What makes the Kaepernick story so compelling is the confluence of events and variables. If you were to remove or alter any one of them, the entire equation shifts and Kaepernick has a job or is announcing his retirement. The limbo zone in which he currently resides is the result of a perfect combination of playing ability, limited salary cap resources, playing style, political activism, and reputation as a teammate. The inability to drill down to one reason as to why he is still in street clothes is why there have been so many awful “hot” takes because this discussion requires the nuance that Bryan and a few others have properly devoted to it. However, lets quickly rehash each of the above variables I outlined:
Playing ability: Last year’s 16–4 TD-INT production looked good, but it also came in the same offense that saw Nick Foles put up 27–2 one year for the Eagles. However, Kelly’s offense has plateaued since he entered the league and league defense have caught up and lapped it, so comparing Kaepernick’s measly numbers those of Foles is unfair because Foles produced those numbers when Kelly’s offense was the most innovative thing in the NFL. It is probably more fair to compare his numbers to those of Sam Bradford in his final year with the Eagles in which you saw a good TD-INT ratio, but a paltry YPC number. Much of that was blamed of “Check Down” Sam Bradford, but perhaps it was a symptom of Kelly’s offense as much as it was a symptom of mediocre QB play. What makes Kaepernick’s playing ability so difficult to assess is that he’s operated under inept coaching the last two years with below average talent surrounding him. Additionally, as the league has moved back to favoring the “traditional” passer, Kaepernick’s stock is continually unsettled.
Limited salary cap resources: Most teams have committed significant salary cap or draft resources to a franchise QB, so there is immediately a limited market. Additionally, teams looking for a solution at QB know it’s smarter to find one in the draft than continually used band-aids in free agency. The backup market is even more peculiar. While backups have started seeing more sizable contracts (you can thank Howie Roseman’s $8 million/year deal with Chase Daniel for that), it’s still a position that teams are cautious about devoting too many resources. There is also the stereotype of what they want out of a backup QB. A good locker room guy, a steady veteran hand to bring along a younger QB, someone familiar with the system. The problem is that Kaepernick, historically, does not have the reputation of being a good locker room guy (more on that in a second), he is more likely to want to compete with a younger QB than resign himself to backup status, and he’s played in a unique offensive system, due to his own outstanding traits, so he isn’t someone you would trust to “master” a system, such as backups who can jump from team-to-team that run variations of the West Coast Offense.
Playing style: I just mentioned this, but it bears repeating. Most coaches are not that creative in how they use players. They have a system and they find players that fit that system. Therefore, do you want to commit valuable resources to a guy who you’re going to have to change the offense when they come in the game. Most teams have a tough enough time running one offense, let alone two. Looking back about ten years ago when Michael Vick came back in the league, it was facilitated by the fact the Eagles had a mobile QB in Donovan McNabb and Vick could rehabilitate his image and fit well into the sort of offense Andy Reid developed during his time in Philadelphia.
Locker room reputation: Before last year, when he earned glowing marks, Kaepernick was known as a bit of a loner. A guy who kept to himself and did not show the leadership one would expect from a QB. Perhaps some of that was Jim Harbaugh sucking up all the air in the room as the Grand Master Puba of the team, but nevertheless, you continued to hear rumblings about teammate issues with Aldon Smith and others. Once again, backup QBs, if he’s willing to resign himself to that, tend to be good “glue” guys and not someone to make waves.
Political activism: NFL teams, and coaches, dislike drama. It’s why the decision of draft Joe Mixon had to ultimately come down from ownership no matter what anyone’s player evaluation was. Some owners have built up enough good will the community or exist in markets that have a forgiving media where they can take a polarizing figure and seamlessly bring them into the fold. The problem is those franchises I just describe tend to be amazingly stable and successful and do not need a starting or backup QB. Teams that are an organizational disaster are the ones that need that talent, but they are already taking on so much water for doing their jobs ineptly that they don’t want to take the additional risk of signing a player who will split the fan base.
When you factor all of those things together it is not stunning that he remains unsigned. The reason it’s confusing is that all of these factors play into the decision, but when someone gives a 15-second sound bite, they have to boil things down to the lowest common denominator and everyone chooses a different reason to push an agenda or get attention through a “take.”