Even when people talk about Colin Kaepernick as a football player, they rarely talk about football. Popular opinion about whether Kaepernick is talented enough to merit an NFL contract seems to be divided along political party lines. I have yet to find anybody who believes that Kaepernick is right to protest the societal injustice against black Americans who also thinks that Kap’s early-career success was a product of only head coach Jim Harbaugh's system. I have yet to see any Pepe-avatared Twitter Trumpets say that Kaepernick should leave America if he doesn’t love it while simultaneously commending the quarterback’s individual performance on last season’s hapless 49ers. This is America in 2017. You have to check in with your political camp before deciding how you feel about somebody’s touchdown-to-interception ratio.
I have read multiple in-depth explanations from football analysts I respect detailing why Kaepernick’s tape and numbers prove he belongs in the NFL. I know that the people who wrote those articles have also come out in support of Kaepernick’s protests. I’ve also read an article citing Kaepernick’s tape as proof that the QB is worse than Drew Stanton and Matt Barkley. Has the author of that piece discovered that interception-happy backups are the new market inefficiency, or is he just masking political opinions with football talk?
This ambiguity over what constitutes a football opinion of Kaepernick and what constitutes a political one has proved useful for NFL franchises this offseason. When asked about why Kaepernick remains unsigned, team officials have been reluctant to say that the quarterback’s protests outweigh everything else about him: Kaepernick takes part in community service; he’s donated significant sums to various charities; and he accepted a demotion last season and competed until Week 17 for one of the worst teams in the NFL, earning an award from his teammates in the process. But it is much easier for team officials to wave at a big box vaguely labeled "football," shrug, and carry on.
After all, there’s a decent football-related case to be made for why Kaepernick isn’t signed. He’s not the only prominent quarterback who hasn’t found a gig: No team has signed Robert Griffin III, and Jay Cutler slid into retirement rather than wait for a phone call few thought would come. The NFL quarterback market is odd: Most teams have invested heavily in a starter, whether via a big-money contract or a high draft pick. The league’s backup QB jobs are not awarded on a purely meritocratic basis. A team’s motivation for signing a backup can range from seeking youthful promise to wanting veteran leadership; players can get jobs for mimicking a starter well, or for having a strong relationship with a team’s coaching staff, or for countless other factors. When a team signs Ryan Fitzpatrick, Chase Daniel, Blaine Gabbert, Mark Sanchez, Nick Foles, Geno Smith, Case Keenum, EJ Manuel, or Austin Davis, it isn’t necessarily a statement that the team thinks that player is better than Kaepernick, just that he is a more apt fit for the team’s particular situation. (Even if, as in the Seahawks’ case, the reasons for that fit seem convoluted.)
As the NFL offseason has trickled into its final month, every team has managed to stick to the company line. This is about football. Every team, that is, except the Baltimore Ravens.
It would make sense for the Ravens to sign Kaepernick. Starter Joe Flacco is hurt. Their backup, Ryan Mallett, is bad. The team’s coach, John Harbaugh, says Kaepernick is a "great guy," having sparked a mini-friendship with the quarterback since he played for Harbaugh’s brother, Jim, in San Francisco. Even though Flacco should be healthy in time for the start of the regular season, Kaepernick would be an improvement as a backup, and insurance in case Flacco’s back injury flares up. Baltimore general manager Ozzie Newsome is reportedly in favor of the signing, and Flacco has spoken positively about Kaepernick as well.
There is no argument for Mallett being a better quarterback than Kaepernick. Mallett throws interceptions about twice as often as Kaepernick does (Mallett’s career interception percentage is 3.0; Kaepernick’s is 1.8) and touchdowns roughly half as often (Mallett’s career touchdown percentage is 2.1; Kaepernick’s is 4.3). Mallett averages 5.4 yards per pass over his career; in the worst season of Kaepernick’s career, he averaged 6.6. Mallett recently turned heads at training camp for the massive number of interceptions he’s thrown, leading to personal frustration and mockery from his teammates. Kaepernick is worlds better than Mallett solely as a passer; it should be noted that Kaepernick is also an excellent runner while Mallett has minus-2 career rushing yards.
Beyond downplaying Kaepernick’s football abilities, those who argue that teams shouldn’t sign him have taken to labeling him a "distraction." This approach doesn’t necessitate going on record with opinions about his political views; instead, it attempts to explain how the mere fact that Kaepernick has political views could distract a team. Is Kaepernick a bigger distraction than Ryan Mallett? Mallett’s "off-field concerns," including a guilty plea to a misdemeanor charge for public intoxication, have been known since college; his "chronic tardiness" (and a missed flight to a game) got him cut from the 2015 Texans, whose best quarterback was Brian Hoyer.
Still, the Ravens have not signed Kaepernick. Team officials have just spoken a bunch about how they’re pondering a signing. According to ESPN sources, the reason Baltimore hasn’t signed Kaepernick is because Harbaugh and Newsome have been opposed by the team’s owner, Steve Bisciotti. Newsome denied that report, but Bisciotti has said publicly he didn’t like the method of Kaepernick’s protest and that he didn’t think Kaepernick would help the team win. The Ravens have asked their fans how they’d feel about signing Kaepernick, and Bisciotti reached out to franchise legend Ray Lewis for his opinion. Somebody let a reporter know that the Ravens have heard from fans who would be upset if they signed Kaepernick.
Bisciotti has overruled Harbaugh before. According to an ESPN Outside the Lines report, the Ravens coach wanted to cut Ray Rice when video emerged of the running back dragging his unconscious fiancée from an elevator in 2014, but Bisciotti prevented that. Then, Bisciotti valued winning over morality. Now, he seems to be denying a move that Baltimore’s braintrust thinks could help the team win games. And per ESPN, he is not the only owner to override football staff to keep Kaepernick out of the league.
It is easy to gesture at the NFL and say football reasons are why Kaepernick isn’t signed. It is hard to look at the Baltimore Ravens and say football reasons are why Kaepernick isn’t signed. The season is approaching, and with each day of Flacco’s recovery, the amount of time for an incoming quarterback to hypothetically get reps with the first-team offense dwindles. If this situation were entirely about football, the Ravens would either sign Kaepernick or move on to a more feasible option. Instead, they’re wasting time pretending to embark on this awkward, all-encompassing process that no team has ever used to sign a player.
The risk here isn’t that Kaepernick signing with the Ravens would derail the team. To Bisciotti, the risk is that Kaepernick would be a productive football player. Kaepernick’s non-football pursuits used to be the subtext to his lack of a signing. By ditching the league’s script, Bisciotti has made them the text.