So now, as the NFL moves forward from the emotionally charged events that followed Trump’s condemnation of players who protest by refusing to stand for the anthem, one of the questions is: Have the chances of Kaepernick being signed by a team changed?
The answer is not at all clear, judging by the wide-ranging opinions offered by a number of current and former executives with NFL franchises.
“I can only assume if there are owners willing to stand there and lock arms with their players over this, there might be one willing to sign him,” a front office member of one team said. “It only takes one, you know.”
But that optimistic view for Kaepernick, the former Super Bowl starter for the San Francisco 49ers who sparked a movement by players by refusing to stand for the anthem last season to protest the treatment of African Americans in the United States, is far from universal. And the picture painted by one former NFL front office executive based on last weekend’s events is particularly bleak.
“Your worst nightmare has already happened,” a former NFL general manager said. “Your worst nightmare as a GM is if you sign Colin Kaepernick and the president has you in his sights. You saw what happened, and it’s going to happen again. Any time he [Trump] wants to change the subject, from health care or whatever, he’s going to come back to this. He’s a master at it, no matter what you think of him. It’s what he does. Does your team’s owner want to deal with that? That’s the conundrum. That’s the hard part.”
So while last weekend unquestionably cemented Kaepernick’s lasting importance as an activist, it left his football career still in limbo.
The Seattle Seahawks weighed the possibility of signing Kaepernick during the offseason as a backup to Russell Wilson. The Baltimore Ravens considered signing him during training camp as a backup to Joe Flacco. Nothing came of it in either case.
“Only a guess: If he’s not signed by now, the NFL may have spoken,” said Charley Casserly, the former general manager of the Houston Texans and Washington Redskins. “I won’t speculate why. To me, he has proven he is not a starting quarterback in the NFL.”
Kaepernick played reasonably well last season for the 49ers, throwing 16 touchdown passes to go with four interceptions. He opted out of his contract with the 49ers, who said they otherwise would have released him rather than keeping him under the terms of that deal. That left him free to sign with any team, but there have been no takers. Some in and around the sport have maintained all along there are on-field issues as well as the obvious off-field considerations, given Kaepernick’s reputation for thriving while improvising but struggling as a traditional NFL pocket passer.
“There’s the non-football part and there’s the football part,” Bill Polian, the Hall of Fame former executive for the Buffalo Bills, Carolina Panthers and Indianapolis Colts, said at midweek. “I talked about it with [former Colts center and fellow ESPN analyst] Jeff Saturday on the air a while ago. The question was: Would you want Colin Kaepernick as a backup at that time? I said yeah, sure, if I thought I had a chance to win and I thought he was serious about it, I’d be okay with it, while knowing it was an ownership decision.
“Jeff said, basically, ‘I would not. I have to learn a different offense, a different signal system. I have to change my techniques, and I don’t want to do that.’ That’s where it ended. I thought what he said was valid. I’m not sure in the end that it would carry the day with me, but I heard it and I respected it.”
Polian cited comments made by Steve Logan, the former quarterbacks coach for the 49ers, who told a North Carolina radio station recently that he considers Kaepernick “a good kid” but believes he remains unsigned because of his issues as a pocket passer.
“He talked about all the reasons he cannot be a good quarterback in an NFL offense, how he cannot function as a drop-back passer in a real pro system,” Polian said. “Now, if you are in a situation where you lose both your quarterbacks to injury and you have a good team, something like Minnesota last year before they got [Sam] Bradford, if you have a playoff-quality team and catastrophe strikes with your quarterback situation, these points are moot because now he’s your starter. None of that applies. You can build your offense around him and it removes those issues. It’s a very small window in terms of the number of teams, and it’s a small calendar window.”
Has that window on the calendar already closed, three weeks into the NFL season? Not yet, Polian said, and not until around midseason.
“It’s probably open until Week 8 or a little beyond that,” he said. “It would take you two to three weeks to get ready.”
Polian declined to participate in the public conversation about the non-football considerations related to signing Kaepernick, other than saying that’s a decision that an owner must make. It is those ownership dynamics that are worth re-examining now.
One after another, owners issued written statements last weekend after Trump said at a campaign rally in Huntsville, Ala., that owners should fire any player — referred to as a “son of a bitch” by Trump — who protests by kneeling for the anthem. Some of the statements took on Trump and called his rhetoric divisive; others steered clear of mentioning Trump. Some owners locked arms with players for the anthem in what were called displays of unity. Jones took a knee with Cowboys players before the anthem Monday night in Arizona, then stood for the playing of the anthem.
One former NFL personnel executive pointed out that the issues originally raised by Kaepernick’s protest — racial inequality and police brutality toward African Americans — are not the primary issues now being debated publicly.
“I don’t think they have changed at all,” that former personnel executive for multiple NFL teams said of Kaepernick’s job prospects. “What he was trying to spark a conversation about has been muted. … It has been transformed into a debate about patriotism.”
The NFL says it has stayed out of the issue of whether Kaepernick should be signed, calling that a matter for individual teams. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell has said since the offseason he did not believe Kaepernick was being blackballed because of his political stance. Jones and some other owners echoed those sentiments. The NFL stuck to its non-committal, non-interventionist stance following last weekend’s memorable developments.
“I don’t have any insight into that,” NFL spokesman Joe Lockhart said early in the week. “I didn’t hear anything one way or the other over the weekend on that. That’s an issue for the clubs.”
So, really, it’s anyone’s guess at this point what Kaepernick’s future NFL employment prospects are, which is essentially where things stood before that tumultuous, transformative weekend.
The most telling response actually might have been given by a high-ranking executive with one team, who said on the topic of whether Kaepernick’s chances of being signed have changed one way or the other: “I really have no idea.”