Former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick still finds himself without a job in the NFL a month after the free agency period began. Many other notable free agents are still looking for work, but none has gen- erated more controversy in his job search than Kaepernick. The dual-threat quarterback became a polarizing figure this fall after repeat- edly kneeling during the national anthem before games – this protest drew the ire of many football fans across the country in addition to a bright, scrutinizing media spotlight. Although Kaepernick is not considered an elite NFL quarterback like Aaron Rodgers or Tom Brady, he tossed 16 touchdowns in 12 games last sea- son on an otherwise atrocious 49ers team. His total QBR ranked 23rd in the league last season, higher than Eli Manning, rookie Carson Wentz and former MVP Cam Newton.
Based on pure numbers, Kaepernick deserves a spot on an active NFL roster. He may no longer possess the dynamic talent that led the 49ers to a Super Bowl in 2013, but Kaepernick certainly maintains enough talent to be a qual- ity backup at a minimum. In a league deprived of quality quarterbacks, one would think that he would be signed immediately. However, numerous factors play a role in the world of NFL free agency. In this case, the media atten- tion that Kaepernick would generate presents an intimidating and unattractive barrier that has historically frightened teams away from poten- tial free agents.
When discussing polarizing NFL players, Tim Tebow, Ray Rice and Johnny Manziel come to mind. The one similarity in each case was the intense media coverage that they attracted. Whether the coverage was negative or positive did not matter to NFL front offices – in each example, front offices concluded that the media attention would be too great a distraction in the locker room to justify signing a mediocre player. Teams would rather sign a free agent with less talent that could fit better in the locker room and produce comparable, even lesser results. This makes particular sense when sign- ing a backup quarterback such as Kaepernick, a position that ideally draws as little attention as possible. The NFL already draws immense media scrutiny – organizations don’t want to enlarge the target on their backs, and they cer- tainly don’t want that controversy to come from athletes that sit on the bench more often than not.
Kaepernick’s extended job search confirms that NFL general managers don’t believe he can perform at an elite level anymore and isn’t worth the further distractions involved.
After Rice’s domestic violence incident in 2014, albeit a far more blatant, violent offense than Kaepernick’s protest, teams chose not to sign him because they did not want an aging running back that had his best years behind him, not necessarily solely because of his charges. This can be seen in the case of former Oklahoma running back Joe Mixon, who was suspended the entire 2014 season as a result of assault charges. Mixon, however, will likely be selected in the upcoming NFL draft – ESPN analyst Mel Kiper Jr. stated that Mixon is poten- tially the best running back talent in a strong draft class despite the cloud of media cover- age. A common adage in the NFL states that if Hannibal Lecter ran a 4.4-second 40-yard dash, they would diagnose cannibalism simply as an eating disorder. If a player possesses elite talent, he will find a home in the league regardless of controversial aspects of his character.
The harsh reality for Kaepernick is that teams don’t see further potential in a once-dynamic dual-threat quarterback past his prime. They look at him and see a player who creates immense locker room distractions that can- not be amended with strong performances, immensely diminishing his value. Fans have cried foul, arguing that teams refuse to sign Kaepernick in simple spite of his protest, but this conspiracy theory overly dramatizes the situation. He may become a quality backup quarterback somewhere, but for most teams his mediocre stat line simply isn’t worth the trouble.