon. If he is holding out for starter type money, like Cutler or Romo may be doing, he probably won’t be signed any time soon, and this has nothing to do with his off-the-field activities.
Every spring is domino season in the NFL. This situation should play itself out in the coming months. Teams may be waiting to get through the draft. There are still a few veteran quarterbacks out on the market. Timing is everything and there may be a few more dominoes that need to fall before we get to the one with Colin Kaepernick’s name on it.
But, with teams wanting quarterbacks at the increasingly important OTA sessions, I imagine we will know by then if Kapernick’s protests have affected his ability to get a job. Even if this were the case, we will never know if he is unsigned because of the President’s “pressure on the owners.” An NFL owner admitting he was persuaded by the President Trump is not going to happen. But the owners as a group are averse to distractions.
(Photos courtesy: Action Images)