Colin Kaepernick Blackball? NFL Team Executives Explain Why That Theory Doesn’t Stand Up

Decision-makers for four different teams with quarterback question marks address the reasons why they never really considered employing the ex-Niners quarterback
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The term has been used so liberally the past several months that I felt like it’d behoove me—and the readers here—to actually look up the definition of  “blackball.” Thanks to Merriam-Webster for furnishing it:

1. To vote against; especially, to exclude from membership by casting a negative vote.
2. To exclude socially, ostracize or boycott.

The question of why Colin Kaepernick is unemployed has been hotly debated since he opted out of his Niners’ contract in early March (something he did to get ahead of their plan to release him) and became an unrestricted free agent. I’ve been consistent on this one—and it’s not about what I think, but I what know, having spoken with someone with just about every team in the league about it over that time.

But as The MMQB continues its coverage of the anthem protests across the NFL, and Kaepernick’s place in the debate, and looked for a new way to approach this story, I wanted to go to the teams and ask why they individually decided to stay away. I went to teams that would have had reason to kick the tires on backup or stopgap starter-level quarterbacks, and granted anonymity in pursuit of honesty.

And so we’re going to bring you the reasons a number of these teams decided it was unnecessary to even go to ownership with the possibility of signing Kaepernick, not so much to prove the point I’ve been trying to make, but rather to illustrate why his situation is more complicated than many want to concede.

Colin Kaepernick is not expected to be in a uniform on an NFL sideline when the regular season begins next week.

Colin Kaepernick is not expected to be in a uniform on an NFL sideline when the regular season begins next week.

In this week’s Game Plan, we’ll check back on the Bears and how their plan for and perception of Mitch Trubisky has shifted after his big preseason; see how the draft’s forgotten quarterback is faring so far; explain why the Lions did not in any way overpay for Matthew Stafford; take a look at how the Texans have pulled together in their city’s time of crisis; and check in on the trade and free-agent markets ahead of the cutdown.

We start with the Kaepernick story that won’t go away, and why it’s lasted as long as it has. The main thing I learned? Teams didn’t have many internal discussions about Kaepernick. The level of interest in him as a player was such that the football people I talked to never even brought it to their owners to discuss whether or not his social stances were going to be a problem for them.

Here’s a sampling from four teams …

• Executive 1:“It’s not something we discussed, so to talk about reasoning, we’re talking hypotheticals. … Certainly he’s good enough to be a backup. … But we have a good No. 2, a guy that fits our system that we have familiarity with. He’s here for the same reason that [Dolphins coach] Adam Gase goes back to [Jay] Cutler. We know exactly what we’re going to get from the guy. Physically, Kaepernick’s more talented, but familiarity with a backup at that position, knowing exactly what you’re going to get, is more important than the ‘wow’ factor. … It’s like with [Robert Griffin III]; you had him playing a certain way, and he was a hell of a player. But as soon as defenses figured out what they were, and a specific way to play them, that’s where they had to be able to start to win from the pocket. If you can’t do that in this league, it’s tough.”

• Executive 2: “From our end, it never got down to [going to the owner]. To me, the protests, all that, it wasn’t even a factor for us. It was the ability to fit within our offense. He doesn’t throw the ball great, he’s more of an on-the-move, zone-read type of quarterback. He needs to be in a specific system. For us, it was a system thing. What he does well is totally outside what most teams do. And so here’s my question: I understand the Kaepernick deal, why it’s news, but nobody’s talking about RG3? I know since it’s Kaepernick, it’s what sells, but the problem that RG3 has getting a job is the same as Kaepernick for a lot of teams.”

As Anthem Protests Expand, Fans Speak Out Strongly, Pro and Con

• Executive 3:“I don’t like the guy as a player. I don’t think he can play. I didn’t think he could play at Reno, I don’t think he can play now. … You don’t think if he was a good player, 20 teams would be lining up? …  He’s inaccurate, inconsistent reading defenses. He needs everything to be perfect around him, and he needs to run a certain offense. When he was rolling, they had an unbelievable defense and a great running game with an amazing offensive line. Everything was perfect. And you consider that, why isn’t there a debate about RG3? He just wasn’t a consideration.”

• Coach:“No. 1, he was perfect for San Francisco. They were willing to build around him, which he needs. He’s not a pocket passer. So if you bring him in as a backup, and you’re not Seattle or Carolina, and you don’t have those things built in, it’s like you’re running a different offense with your 1s and your 2s. Mike Shanahan had a great theory on this—he wanted to draft Russell Wilson [in 2012], because if something happened to Robert [Griffin], the transition would be clean and easy. So Kaepernick almost has to be in a place where they’ll build a system for him, and teams don’t do that for backups. That’s why his name never even came up here.”

I spoke with three other teams where top officials didn’t want to delve too far into the issue but lined up with the others—any discussion on signing Kaepernick didn’t get very far. One thing that also was clear was that different circumstances were at play in each situation.

Now, it’s not as if there aren’t schematic fits. Carolina and Seattle were the two that the coach above mentioned, and Kansas City is another one. The issues? The Panthers value Derek Anderson as a resource to Cam Newton. The Seahawks dealt with a lot of noise this offseason and didn’t need more. And the Chiefs have Alex Smith, and the history between him and Kaepernick makes even the thought a non-starter.

That underscores how anything can make or break the chances of a quarterback getting a job. The idea of Cutler, for example, being a backup appealed to basically no teams in March and April. But as a starter for a team in need that had background with him? That’s different.

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And there’s no question that the anthem protest is a factor here, to be clear. But as the football people I spoke to (and have spoken to for the past half-year) see it, and this sounds harsh, the protests are just a piece of a complicated picture for a player who simply was deemed not to be worth the trouble.

“There’s been a lot of noise about this, obviously,” said an AFC executive. “But at the end of the day, we’re part of the ultimate meritocracy. So if someone feels like this guy can help win games, he’ll be in the league.”

So back to the definition of “blackball.” Would Kaepernick’s situation qualify? You can be the judge of that.