Press Coverage

Colin Kaepernick's potential path back to NFL: What's next for QB?

In NFL.com's Press Coverage series, columnists Judy Battista, Jeffri Chadiha, Michael Silver and Jim Trotter engage in a back-and-forth discussion on a timely topic, issue or theme. In this edition, JUDY BATTISTA leads off a discussion on Colin Kaepernick's potential path back to the NFL.

For three weeks since the killing of George Floyd, as rallies decrying police brutality and racism have swept the country, we've seen protesters -- and even members of Congress -- enact a gesture familiar to any NFL fan: They knelt.

Kneeling has become ubiquitous, but the NFL player who first knelt in protest of police brutality and other social injustices -- Colin Kaepernick -- remains absent, despite the league's recent embrace of the Black Lives Matter movement and expansion of financial support for social justice initiatives.

Kaepernick last played in the 2016 season for the San Francisco 49ers, with a league-organized workout last November going awry in a stew of mutual distrust and failed communication. It did not go unnoticed by players and fans that in the powerful videos made by star players calling for action from the league and Commissioner Roger Goodell in his response 12 days ago, neither mentioned Kaepernick by name.

The short-circuiting of Kaepernick's playing career after he protested the very issue that has now galvanized the country is a lingering stain on the NFL, and one that might never be fully erased. But late last week, the NFL door seemed to open to Kaepernick just a crack. In discussing the NFL's commitment of $250 million to combat systemic racism, a person familiar with the program said that the league would not be where it is today on its social justice initiatives without the work Kaepernick and other players have done, and indicated, for the first time, a willingness by the NFL to work with Kaepernick.

"It would be awesome to engage Colin on some of the work we are doing," the person said. "He's doing real impactful work."

On Monday night, in an interview with ESPN, Goodell went further, noting that it was Kaepernick, and other players including Eric Reid, Kenny Stills and Malcolm Jenkins, who first brought these issues to light.

And, Goodell, who pushed for Kaepernick's ill-fated workout last year, said he would welcome the quarterback back to the NFL.

"If he wants to resume his career in the NFL, then obviously that is going to take a team making that decision, but I welcome that and support a club making that decision and encourage them to do that," Goodell said. "If his efforts are not on the field but in continuing the work in this space, we welcome him to that table and to be able to help us and guide us and help us make better decisions about the kinds of things that need to be done in communities. We have invited him in before and we want to make sure that everybody is welcomed at that table in trying to help us deal with some very complex, difficult issues that have been around for, unfortunately, a long time. But I hope we are at the point now that everybody is committed to making long-term, sustainable change."

It was also telling late last week, when Seahawks coach Pete Carroll revealed that a team had called him to ask for his thoughts on Kaepernick, whom the Seahawks had in for a visit in 2017 but did not sign. Carroll said that he now regrets not signing Kaepernick then, calling it a missed opportunity. The headline, though, is that at least one team is interested enough in Kaepernick to do some due diligence. And on Wednesday, Chargers coach Anthony Lynn told reporters Kaepernick fits the team's offensive approach, opining that "it would be crazy to not have him on your workout list."

Still, Lynn says Los Angeles hasn't yet made contact with Kaepernick. So neither of those developments are exactly earthshaking -- not for a quarterback who was inches from winning a Super Bowl and is still just 32 years old. But the NFL landscape has undeniably shifted over the last month, with the expectation that there will be widespread player protests when the season begins -- with the support of Goodell. It would seem to be a league less concerned about any possible backlash if a team were to sign Kaepernick.

Our colleague Jeffri Chadiha wrote a column this week analyzing the best possible landing spots for Kaepernick, so let's go from there: What do we think Kaepernick could offer a team at this point, and do we see a path for him to finally return to an NFL roster this season?

Before I turn it over to Jeffri, Michael Silver and Jim Trotter, though, here are my thoughts:

The climate has changed so dramatically in the NFL that I rule nothing out. Until recently, I thought the notion of a Kaepernick return was impossible. But hours before we started talking about this topic, Texans coach Bill O'Brien said he would kneel with his players next season. As supportive as we know O'Brien has been of player protests, I didn't think we'd ever see that from a coach. And I don't doubt the sincerity of the league wanting to work with Kaepernick on social justice issues. The NFL would not have gone so far out on the limb to organize the workout for him last year if there was not at least some interest, perhaps self-interest, by league officials at the highest level to bring Kaepernick back into the fold. So, yes, I think I see a path to Kaepernick re-entering the league, and Goodell's encouragement on Monday opens the door even wider to acceptance of a Kaepernick signing.

My concern is on the football side. Three full seasons is an interminable break from the game, and Kaepernick would have to be, at best, a backup and maybe even, gulp, a third-stringer. I don't know what he can offer in terms of current ability to win games -- how can anybody? I do know that the only way to find out is for a team to bring Kaepernick in for a legitimate workout. The NFL has done a lot of good in the last 12 days to get on the right side of history. Putting Kaepernick on the path to a return -- whether he succeeds or fails -- would at least start to repair one of the biggest mistakes in the NFL's own recent history.

MICHAEL SILVER: It would be really, really nice to see a team sign Kaepernick now, for many of the reasons Judy elucidated, and for a very simple one: Suggesting that he's not, on paper, one of the 64 (or 96!) best quarterbacks on Earth -- even three-plus years removed from his last action -- is ridiculous.

