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Which Team’s Decision to Not Sign Colin Kaepernick Is Least Defensible?

Kaepernick is bringing a lawsuit against the NFL claiming that franchises have colluded in not signing him. While that could be tough to prove in court, it’s easy to show just how hypocritical teams have been for arguing that their rationale revolves around “football reasons.”

Colin Kaepernick throwing the ball in front of fictional Kaepernick jerseys for different teams Getty Images/Ringer illustration

It will be hard for Colin Kaepernick to win his collusion lawsuit against the NFL. Even if he proves that certain NFL teams chose not to sign him due explicitly to his political beliefs, that’s still not enough to prove collusion. He’ll also have to present evidence that multiple teams jointly agreed to avoid signing him, and the burden of proof is high.

If I were Kaepernick’s lawyer, I wouldn’t bother chasing evidence of conversations that may have never taken place. (I would be a bad lawyer.) Instead, I’d have the court wheel out its TV and VHS player (I presume that all courtrooms continue to use VHS players), and I’d say “Exhibit A, your honor.” Then I would pop in a video that shows every snap taken by Texans quarterback Tom Savage this season.

Savage is completing 45.6 percent of his passes and averaging less than 5 yards per attempt, and he has led Houston on one touchdown drive in six quarters. He has as many fumbles (four) as completions of longer than 15 yards. He has been sacked nine times and thrown just 57 passes. And historically, he’s not been any better: He has just one career touchdown pass on 149 attempts. He’s a walking, throwing argument that disproves the claims that Kaepernick’s absence from the NFL stems solely from football reasons.

You’ve surely heard those arguments: Kaepernick is not quite good enough to be a starter; his style of play doesn’t mesh with the offenses that many teams run, thereby making him a bad backup option; he should be a starter in this league, and therefore shouldn’t be signed as a backup. If you talk about this vaguely enough, some of the points might sort of make sense. However, it isn’t possible to go through the league’s most quarterback-needy teams on an individual basis and provide rational, football-rooted explanations for why no team has signed Kaepernick. He is the best available unsigned free agent by leaps and bounds, having finished 17th among qualified players in passer rating in 2016. (The guys who finished 18th through 29th have all started NFL games this year; the guys who finished 15th, 16th, and 19th last season made the Pro Bowl.) Kap also finished second among QBs in rushing yards despite not starting for San Francisco until last October, and posted the league’s sixth-best interception rate. While he has his share of deficiencies, none outweighs the undeniable talent advantage he possesses over the quarterbacks several teams have bet their seasons on.

I’ve ranked seven NFL teams, on a scale of 1–10, in determining how much better off they would be if Kaepernick were their quarterback. This doesn’t encapsulate every team that’s been linked to Kap, but that’s not the point. The point is I’m examining every football-related factor that could be used to justify not signing him — the players who were signed instead, the status of these teams’ 2017 seasons, how well he would fit into each offense, and these organizations’ long-term competitive goals — and evaluating whether they’re reasonable or completely full of crap.

I’m not getting political here. In this instance, I’ve decided to stick to sports.

Indianapolis Colts

What happened: Andrew Luck got hurt at some point in 2015, had surgery after the 2016 season, and the Colts told the public that he’d be ready to go by the start of 2017. He wasn’t, and now it’s been announced that Luck will miss the whole season, with some fearing that he’ll never play football again. In September, Indianapolis traded 2015 first-round pick Phillip Dorsett to the Patriots for third-stringer Jacoby Brissett. Scott Tolzien started for the Colts Week 1, but was benched in the fourth quarter. Brissett has been the team’s no. 1 quarterback ever since.

Should they have signed Kaepernick? If the Colts believe that Luck will be their quarterback in future years, then their decision to give up a recent high draft pick to acquire Luck’s long-term backup seems rather short-sighted. The franchise has almost $20 million in cap space and could have signed Kap to lead this year’s team without giving up any assets.

If Indy has legitimate concerns about Luck’s future, however, the team’s thought process makes sense. Brissett has been a little bit worse this season than Kaepernick was in 2016, but he is only 23, and has shown signs of improvement since September. It’s probably wrong to assume that the Colts have had a plan at any point since Luck was initially injured, but they could have done worse than ending up with Brissett as their QB of the future.

Kap-o-meter rating:

Two Kaepernicks out of 10

San Francisco 49ers

What happened: Kaepernick opted out of his contract with San Francisco after last season, prompting many to argue that his current unemployment is his own fault. That’s remained the case even though Niners management has confirmed that the team would have cut Kaepernick had he not opted out. In March, the 49ers signed Brian Hoyer to a contract that included $10 million guaranteed. In April, they drafted Iowa product C.J. Beathard in the third round. In October, they traded a 2018 second-round pick to the Patriots to acquire Jimmy Garoppolo, and cut Hoyer.

