The NFL has never tried harder to baby its precious quarterbacks with legislated protection. Even the sack itself is now penalized unless it is sort of paradoxically gentle, with the defender not permitted to land with his full weight upon the poor QB, the wide-eyed fawn trying to survive the mean jungle.
Yet we have just set out on what already is a calamitous season for the most fragile, important position.
Andrew Luck abruptly retires from the collective weight of too many injuries. Pittsburgh’s Ben Roethlisberger is injured Sunday and out for the season. New Orleans’ Drew Brees is hurt the same day and out at least six weeks. Would-be Jacksonville savior Nick Foles is injured in the season opener and done until at least November. Aging Eli Manning is benched by the Giants. The Jets’ Sam Darnold (in the most Jets thing ever) is lost indefinitely with mononucleosis. Now Carolina’s Cam Newton seems injured. Again.
The increasing reality is that teams need two quality quarterbacks, not just one.
And yet Colin Kaepernick cannot find a job.
Darnold’s replacement, Trevor Siemian, also gets injured and is lost for the year, so the Jets are down to third-stringer Luke Falk. The Miami Dolphins can’t decide who’s the least bad between Ryan Fitzpatrick and Josh Rosen. The Eagles backup is the relentlessly recycled Josh McCown. The Jaguars are now starting somebody named “Gardner Minshew.”
And, still, Kaepernick can’t get a job.
Here is an alphabetical, partial who‘s-that of some of the quarterbacks currently collecting NFL paychecks:
Brandon Allen, Kyle Allen, Matt Barkley, Kurt Benkert, David Blough, Tim Boyle, Jake Dolegala, David Fales, Garrett Gilbert, Mike Glennon, Ryan Griffin, Chad Henne, Devlin Hodges, Brett Hundley, Chad Kelly, Deshone Kizer, Sean Mannion, Trace McSorley, Matt Moore, Nathan Peterman, Easton Stick, Nate Sudfeld and Alex Tanney.
And yet — for the love of Blake Bortles! — Kaepernick enters his third season of being effectively blackballed by the scared NFL.
It would be rather hilarious if it weren’t so sad, this ongoing parade of less-accomplished, less-proven quarterbacks who continue to get work while one man continues ostracized because, during the 2016 preseason, he started a movement of social conscience by kneeling during the national anthem to protest police shootings of unarmed black men.
Kaepernick, not retired and waiting for call, is a 6-4, 225-pound quarterback in his physical prime at a low-mileage 31. He has led a team to a Super Bowl berth. In his last season, 2016, he threw 16 touchdowns vs. only four interceptions, had a 90.7 passer rating, and ran for 468 yards and 6.8 yards per run.
He reportedly is in great shape and eager to play, even as a backup. His agent reportedly reached out to the Steelers, Jets and Saints.
Kaepernick wants back in, and he is a dynamic, dual-threat quarterback who would be somebody’s able short-term starter, quality backup or bridge guy, such as the Dolphins signed Fitzpatrick to be. Instead the NFL has turned Kaepernick from a quarterback into a martyr.
Yet the NFL still turns its back.
Lawyers have told me collusion is one of the toughest things to prove in court because, in this case, it would have required proof there was an agreement by the league and its teams to conspire to ban Kaepernick. All it takes is one team saying it considered Kaepernick but went in another direction (as a few have) to undercut a collusion claim.
(Of course, a team claiming it considered Kaepernick might be filed in the same dubious category as a coach-shopping franchise staging a token interview with a black candidate simply to stay on the right side of the league’s Rooney Rule mandates).
The difficulty of proving collusion is one reason Kaepernick and fellow player Eric Reid settled their grievance against the NFL in February, the league paying the players to not press the matter further.
It is worth emphasizing that the case settling does not mean collusion did not occur, or that it is not happening still.
But maybe it isn’t collusion at all. Maybe it is simply collective cowardice. Maybe it is that no quarterback-needy team over a three-year span — not one — was willing to risk a possible public relations backlash. That is possible, yes.
Whatever the reason, a sport that continues to lose its most important players to injuries, a sport that continues to recycle marginal guys of lesser quality, enters Year 3 of astoundingly turning its back on a man who deserves better.
The NFL will spend much of this 100th anniversary season celebrating itself and all its greatness, right through the Super Bowl that Miami is hosting.
There will be no place for the outcast in the celebration, though, because the NFL and its teams have to know that what they are letting happen to Colin Kaepernick is a shame, and that the shame is squarely on them.