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

2:27 | NFL
The MMQB Fan Poll: Why Is Colin Kaepernick Still Unemployed?
Thursday August 31st, 2017

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.
Otto Gruele Jr./Getty Images

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.”

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• 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.

First and 10: On Joe Haden, DeShone Kizer, Johnny Manziel and More

The Browns are handing the ball to rookie quarterback DeShone Kizer to start in Week 1.
Cliff Welch/Icon SMI/Icon Sport Media via Getty Images

1. You can read my Wednesday column on why the Browns cut Joe Haden, but to spin this one forward … what’s really interesting about Pittsburgh bringing him in? How about the idea that it might signal Artie Burns’ public wish coming true. Burns has advocated for the Steelers to play more man defense; Haden may be a No. 2 now, but he’s played a ton of man over the years.

2. As for the other big decision Cleveland made this week—to go with DeShone Kizer—you have to give the rookie quarterback credit for killing the preconceived notions there were about him when he arrived in Cleveland. His positive, can-do nature, and ability to learn quickly, were definite factors in what turned him from simply the team’s most talented QB in May to its starter in August.

3. The NFLPA clearly doesn’t trust the NFL’s appeals procedures, and given that Jeffrey Kessler is involved, it’s a good bet that Ezekiel Elliott will be taking his case to court. If he does, whether his legal team can get an injunction to stay the suspension will determine if Elliott plays this year. To get it, his legal team has to prove two things: 1) Elliott will suffer irreparable harm by serving it, and 2) he has a reasonable chance to win. Believe it or not, the latter will a much tougher thing to prove.

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4. Bruce Arians has forgotten more about quarterbacking than most of us will ever know, but I’m gonna take a buyer beware approach on his praise of Blaine Gabbert. The Niners felt the same way last summer, in part because he’s the type of guy who looks great in mesh shorts, but has struggled when its counted.

5. I’m not convinced that Blake Bortles is going to hold the starting job in Jacksonville for a extended period of time. And yet, I think it makes sense for the Jags to exhaust every avenue to make sure that their instinct to begin to separate from him earlier in the month was well-guided. They’ve invested too much to give up on a guy if there’s any sort of chance for a breakout.

6. We don’t say this often, but good on Johnny Manziel for trying out for the Hamilton Tiger-Cats. You hear a lot of players talk about how much they love football, but then show no desire to take their game to Canada, or to any other league, to try and revive a career. That Manziel is willing to tells me that football remains an enormous part of his life.

7. We mentioned the Niners’ progress a few weeks ago, and that’s come to be on the game field the last few weeks. And that especially goes for Reuben Foster, who looks like an absolute heat-seeker at linebacker. Barring injury and off-field issues, he should be a Pro Bowler before too long.

8. The potential that the Broncos could move on from TJ Ward ahead of the final year of his contract seems strange on the surface. But they like their young guys, rising sophomores Justin Simmons and Will Parks, at the position, and this might be a better-a-year-too-early-than-a-year-too-late situation.

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9. No mistake that the Bills reward Eric Wood (with a new deal) and punished Marcel Dareus (sending him home from last weekend’s game in Baltimore) one after the other. These are culture moves by Brandon Beane and Sean McDermott, and about buy-in from the players—same as walking away from Sammy Watkins and Ronald Darby.

10. College football season kicks off this weekend, and there are a ton of great matchups. Want an under-the-radar one to keep an eye on? Iowa is one of just two Power 5 conference opponents that Wyoming will play this year, before bowl season. And so if you want to see a game that scouts will be watching intently, to see how uber-talented Cowboys QB Josh Allen has come along, be sure to tune into Big Ten Network at noon Eastern on Saturday.

Four Downs: Chicago Bears Remain Enamored With Rookie Mitch Trubisky

Thursday August 31st, 2017
Rookie Mitch Trubisky has looked the part during his first preseason in the NFL.
Joe Robbins/Getty Images

1. Tru love in Chicago. The Bears were plenty optimistic about Mitch Trubisky’s future already, but the rookie has given them more reason by the week. In each game they’ve seen something that’s buoyed their confidence in him. And we’ve got another example from Sunday’s game against the Titans. 

With 4:14 left, and facing a third-and-12, Trubisky took a snap from the shotgun. Titans rookie safety Denzel Johnson came free on a blitz. Trubisky calmly moved to protect the ball while sidestepping him, then broke the pocket to the right, ran down the line, and laced one, off-balance, 15 yards downfield and between the “8” and the “0” on Victor Cruz’s jersey. Cruz dropped the ball, but the impression Trubisky made in showing poise, again, under duress remained. As one staffer put it, “It’s like every time out, he does one more thing where you say, ‘that was really good.’” 