Should they have signed Kaepernick? To be fair to the 49ers, they finished 2–14 with Kaepernick last year in spite of his reasonably good play. With a new coach (Kyle Shanahan) and general manager (John Lynch), it makes sense that the team would choose to go in a different direction at quarterback rather than retaining Kaepernick on a $14.5 million contract. Maybe Garoppolo is the Niners’ QB of the future, but they’ve devoted a lot of assets to put themselves in a situation where their best option is Tom Brady’s potentially good 26-year-old former backup.

Kap-o-meter rating:

Three Kaepernicks out of 10

Tennessee Titans

What happened: The Titans reportedly sparked Kaepernick’s collusion suit against the NFL when the team failed to even call the quarterback after Marcus Mariota injured his hamstring in Week 4. The Titans started Matt Cassel while Mariota was out and signed Brandon Weeden as a backup. Mariota is healthy again now.

Should they have signed Kaepernick? Here’s a video of Mariota keeping on a read option and running 34 yards for a touchdown. Here’s a video of Weeden keeping on a read option. As far as skill sets are concerned, I’d say Kaepernick is more similar to Mariota than Weeden is.

Mariota has recovered from his injury, so the window in which Kaepernick would have been most useful to the team has closed. But the Titans played Mariota in games when he was clearly still hampered by his hamstring. It wasn’t until two games after Mariota had returned to the lineup that head coach Mike Mularkey admitted his quarterback was back to “100 percent,” and the typically mobile Mariota was limited to just three combined carries for 8 yards in wins over the Colts and Browns. Wouldn’t it have been nice if the Titans had a backup they could have trusted instead of risking further injury to their 24-year-old franchise quarterback?

Kap-o-meter rating:

Denver Broncos

What happened: Nothing really — the Broncos just haven’t had an effective quarterback since Peyton Manning got old. Trevor Siemian has been benched after reverting from Touchdown Trevor Siemian back to Northwestern Trevor Siemian. Paxton Lynch, the team’s 2016 first-round pick, is apparently injured, but also isn’t good. Denver is now starting Brock Osweiler just a year after allowing him to leave for Houston in free agency.

Should they have signed Kaepernick? The Broncos know exactly who Osweiler is. You know, the quarterback so useless that the Texans gave up a second-round pick to get him off their team, and the guy the Browns happily paid $16 million to cut. He ranked last among qualifying players in yards per attempt by almost a half yard in 2016, and he threw more interceptions than touchdowns. Of course he’s still egregiously bad.

Kaepernick — who Denver’s front office discussed bringing in prior to the 2016 season, before his protests began — would immediately become the best quarterback on the Broncos roster. They’d have to adjust their offense significantly, but nothing about their offense merits preservation.

Kap-o-meter rating:

Five Kaepernicks out of 10

Miami Dolphins

What happened: It was revealed in August that Ryan Tannehill’s knee injury from last season would require surgery and keep him out for the entire 2017 campaign. The team promptly scrambled, signing Jay Cutler to a one-year, $10 million deal rather than moving forward with backup Matt Moore as its starter. When a chest injury sidelined Cutler in Week 8, Miami signed David Fales to serve as Moore’s backup.

Should they have signed Kaepernick? Some Kaepernick detractors have argued that he remains unsigned because he’s been focused on social issues more than playing football recently. That’s a hard case to make when an NFL franchise spent $10 million on Cutler, who retired from the sport in May and didn’t train for the majority of the 2017 offseason. Cutler has historically been a more effective quarterback than Kaepernick has, but Cutler’s injury-shortened 2016 campaign was rather bad, and there was no reason to expect him to improve after being yoinked into action and out of a blissful life of naked boat rides.

I understand head coach Adam Gase wanting to work with Cutler, as the two have experience together dating back to Gase’s tenure as the Bears’ offensive coordinator. (The same goes for Fales.) Still, Miami has had the worst offense in football this season, ranking last in total points and yards per play. What did it expect pinning its hopes on an unenthusiastic retiree?

