First off, what you’re about to read has zero to do with Colin Kaepernick’s protest of the National Anthem. For proof, here’s an article that I wrote in March 2016, before the protest, saying that Kaepernick would be out of the NFL before he won another 10 games as a starter.
That forecast appears to be coming true, because Kaepernick can’t even find work as a backup. And it’s mostly due to the same reason he couldn’t find work as a starter: teams don’t think he’s good enough. Twitter went up in arms earlier today when I tweeted this:
Let me amend myself—there are actually 15 backup quarterbacks better than Kaepernick, and that doesn’t even include rookies Mitchell Trubisky, Patrick Mahomes, Deshaun Watson, DeShone Kizer and Davis Webb.
The list, in no particular order:
Jimmy Garoppolo, Patriots
Matt Moore, Dolphins
Colt McCoy, Washington
A.J. McCarron, Bengals
Chad Henne, Jaguars
Geno Smith, Giants
Drew Stanton, Cardinals
Brock Osweiler/Cody Kessler, Browns
Chase Daniel, Saints
Derek Anderson, Panthers
Nick Foles, Eagles
Ryan Mallett, Ravens
Matt Barkley, 49ers
Landry Jones, Steelers
Matt Cassel, Titans
Kaepernick is talented enough to be an NFL backup. In fact, I think he’s better than almost half of the backup QB in the league, but that’s it. With zero hesitation, I would take any of the 15 backups I listed before I’d take Kaepernick, because those 15 quarterbacks are all willing and able to play from the pocket. A few of them have even shown they can make throws from a cluttered pocket. That’s a trait most starters have and one Kaepernick is nowhere near possessing.
Inside the NFL, this is where 90% of the discussion about Kaepernick begins and ends. Playing from the pocket is not a quarterbacking attribute; it’s a prerequisite. If a team’s QB can’t play from the pocket, the vast majority of the play designs won’t work. Coaches can’t draw up plays that call for the quarterback to break down, run around and hopefully find an open guy. Today’s defenses are too good for that.
Is Kaepernick capable of dropping back and releasing the ball at the top of his drop? Sure, but usually only when the play design has an either/or read—when Kaepernick has just one or two receivers to consider and doesn’t have to read the entire field or full coverage. But even on these, Kaepernick tends to get off track in his dropback with unsettling regularity. He’ll move needlessly, creating pressure that wouldn’t have existed. Or at the very least, his needless movement will get him out of sync with the timing of his receivers’ routes.
Also, when Kaepernick moves, he ceases to be a throwing threat. Watch Tom Brady—he moves with subtly and nuance, his eyes stay downfield and he almost never sacrifices his readiness to throw. Watch Aaron Rodgers—he moves a lot, sometimes unnecessarily, but he never sacrifices his readiness to throw. Stylistically, most NFL starters are like this. (The Bradys and Rodgerses of the world, of course, do it at a much higher level.)
Kaepernick, on the other hand, brings the ball down, gets out of his throwing stance, takes his eyes to the pass rush and immediately assumes a runner’s mindset. Sometimes after this, he’ll try to go back into a passer’s mindset, which means taking his eyes back to the field and spontaneously reevaluating a defensive look that has now changed and that he hadn’t fully processed in the first place.
Imagine playing wide receiver with a quarterback like this. Or blocking for that guy. You have no chance at establishing rhythm. The timing and detail that you’ve practiced over and over goes out the window.
Exacerbating matters, Kaepernick is not a proficient passer on the move. A coach of his once told me, “He only has one club in his golf bag.” What the coach meant was Kaepernick can throw fastballs, but only fastballs. When he nails those, they look as good as anything you’ll see. His arm can be incredible. But touch passes? Anticipation passes? They’re not in his bag.
Kaepernick is a talented athlete. (Though it’s worth noting that his athleticism was significantly diminished by rapid weight loss last offseason. Teams are surely wondering whether he’ll ever recapture it.) But he’s not a talented quarterback. His weaknesses happen to be the very weaknesses that an NFL quarterback can least afford to have.
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I know what you’ll say next: In 2012, Kaepernick went to the Super Bowl! Yes. It was on an uber-talented 49ers team, and Kaepernick stepped in midseason. His style of play was extremely unconventional, especially considering 2012 was the year the read-option burst onto the scene. Defenses had not seen a quarterback like him and, in the middle of the season, they didn’t have time to figure out a full response.
But after the Super Bowl, teams had time to study Kaepernick and the rest of the league’s flawed-but-mobile quarterbacks, including Robert Griffin (who is also now unemployed—as that same March 2016 article predicted). The more of Kaepernick they saw, the more ways they found to exploit his failings. Not coincidentally, until last season, Kaepernick’s passer rating, TD-INT ratio, sack rating and yards per attempt declined steadily from 2013–15.
Last season’s statistical rebound was mostly artificial. The Niners went 1–10 in games that Kaepernick started, and each week, the tape revealed a startling number of plays where Kaepernick’s read was clear, but he didn’t attempt the throw. This has always been an issue with Kaepernick, and it’s one that fans can never see on paper. There’s no way to statistically capture the impact of balls that should be thrown but aren’t.
To coaches, unattempted open throws are a huge problem, probably worse than everything except turnovers.
Each backup has his own limitations, but none of them have an utter inability to operate on schedule and from the pocket, like Kaepernick does. Are (most of) these guys great in the pocket? Of course not—that’s why they’re backups. But stylistically, they’re all capable of consistent pocket quarterbacking. The last thing a coach wants to do is rewrite his offense for a backup QB. When the backup is in, your hope is to continue running the bulk of your system. Kaepernick’s unique but flawed style does not fit many systems. The closest one would be Seattle’s, and the Seahawks decided this week that they’d rather have Austin Davis.
Maybe this indirectly takes us to the anthem protest. The fallout from the protest has made Kaepernick a distraction, not because of what he did, but because of the attention that follows him for it. Most people in the NFL probably have no problem with Kaepernick’s protest. They may not have liked it, but they accepted his right to do it and his commitment to the movement. Still, because of it, Kaepernick, who was already polarizing to begin with, has become a lightning rod. To sign Kaepernick, a team must be willing to take on the distraction that follows lightning rods. And the team must be willing to alter its entire offense (for worse). It’s not worth it, just like it wasn’t worth it a few years ago with Tim Tebow.
Tebow, in fact, was virtually the exact same scenario as Kaepernick, only more extreme. Tebow’s supporters were more ardent than Kaepernick’s, and Tebow was a markedly worse QB. NFL teams don’t care which end of the spectrum the distraction comes from. They only care that the backup quarterback brings any sort of distraction. But more than that, they care that the quarterback can’t play the way they need him to play.