What in the name of Len Eshmont is going on this summer regarding NFL quarterback openings?
That’s not a rhetorical question, but before you answer, have you ever even heard of Len Eshmont?
Me neither. I only just came across poor Len this past week, and then only via the random process by which we find things while looking for something else.
Eshmont played in the NFL for the San Francisco 49ers in the 1940s but died tragically at age 39 from hepatitis. Sometime after that, the Niners began conferring an annual award in his honor to the player who, by vote of his teammates, “best exemplified inspirational and courageous play.”
It’s curious then, wouldn’t you say, that as a new NFL season creeps to within weeks, that some teams remain fairly desperate for quarterback help even though there’s a current Len Eshmont Award winner at the position at liberty, and it’s even curiouser and curiouser, wouldn’t you also say, that the Eshmont Award-winning quarterback in question is at liberty in large part because a lot of powerful football people don’t find him the least bit inspirational, let alone courageous?
No, it’s beyond curious; it’s preposterous.
Ladies and gentlemen, Colin Rand Kaepernick, offensive weapon at large. Unemployed and unwanted.
Kaepernick, who earlier in this decade rallied the Niners to three conference championships and a Super Bowl, turned himself into a seething national issue in this same month a year ago, sitting out the national anthem and then kneeling out the national anthem because, as he said famously, “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color. To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.”
Despite the fact that half an American century had passed since Muhammad Ali said essentially the same thing, and carried it through until he’d lost his world title for refusing to be drafted, Kaepernick’s demonstration touched off still another spirited round of the ever-popular American quiz show “Who Gets To Say What About Whom Or What And Manage To Get Away With It (Or Fail To Do So).”
I’m sure you’ve played the home version.
Usually the subjects are celebrities of various strata — Bill Maher, Kathy Griffin, Don Imus, Wendy Bell, Anthony Scaramucci, Donald J. Trump — but sometimes they are, of all things, quarterbacks.
Still, this is a brand new preseason with a brand new preseason Kaepernick narrative. This isn’t about the First Amendment, Black Lives Matter, police brutality, brutality against police, respect, disrespect, reflection, genuflection, appropriate protest platforms, etc. This is about whether Kaepernick, for whom San Francisco traded three picks in the 2011 draft after he became the only player in the history of major college football to pass for 10,000 yards and run for 4,000, can still help an NFL team as much or more than most of the league’s backups and some of its dubious starters.
It says here that he can, and it also says that if the Steelers arrived in Cleveland on the first Sunday of the regular season in a similar predicament to this weekend, with Ben Roethlisberger and backup Landry Jones both off the table, Colin Kaepernick would represent a strong alternative for Mike Tomlin.
“They did a similar thing with Michael Vick,” Matt Williamson pointed out at Steelers camp this past week, “and Kaepernick is a lot better at this stage than Vick was at that stage.”
Williamson, the former Cleveland Browns scout and current ESPN football insider, said he’s had a change of heart on the Kaepernick affair.
“Originally, I was of the stance that because he’s such a different-style player that it wasn’t worth bringing him into most systems, because you’d have to change what you do,” Williamson said. “He hadn’t improved. He threw everything on a line. He didn’t have a great pocket presence.
“But the more and more homework I did, I was more and more impressed. He has gotten better. He had a supporting cast that was as bad as you could get last year in San Francisco. The line was dreadful and the receivers were probably the worst in the league. A lot of people penalize him for his running skills, but they are extremely valuable. He’s a great runner. Not a decent runner, a great runner. Even if you had basically a drop-back system, you can use him. I’m not saying he’s a great player, but he’s one of best 35 quarterbacks in the NFL.”
The New York Jets don’t have a quarterback as good as Kaepernick anywhere on their depth chart. The Jacksonville Jaguars don’t either. The Cleveland Browns probably don’t. The Indianapolis Colts, Seattle Seahawks, Los Angeles Rams, and others, could solve their depth problems at the position with one phone call to the guy who says he won’t be sitting out the anthem anymore.
I thought the Kaepernick case would resolve itself the minute a starting quarterback collapsed on somebody’s training camp lawn, but when Ryan Tannehill did exactly that at Miami Dolphins practice 10 days ago, the Fish reached into Fox Broadcasting’s intern program for former Bears failure Jay Cutler. Cutler, like Blake Bortles in Jacksonville, Brock Osweiler in Cleveland, Ryan Fitzpatrick in Tampa, and Mark Sanchez in Chicago, all have career passer ratings that don’t approach Kaepernick’s 88.9.
So that’s how the old Kaepernick issue became new again, because it’s abundantly clear that something other than talent is holding Kaepernick back.
Nowhere has the strain of keeping Kaepernick out of the league been so severe as in Baltimore, where the Ravens consulted with Ray Lewis on the advisability of signing the quarterback who very nearly beat them in Super Bowl XLVII.
Should I type that again?
Let me put it this way: The Ravens consulted a convicted justice obstructer in a still-unsolved double murder about whether to green light a national anthem kneeler.
The Ravens apparently decided to pass on Kaepernick, but they did sign David Olson, a backup at Stanford and Clemson last seen flinging it for the Kansas City Phantoms of the CIF, the Champions Indoor Football League. In other words, Olson’s main qualification at the time the Ravens signed him was that, far as they knew, he was willing to stand for the anthem.
You would presume Kaepernick has one last chance to play in 2017 and that it will come when another starter goes down closer to show time. But in the meantime, the greater show only gains momentum, and it’s not a great reflection on the NFL. I mean the one where Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is writing columns about Kaepernick in the Hollywood Reporter, where Spike Lee is supporting a demonstration in Manhattan for Kaepernick in the middle of next week (by which time I assume the promotional material will have the correct spelling of Kaepernick’s name), where renowned sociologist Harry Edwards is sending Roger Goodell strongly worded emails, where NPR is tucking Kaepernick segments between nuclear sabre rattling and reviews of the FBI’s Manafort raid on the national news, where a petition urging an NFL boycott was this week closing in on 150,000 signatures.
But neither side in this spectacle deserves much sympathy.
Kaepernick walked away from $17 million he’d have earned this year with the Niners to become a free agent, telling the two teams who did bother to talk with him he wouldn’t protest the anthem in any way again. So apparently, now that his career’s on the line, he is willing to “look the other way,” in exchange for an NFL salary.
Kaep, you’re no Muhammad Ali.
As for the teams and the owners and the league and its spoken or unspoken policies, no one is ever surprised when they stop making sense.
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