Kap-o-meter rating:

Six Kaepernicks out of 10

Green Bay Packers

What happened: All-everything quarterback Aaron Rodgers broke his collarbone in a Week 6 loss to the Vikings. The Packers haven’t made any noteworthy quarterback transactions since, sticking with 2015 fifth-rounder Brett Hundley and former practice-squad player Joe Callahan as their only two options at the position. When asked about the possibility of signing Kaepernick, Green Bay head coach Mike McCarthy (somewhat angrily) insisted that the Packers had exactly the QB situation that they wanted, emphasizing that he’d personally invested multiple years of coaching into developing Hundley and Callahan.

Should they have signed Kaepernick? Perhaps McCarthy shouldn’t have mentioned how much effort he’d poured into grooming Hundley, because it doesn’t reflect well on his coaching ability. Hundley is averaging a dismal 5.0 yards per pass attempt since taking over under center, recording four interceptions and just one touchdown. No, Kaepernick probably wouldn’t be able to replicate what Rodgers does, but no one can — least of all Hundley, who simply isn’t throwing the ball downfield.

Even if the Packers feel Hundley has the ability to develop, though, they should absolutely have signed someone better than Callahan to serve as their backup. Callahan played Division III college football, and as I wrote a few weeks ago, it is exceedingly rare for a former Division III quarterback to play in the NFL. Callahan’s 14 sacks and four lost fumbles on 123 preseason dropbacks seem to suggest that he’s nowhere near ready to face any NFL defense, even the end-of-roster-caliber guys he played against during the preseason. With plenty of available cap space, the Packers were irresponsible to not sign somebody with NFL experience to back Hundley up.

Kap-o-meter rating:

Eight Kaepernicks out of 10

Houston Texans

What happened: The Texans opened this year with Tom Savage as their starting quarterback, but took only one half to realize how awful he was and bench him in favor of Deshaun Watson. Then Watson played like the best QB in the NFL for six weeks before going down with a season-ending ACL tear, a devastating blow for both the team and the entire NFL. Houston has seemingly settled on Savage as the replacement, in spite of the evidence that he remains the same awful quarterback the team benched in Week 1. As an emergency backup, Houston signed Matt McGloin, who previously played for head coach Bill O’Brien at Penn State, as well as T.J. Yates, who served as the Texans backup for several years, most recently in 2015. On Monday, Houston cut McGloin and signed Josh Johnson, who has not thrown a pass in a regular-season NFL game since 2011.

Should they have signed Kaepernick? More than any other NFL team, the Texans appear to demonstrate the falsehood of the popular argument among Kaepernick’s detractors that many franchises are not signing the quarterback because his skill set doesn’t match that of the teams’ starters.

In Week 1, Savage got sacked six times on just 19 dropbacks behind one of the worst offensive lines in football. When Watson stepped in, O’Brien installed an almost entirely new scheme that took advantage of Watson’s abilities as a runner. The Texans even ran the speed option with Watson, which, uh, they did not with Savage. The Houston squad that was shut out in Savage’s lone half of Week 1 action led the league in scoring over the subsequent seven weeks, showing the ease with which an NFL team can adapt when a player’s dynamic skill set calls for innovation.

Tom Savage
Tom Savage
Bob Levey/Getty Images

Kaepernick would allow Houston to continue running the plays that made it so good with Watson under center. Instead, it’s going back to the decidedly tame Savage offense.

But what really irks me is the signing of Johnson, who served as the 49ers’ third-stringer behind Kaepernick in 2014. O’Brien told reporters Monday that a problem with the idea of bringing in Kaepernick is that he “hasn’t played in a while.” Johnson hasn’t thrown a pass in the league since December 11, 2011, 14 months before Kaepernick played in Super Bowl XLVII. Barack Obama was then serving his first term. My dog wasn’t born yet; last month I noticed that she’s growing white hairs on her face. At that point, Grantland was a year younger than The Ringer is now. O’Brien’s statement about Kap’s lack of recent experience coupled with the Johnson signing is an insult to the collective intelligence of fans everywhere.

Savage, Yates, and Johnson are all worse than Kaepernick by almost any conceivable metric. Savage has thrown just one career touchdown pass; Yates threw four interceptions and zero touchdowns between the 2012 and 2014 seasons; Johnson — who, once again, has not thrown an NFL pass in six years — is theoretically a dual-threat quarterback, but he’s worse than Kaepernick at running and has thrown twice as many career interceptions (10) as touchdowns (five).

The Texans have more than $12 million in salary cap space. At 3–5, they’re within striking distance of first place in the AFC South and the playoff berth that comes with it. They traded their first-round 2018 draft pick to Cleveland to get Watson, so tanking is effectively useless. Houston can either sign Kap or continue sucking without the ability to reap the rewards of their losses.

Kap-o-meter rating:

10 Kaepernicks out of 10