San Francisco 49ers

Colin Kaepernick drew interest a year ago; why not now?

Former 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick remains a free agent nearly three weeks after the new league year began.
Former 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick remains a free agent nearly three weeks after the new league year began. pkitagaki@sacbee.com

Collusion is notoriously difficult to prove. Is Colin Kaepernick still looking for a job because of last year’s national-anthem protest and the tidal wave of emotions it created? Or is it because some teams don’t have any openings, other teams don’t think his style fits their system or because he’s burned bridges in certain cities?

Anyone making the case that Kaepernick is being blackballed risks looking silly if, on Thursday, for example, the Houston Texans sign him to a multiyear deal. More dominoes need to fall – where does Tony Romo end up? – before the NFL’s annual game of quarterback musical chairs is complete. Knowing this is perhaps the reason neither Kaepernick (who hasn’t exactly been shy about speaking his mind in recent months) nor his representatives has complained to this point.

Equally silly, however, is the notion that politics has nothing to do with the fact that Kaepernick, 18 days since the start of free agency, remains unsigned. One of the arguments used to this end is that NFL teams simply don’t view him as a very good quarterback and that the scant amount of interest he received last year – which preceded his anthem protest – underscores this belief.

It’s worth exploring that further for several reasons:

1. Any team interested in Kaepernick last year would have acquired a passer whose left arm was in a sling, who couldn’t grip a football and who, in Kaepernick’s own words, looked like a high-school version of himself. The quarterback was coming off of three surgeries and wouldn’t be cleared by the 49ers for team drills until the start of training camp in late July. Not only is he back to full health, he’s returned to his optimal weight.

2. Last year he was coming off the worst season of his career, one in which he was benched in favor of Blaine Gabbert and was accused of being aloof in the 49ers’ locker room. Kaepernick certainly wasn’t the second coming of Steve Young in 2016, but despite the league’s worst receiving corps he was decidedly better than he was in 2015. Kaepernick took the starting job back from Gabbert in week 6 and was voted by teammates the winner of the 49ers’ most prestigious in-house award.

3. Last year, Kaepernick was under contract with the 49ers. Acquiring him would have meant sending draft-pick compensation to San Francisco. This year he’s an unrestricted free agent with no draft-pick compensation involved.

Kaepernick had all those factors going against him a year ago and still had strong interest from two teams, the Broncos and Browns. This year, those opposing forces have been removed and yet he has no suitors.

That’s partly Kaepernick’s fault. He rejected the Browns last year because they made some moves in free agency he felt weakened that team. He was right; Cleveland won only a single game in 2016. But it’s difficult to say you’re excited about joining the Browns – who are still looking for a quarterback – one year after spurning them.

Kaepernick also might have been a good fit in Miami where the starter, Ryan Tannehill, suffered a serious knee injury late last season and where the offense works best with an athletic quarterback. But his comments before last year’s game there, in which he at least offered some defense of former Cuban leader Fidel Castro, likely made him persona non grata in a city that celebrated Castro’s death for weeks.

But anyone who says politics plays no role in the NFL, that it’s strictly merit-based and that it’s in no way a reason for Kaepernick’s limbo, isn’t paying attention.

Browns owner Jimmy Haslam is the brother of the Republican governor of Tennessee. In Denver, general manager John Elway attended President Donald Trump’s inauguration and recently wrote a letter urging the Senate judiciary committee to confirm Trump’s Supreme Court nominee, Neil Gorsuch.

On Monday, Jets owner Woody Johnson arrived in Phoenix for the NFL’s annual owners meeting with his brother, Christopher, in tow. Why?

Woody Johnson is expected to be named by Trump as the U.S. ambassador to the United Kingdom, and his brother reportedly will assume control of the Jets’ day-to-day operations.

Last week, Trump needled Kaepernick about his jobless status and said he read a report that NFL owners don’t want to sign the quarterback “because they don’t want to get a nasty tweet from Donald Trump.”

In at least a couple of NFL cities, the president probably is right.

Matt Barrows: @mattbarrows, read more about the team at sacbee.com/sf49ers.

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