LOS ANGELES -- Former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick has not appeared in an NFL game since the 2016 season, a byproduct of his protest over police brutality and the national outrage those demonstrations generated. But as the public's perception of his decision to kneel shifts in the wake of recent high-profile killings of African Americans by police officers, so too has the league's willingness to bring Kaepernick back into the fold.
Earlier this month, Seattle Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll admitted regret for not signing Kaepernick in 2017. Meanwhile, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said during an ESPN interview that he would "support" any club looking to add Kaepernick to their roster and "encourage them to do so." Though Kaepernick remains a polarizing figure, the league no longer treats him as a persona non grata.
The latest step toward Kaepernick's potential return took place Wednesday when Los Angeles Chargers head coach Anthony Lynn openly discussed the possibility of bringing in the veteran signal-caller for a look.
"That's something that's probably on the workout list," Lynn says. "I haven't spoken with Colin, not sure where he's at as far as his career, what [he wants] to do. But Colin definitely fits the style of quarterback and the system that we're going to be running. I'm very confident and happy with the three quarterbacks that I have, but you can never have too many people waiting on the runway."
On paper, the Chargers do not appear to have the need or roster space for a free-agent quarterback. Tyrod Taylor, a veteran with several years of starting experience, will enter training camp in pole position to win the No. 1 job. The team also invested its first-round pick in Oregon signal-caller Justin Herbert, and while the rookie faces an uphill battle to start, he could push Taylor throughout the year. Los Angeles also remains enthusiastic about the prospects of Easton Stick, a fifth-round selection from 2019, with both Lynn and general manager Tom Telesco offering praise for the young quarterback without prompting at various points during the offseason.
Even so, Kaepernick still offers plenty of intrigue for Lynn and the Chargers. The quarterback's best seasons came under Greg Roman, the 49ers' offensive coordinator from 2011 to '14. Kaepernick appeared unstoppable under Roman's tutelage, leading the team to back-to-back NFC Championship Games and an appearance in Super Bowl XLVII. Roman later worked in the same role for the Buffalo Bills where he crossed paths with Lynn, then the team's running-backs coach.
Now running his own team, Lynn plans to install many of the schematic concepts Roman used during his time with Kaepernick. The Chargers will more heavily utilize play-action and pistol formations this season, two core tenets of the 49ers offense with Kaepernick at the helm. Kaepernick would also provide a second veteran presence to a quarterback room that currently only features one player that has appeared in a regular-season game.
Lynn acknowledged that the Chargers don't currently have a workout planned for Kaepernick, but that could change should one of the team's three quarterbacks become unavailable. Not only could any of them suffer an injury before the regular season, but the ongoing coronavirus pandemic could force them to quarantine at any time. Kaepernick's extensive starting experience and fit with the offensive system makes him an attractive option should anything happen to one of Los Angeles' signal-callers.
"Kaep was a starting quarterback, a Super Bowl quarterback in this league," Lynn says. "It would be crazy to not have him on your workout list."
And while Kaepernick's past protests might scare off some teams, the Chargers' head coach is no stranger to speaking out against social injustice. Lynn took part in a Black Live Matter march last month in Huntington Beach, an experience he described as "going to a war zone." He has also talked to his players about using their voices in the national dialogue. Perhaps most importantly, Lynn refuses to excuse those conflating Kaepernick's message with anti-military sentiments.
"Everyone should know right now why Colin Kaepernick took a knee," Lynn says. "I'm not going to tell someone how to protest or how not to protest, but Colin Kaepernick took a knee to bring awareness to the situation."
All of which makes Kaepernick a viable option for the Chargers. They have the right head coach, offense, and culture for the quarterback to succeed. The general public also better understands Kaepernick's motivations now than they did at any point during his tenure with the 49ers, a change that could help facilitate a deal at some point in the future.
The Chargers might not ultimately become the team to bring Kaepernick back to the football field. However, for the first time in years, the opportunity for him to rejoin the NFL appears within his reach.
-- Jason B. Hirschhorn is an award-winning sports journalist and Pro Football Writers of America member. Follow him on Twitter: @by_JBH