The numbers tell you part of the story: Trubisky has completed 70 percent of his throws for 354 yards, three touchdowns, zero interceptions and 112.7 passer rating. The rest may be harder to see, but it’s coming. In May, Trubisky had to learn to take a snap from center, and spit out a playcall in the huddle, since those were things he’d never been asked to do before. Now? He’s showing the ability he did at North Carolina to go through progressions, and maintain great accuracy. And he’s made great progress in the areas where he’s needed to grow—even showing proficiency in running the offense from the line of scrimmage, which he was never asked to do in college. 

As John Fox said this week, Mike Glennon is still the starter. But know this: The Bears wouldn’t be skittish about playing Trubisky like they may have been a month or two ago, and the staff will come up with a plan to continue his development in-season, likely by figuring creative ways to get him reps with the starters, in addition to his scout-team work, during game weeks. Clearly, the dynamic here has changed a little bit and that’s a credit to the work the rookie has done.

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2. Texans pulling together. The number will probably have changed again by the time you read this, but when I went to bed early Thursday morning, Texans star JJ Watt had raised over $8.6 million to help those affected by Hurricane Harvey—three days after setting an initial goal to bring $200,000 to the relief effort. And the great thing is that it feels Watt’s work has been a bellwether for the entire organization rallying to help each other and the city.

The plan for now is for the team to participate in outreach efforts Thursday night—the players are likely to visit children in an area shelter—in place of the game that they were slated to play against the Cowboys. More of that sort of thing is in the works for Saturday, as well. And on Sunday, the whole organization has been invited to volunteer with Watt and help unload trucks packed with supplies that will be arriving from the three-time defensive player of the year’s native Wisconsin.

Meanwhile, there are plenty of guys who will be taking care of their own situations. Scores of players, coaches and staff have had their families evacuated from their homes, and are experiencing the bad fortune that a lot of us are only seeing on TV. Linebacker Brian Peters had two feet of water in his house. Head trainer Geoff Kaplan’s family had to be rescued by boat, with alligators—yes, alligators—confirmed to be lurking in the waters around the house. And defensive coordinator Mike Vrabel’s wife, Jen, opened the family’s home to about 15 of their storm-affected sons’ friends.

No doubt, there’ll be plenty of stories to come like these over the next few days, both good and bad. What’s for certain now is that the worst of times have brought out the best in a lot of people that work in that building. “We have a great group of guys,” coach Bill O’Brien said, via text Wednesday night. “They’ve concentrated on football when we asked them to, and then supported each other during time off. We have coaches’ families and players’ families that needed to be evacuated—we’re all home now and we’ll begin preparation for Jacksonville and also do our part to help the people of Houston as much as we can.”

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3. Mahomes getting in his work, too. Of all the rookie quarterbacks, things seem to be quietest around Kansas City’s Patrick Mahomes. That makes sense since his chances of starting were probably bleakest of the four guys who were drafted in the first 50 picks. Coming from Texas Tech, his learning curve was steep, for sure, but he also landed with a playoff team that had a veteran going into his fifth year as starter there. And nothing has changed there, of course. Alex Smith will be Andy Reid’s starter next Thursday in Foxboro. But that doesn’t mean progress hasn’t come.

The biggest area where it’s been visible to coaches has been in Mahomes’ ability to recognize what the defense is throwing at him. As one coach explained it to me, Mahomes would break the huddle in May and just see 11 defenders. At this point, in late August, he’s identifying the front, and the number of defensive backs and linebackers and defensive linemen on the field, while also taking steps in making protection calls. And there’s also fundamental work happening, with the coaches focused on revamping his footwork. There’s a ways to go there, as he gets more comfortable taking a snap from center—he’s had to learn basics like separating after getting the ball, so you don’t get stepped on by a lineman—and learns to time up his drops with receivers’ routes.

All of this is to say that Mahomes has come as advertised. He’s a gym rat, and a willing player, but one that would take some time. He’ll start Thursday night in the Chiefs’ preseason finale. The staff wants him to have the experience of going through the game day process as starter, which he’ll get. Then, barring a disaster in front of him on the depth chart, Mahomes will fade into the background for the rest of the season, getting his reps on the scout team and doing the same classroom work that every quarterback does. Based on his first four months in the building, there’s every reason to believe he’ll handle that fine.