The four of us know all the stupid arguments that get thrown out by the uninformed attempting to justify why no team has given Kaepernick a chance since he became a free agent after he started protesting, and I don't want to waste our time refuting them, fallacy by fallacy, because it's endless and exhausting. The bottom line is this: Kaepernick wants to play, and he's been working out consistently to stay ready in the event that his opportunity comes.

There are some ancillary reasons why it hasn't: He's not someone who's going to spend much time or energy assuaging the fears of prospective employers that he'd be a sideshow or a dreaded "distraction," and I certainly don't see him toning down his beliefs, statements or actions once he joins an NFL team.

The prevailing reason is this, in my opinion: A multitude of owners, general managers and coaches have been scared that Kaepernick's presence will alienate paying customers, trigger a combative president (who suddenly says he supports a Kaepernick-NFL reunion) and shift internal focus and priorities away from the pure pursuit of winning football games.

Really, that's putting it charitably. I believe some of these people, like Norman Fell's character in The Graduate, just don't want a damn "agitator" in their building.

I hope we've reached the point in the past few weeks where at least one franchise can view Kaepernick's potential signing, if not as a net positive, as something short of Armageddon. Yes, it would cause a distraction, at least in the short term, and yes it would tick off some of the paying customers. And you know what? Life would go on, and eventually most of the attention would be back on red-zone efficiency, explosive plays and turnover ratio.

JEFFRI CHADIHA: If the past three weeks have shown us anything, it's that we're far past the point of considering Kaepernick's return to the NFL as a distraction. This country has woken up so much during that time -- largely because of Floyd's death -- that kneeling now looks quite passive compared to the way some of this outrage has manifested itself in certain cities. We all expect more players to kneel or protest social injustice in their own way this coming season. We just don't know where Kaepernick is going to fit into all this, at least as far as the NFL as concerned.

I do believe it's a valid question to wonder what he can reasonably do on the field at this stage. We're not talking about a quarterback who isn't even a year removed from playing football, as was the case in 2017, when the Seahawks and Ravens thought about signing him. By the time the NFL season kicks off, it will be close to four years since Kaepernick last threw a pass in the league.

There literally are no legitimate comparisons out there for what he could be attempting to do. Michael Vick comes the closest and he missed only two full seasons while serving a federal prison sentence. When he returned, as a third-string backup with the Eagles, he needed a season to redevelop his skills and recondition his body. Vick also was 29 at the time, three years younger than Kaepernick is today.

I am hopeful that a team will come forward to talk about signing Kaepernick. Just as he was perceived as bad for business during all these years, now there's a certain level of value he ironically brings to the table because of his stance. I personally don't like the idea of a team signing him just to show support for the cause -- or as an offer of reconciliation -- but I'd also like to see him get another opportunity any way he can.

The question, and it's a big one in this situation, is what Kaepernick wants at this stage. If he's looking for a chance to start, then he'd better pay close attention to the current quarterback market in this league. Cam Newton doesn't have a job. Andy Dalton has a one-year deal as a backup in Dallas, while Jameis Winston has the same situation in New Orleans. This league is flush with talent at the position, whether you're talking about incoming rookies, young superstars or future Hall of Famers.

The reality is that any opportunity he's going to get will involve him being a backup at first. He has to be cool with that. If I were in his shoes, I'd try to find a team with a coach he can trust, with a history of developing quarterbacks. The greatest thing Andy Reid gave Vick when he joined the Eagles in 2009 was support. The team had Vick's back when so many fans still wanted to crucify the quarterback, and he ultimately prospered as a result.

I'd also like to hear directly from Kaepernick as this process plays out. He hasn't done much talking publicly over the last few years and I can't imagine a better time to hear his voice. (To hear Ray Lewis tell it, an unsettling tweet from Kaepernick's girlfriend played a huge role in a potential deal falling through with the Ravens back in 2017.) That not only applies to what is happening in the streets. It applies to how he envisions his career moving forward and how much he wants to trust the NFL to do the right thing this time around.

It's easy to bash the league for how the past four years have played out, and God knows it deserves the criticism it has received. But it also feels like an olive branch is about to be extended, which is no small step in the right direction. Of course, the most noteworthy move would involve a team actually coming forward and offering a deal. If that happens, then I'm hoping Kaepernick can see the benefits of finally being back where he belongs.

JIM TROTTER: It's difficult being last in the rotation on this topic because my colleagues have made great points, some of which I had hoped to illuminate. That said, here goes ...

I'll start with the latter question initially raised by Judy: Yes, I do see a path for Kaepernick to return to the NFL, but seeing a path and actually putting him on a path are two different things. The major issue between the sides is a lack of trust, as mentioned earlier. The parties have to get past that before we can legitimately talk about him returning. The first step in reconciliation, I believe, is for the commissioner -- speaking on behalf of the owners -- to apologize to Kaepernick. I get that doing so could potentially subject the league to a new lawsuit, which is why the apology would have to be nuanced. That's not ideal, but the reality is we moved past ideal the moment Kaepernick could not get a job. The commissioner has already moved in ways many never thought possible, such as saying the league was wrong for trying to silence its players, that black lives matter and that he supports and encourages any team that wants to sign Kaepernick. Don't stop there. Take that final step. If nothing else, just publicly apologize for the way Kaepernick was treated, even if you never mentioned precisely how he was treated.

As to the first question of what Kaepernick could bring to a team, the honest answer is: I ... don't ... know. As Jeffri pointed out, we are in uncharted waters. While nearly four years between games is a lifetime, four years between daily organized football workouts is an eternity. The only way to find out what he has is to get him on the field, and a significant step toward that would be a public apology.

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