CHRISTOPHER L. GASPER
MARCIO JOSE SANCHEZ/ASSOCIATED PRESS/FILE
NFL teams would rather throw their seasons away than let Colin Kaepernick throw a pass. Kaepernick’s NFL exile is both conspicuous and suspicious, given the paucity of competent passers and the rash of quarterback injuries around the league.
It’s often said that NFL teams will do anything to find an advantage that can help them win a game. That needs to be amended. They’ll do anything except employ Kaepernick, a racial inequality protester-turned-NFL pariah.
Kaepernick knelt during the national anthem last season to protest police brutality and social injustice while a member of the San Francisco 49ers, sparking the current stalemate between NFL owners and players over demonstrations during the anthem. Now, the NFL is collectively boycotting Kaepernick as retribution, telling him he can take a seat on his couch and watch games; that’s as close as he is going to get to the NFL this season.
Kaepernick, who was informed by the 49ers they were going to release him even if he didn’t opt out of his contract last offseason, has filed a grievance against the NFL alleging collusion has caused his unemployment. His case for being blackballed gets buttressed Sunday when the 4-5 Arizona Cardinals take on the 3-6 Houston Texans in one of the least accomplished quarterback duels in recent NFL history.
Both teams remain on the periphery of the playoff hunt, but not for long with the fill-in quarterbacks they’re employing over Kaepernick. Arizona is going to start third-stringer Blaine Gabbert. Yes, that’s the same Blaine Gabbert who was benched after five games by the 49ers last season in favor of Kaepernick.
Gabbert has a 9-31 record as a starter. Last season, he completed 56.9 percent of his passes and threw for five touchdowns and six interceptions for the 49ers. Kaepernick replaced him and threw for 16 touchdowns and four interceptions. Incredibly, Gabbert will be the more worthy of the starting quarterbacks at NRG Stadium in Houston.
The Texans will start human garden hose Tom Savage, who looks the part of a prototypical NFL pocket passer but sprays the ball everywhere — except to his intended target.
In four games, Savage has completed 47.3 percent of his throws and tossed two touchdown passes and two interceptions. His passer rating is a paltry 62.2. Since rookie sensation Deshaun Watson went down with a torn ACL and Savage was elevated back to the starter, the Texans have generated 14 points on offense in two games. Savage turned the ball over four times last Sunday in Houston’s loss to the Los Angeles Rams, plus had an interception returned for a touchdown negated by a penalty. He has fumbled six times, losing five. He’s 1-4 in five career starts.
By any measure, Savage has been a terrible NFL quarterback. His qualifications consist of a laudable work ethic and a willingness to stand for the national anthem.
Texans coach Bill O’Brien put the onus on Savage to play better. “The quarterback is judged on two things: how many times he gets his team in the end zone, and wins,” O’Brien told reporters.
Apparently, those are not the only things a quarterback is judged on or Kaepernick would be on somebody’s roster over Savage or Gabbert.
Savage’s backups are recycled QBs T.J. Yates and Josh Johnson, who is on his 10th team and hasn’t thrown a pass in a regular-season NFL game since 2011.
How can these teams tell their fan bases with a straight face that they’re doing everything possible to win? This singular summit of unqualified quarterbacks might be the best evidence yet Kaepernick has for his collusion argument.
Texans owner Bob McNair drew the ire of NFL players when it was reported that in a meeting with fellow owners to discuss progress on a resolution to the anthem protests he said, “We can’t have the inmates running the prison.” In a league where 70 percent of the players are black it’s not a good idea to use an analogy that alludes to the employees as criminals. Also, it’s tone deaf to use this turn of phrase when at the heart of the protests is disillusionment with and distrust of the American justice system.
You have to be naive to think McNair would allow the Texans to consider Kaepernick. McNair, Patriots owner Robert Kraft, and Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones will be deposed as part of Kaepernick’s collusion grievance.
In a league where teams and coaches would remove appendages if they thought it would give them even the slightest advantage, the flimsy argument against Kaepernick’s return is that he simply isn’t good enough to justify the “distraction” he brings.
In the NFL, someone who is named GQ magazine’s Citizen of the Year for his civil rights activism and for donating nearly $1 million to organizations that work to combat social injustice and inequality is a “distraction.” He detracts from the locker room and subtracts from the revenue stream with his social justice crusade.
If there is one thing NFL culture views as anathema, it’s nonconformity. Independent thinking is verboten. Sorry, you can be an athlete dedicated to your craft and an activist at the same time.
There is the X’s and O’s argument that Kaepernick doesn’t fit the systems of enough teams. He is not a traditional pocket passer. He has a passing motion with a long windup. That’s understandable, but what is coaching if it’s not adjusting to the talent available? Patriots coach Bill Belichick did it last year when he was forced to start rookie third-string quarterback Jacoby Brissett.
Teams can remain rigid in their systems with inferior quarterbacks and lose or they can adapt to the abilities of a more talented player.
If there is any franchise that should appreciate tailoring an offensive system to a quarterback that has a very specific set of skills it would be the Denver Broncos. In 2011, Denver adapted its entire offense to fit Tim Tebow’s unorthodox style and lack of passing acumen. It worked.
The Broncos won seven of Tebow’s 11 starts and made the playoffs. The Broncos decided then they valued winning more than they valued their system. It’s difficult to fathom that Kaepernick isn’t a better option for the current Broncos than turnover machine Trevor Siemian or retread Brock Osweiler.
Kaepernick went 1-10 last season starting for a 2-14 49ers team and was 3-16 the last two years there. But the 49ers’ futility was not primarily Kaepernick’s fault. The 49ers changed their coach and quarterback for 2017 and started 0-9. Their roster is a barren wasteland in need of reinforcements and a revamp. That’s why new 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan got a six-year contract. Everyone in the league knew the 49ers constituted a long-term reclamation project.
Let Kaepernick play. Other players have picked up the protests, so NFL teams have already lost some customers. What else do they have to lose now besides games?
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