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4. Hardest thing for New England to replace. I don’t think the Patriots’ win/loss record will be effected much by the loss of Julian Edelman, nor do I think it will lead to any sort of statistical decline for Tom Brady, even if it did during the seven-game stretch the team played without their slot machine (out with a broken foot then) in 2015. But that doesn’t mean I don’t think it’ll effect that team and its quarterback.

Just look at the two iconic Super Bowl catches Edelman made to help beat the Seahawks (he caught the ball while taking a kill shot from Seattle enforcer Kam Chancellor) and Falcons (he plucked a deflection off the ground). In both cases, Brady was on the biggest of stages, playing from behind, with very little margin for error. And yet, both times, he threw the ball right into traffic, because he trusted Edelman to come away with it. That’s a trust that’s not easy to come by and isn’t there by mistake.

“Brady and Jules have an unbelievable connection and both work constantly to things together the same way,” texted one rival coach who knows them both. “That is going to be hard to replace, it may just be (Rob Gronkowski), (Danny) Amendola and (James) White that have it now.” Another former co-worker on the two, this one a player, mentioned how the whole offense had taken on Edelman’s personality over the years—competitive, edgy and spoiling for a fight—and said he felt that would be tough to replace, as well.

So will you see it? I don’t think it’ll be obvious during the regular season. The Patriots are too good, and too adept at adjusting. But when we get to January and potentially February, it’ll be interesting to see where the ball goes when things are dialed up, with Edelman out of the mix.

Lesson of the Week: Matthew Stafford Contract Extension Was Inevitable

Thursday August 31st, 2017
Thanks to his recent contract extension, Matthew Stafford is now the highest paid player in NFL history.
Leon Halip/Getty Images

Repeat after me: Paying. Matthew. Stafford. Was. A. No. Brainer.

Let’s not make this harder than it actually is.

Stafford had completed 67.2 percent of his passes for 3,224 yards, 21 touchdowns, five interceptions and a 100.5 passer rating through 12 games last year, then tore ligaments in and dislocated the middle finger on his throwing hand, and played through that. He’s 29, and plays a position where three 30-somethings have won NFL MVP over the past four years. It’s easy to make the case that he’s still ascending.

Based on that, I’m not sure what anyone expected Detroit to do other than lock him up. Wait for the next Tom Brady or Aaron Rodgers to fall out of the sky? Bottom out for a high draft pick, and hope you have it in the right year? Do that, and the likelihood is someone else will be doing the picking before you get it right.

Conversely, if you’re stable at the position, as Detroit has been the past nine years, it colors every other decision you make, and facilitates building, which isn’t lost on the man who was on the other side of the negotiating table.

“Stability at the position is hard to find, no question,” GM Bob Quinn told me Wednesday night. “And the position is becoming increasingly difficult to scout in college football with the high percentage of teams using a version of a spread offense. You really draft quarterback traits and hope they transfer to the NFL game.”

Because he inherited Stafford, Quinn doesn’t have to follow his own advice. And he doesn’t really want to be in that position either.

As for the price, eventually, people will be at peace with the fact that quarterbacks are paid differently from everyone else. And the highest paid of them will usually be the most recent good ones to get contracts or extensions. In fact, it’ll probably be Kirk Cousins in a few months.

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And if you really want to break it down, it’s easy to argue that Stafford actually took a discount. A 2017 tag ($26.4 million) and 2018 tag ($31.68 million) would add to $58.08 million. A third tag for him, in 2019, would cost Detroit $45.62 million. So the fact that he took $27 million per year when he very well could’ve played the tag game—like Cousins and the Redskins—and made a lot more should show why the deal he did do is actually very reasonable.

Now, Stafford and the Lions can move forward and build together.

“I’m really happy we were able to get this done prior to the start of the season,” Quinn said. “We never put a deadline on it, but this allows us to concentrate on the season with no distractions. These types of deals are not easy to do, but it came together pretty quickly in the end, and it took a lot of work on both sides. Happy to have our quarterback here through 2022.”

Quinn, of course, saw the benefit of quarterback stability during all those years he spent in New England. He knows you can’t put a price on it.

And maybe Stafford’s not Tom Brady, which makes him a lot like pretty much every other good quarterback in the NFL—needing the right mix of coaches and players and system to succeed. The good news is, with this piece of business out of the way, it’ll be easier for the Lions to get going in earnest at building that for him.

• Question or comment? Email us at talkback@themmqb.com.

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