Is Colin Kaepernick Good Enough To Play In The NFL?

NFL | February 5, 2021

Colin Kaepernick’s popularity is all the more stunning when you consider how boutique, how exclusionary his most ardent supporters can be. The frustration felt by political agnostics who simply liked watching Kaepernick play ball is like the inner conflict of Democrats who admire Tom Brady in the Super Bowl. It’s not enough to think that an NFL athlete can run fast, throw hard, or stand tall in the pocket – you’re supposed to buy-into his persona 100% or else risk offending the cool kids’ table.

For instance, politically-charged praise of Kaepernick on social media can often be measured in terms like “987.02 to 252.43 engagement-ratio.” Then, along comes your humble blogger – who has mixed feelings about Kaepernick’s off-the-field vibe but also ranks him among the top 10 dual-threat QBs of all time – chiming in with a tweet that can be measured in terms like (ahem) 1.0 to 0.0 engagement ratio:

Let’s apply a lesson from politics to the debate over Colin Kaepernick as an NFL QB. Perhaps a “bi-partisan” meeting of Kaepernick and Tebow diehards (and the fans of anyone else with a controversial, brief NFL career) would come to a very gainful conclusion. When we paper-over a QB’s bad stats and highlight his good ones, or vice versa, in an attempt to bolster a passer’s profile, the argument comes across hollow and incomplete. Worse, it can cover up the real culprit behind Kaepernick’s fall from NFL stardom.

Mainstream NFL pundits aren’t especially great at predicting games, forecasting records, or accurate NFL Draft boards. (Boomer Esiason and the rest of HBO’s weekly NFL highlight-show crew used to tout their “above .500” prediction marks straight up rather than ATS, a cheap cop-out to manufacture a winning handicapper’s record if there ever was one.) But there’s a skill that The Shield’s loudest commentators are plum-wonderful at, and it’s making us forget how rock-stupid wrong they’ve been on a regular basis.

Pat Mahomes, Lamar Jackson, and Josh Allen are set to dominate the AFC in the 2020s playing the kind of quarterback role Colin Kaepernick is born and bred to perform. It’s easy to forget that Kaepernick’s graduated “Pistol” offense in San Francisco ran the 49ers all the way to a Super Bowl appearance in 2012-13. That’s partly because at the time, “it’s a passing league” was still ESPN and Sports Illustrated’s mantra, and prejudice against option QBs in the NFL was as odorous as any prejudice Kaepernick had faced in pigskin due to his skin color or politics.

In the offseason to follow, Pete Prisco of CBS Sports published a vicious, creepy editorial, “Read-Option QBs Should Prepare to Get Blasted,” which through the political lens of today, comes across as a disgusting and racially-tinged criticism of a brand new style of African-American QB. Players like Kaepernick didn’t just scramble around like Doug Flutie or Fran Tarkenton, they were pioneers who piloted 11-on-11 ground games that offended the bourgeois culture of modern NFL coaching. The next Super Bowl – to Prisco and Esiason’s dismay – was won by Russell Wilson, another Read Option maestro at QB for the Seattle Seahawks.

By 2019, Lamar Jackson would win the league MVP award by out-rushing all but a handful of The Shield’s RBs while passing for Pro-Bowl numbers. It took a maverick, analytics-driven franchise like Baltimore to make it possible, considering that Kaep and Timmy had been pushed into the wrong roles and prognosticated out of the NFL swiftly enough that other clubs were afraid to try NCAA-ball on the pro gridiron…for a short time.

Consider that the anti-option prejudice ran so thick as of a decade ago, an Atlanta Falcons fan who typed “What about Paul Johnson?” on a Dirty Birds forum was quickly banned from the pages. NFL clubs considered it an insult when the topic of option pigskin was even raised. But in a fateful turn, it was the ex-ACC “flexbone” coach who showed up to help John Harbaugh and the Ravens draw up a playbook for their future MVP.

For those who chirp about Kaepernick’s poor stats in his final round of NFL starts, consider how Tom Brady would look trying to run Navy’s offense, or how Jackson would handle a head coach who demanded #8 stay in the pocket and “only run when he has to.” When Jim Harbaugh was convinced to phase-out the Pistol and turn Kaepernick into just another nimble pocket QB, the San Francisco 49ers became just another offense in a monochromatic era. If you can’t imagine Kaepernick playing much better in the Baltimore or Arizona offense of 2021 than he did 7 years prior, then you must be among the naysayers who deny the profound sea change in NFL offenses today. Matching an RB’s rush totals is no longer considered a gimmick or a detriment. Kaepernick isn’t playing football, but a dozen QBs influenced by his style are threatening to take over the world of pigskin.

It’s unknown if Colin Kaepernick’s politics, persona, priorities, and pricey negotiations are still welcome in any lone NFL front office out of 32. What I can tell you as a handicapper is that Kaepernick’s skill-set would fit in fine in the new NFL. Kaepernick may have mishandled or misrepresented his recent NFL tryout as well, but any over-analysis of his throwing motion is whiffing on the real point. If he can still move, he can still play. Option QBs can maneuver their WRs wide-open enough to score with balloons when the ground game is clicking, just like Kaepernick did in 2012.

Debating the nobility of Kaep’s off-the-field activism has become a cliche. But honest scouts can admit that his on-field style was at least 10 years ahead of its time, and suffered the same unfair fate of like-talented peers and predecessors in the era of copycat NFL systems.

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Kurt Boyer

Kurt has authored close to 1000 stories covering football, soccer, basketball, baseball, ice hockey, prize-fighting and the Olympic Games. Kurt posted a 61% win rate on 200+ college and NFL gridiron picks last season. He muses about High School football on social media as The Gridiron Geek.

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