Sports

He Doesn’t Know the System. He’s Been out of Football for Too Long.

They’ve had two years. NFL coaches still haven’t come up with a good excuse for their teams not signing Colin Kaepernick.

Colin Kaepernick in his San Francisco 49ers uniform, with snow falling around him.
Kaepernick: still out in the cold.
Joe Robbins/Getty Images

For all intents and purposes, Washington doesn’t have a quarterback. Starter Alex Smith suffered a Theismann-like leg injury in November, and his backup, Colt McCoy, fractured his fibula against the Philadelphia Eagles on Monday. That leaves Mark Sanchez, who signed with the team just before Thanksgiving. He replaced McCoy in the second quarter of that game against the Eagles and threw for 100 yards, zero touchdowns, and one interception. Washington lost, 28–13.

Washington’s Sanchez-led offense managed 36 total yards in the second half. For all the visual learners out there, that’s about two-thirds the length of a Boeing 737. When you walk to seat 26D, you’re traveling a longer distance than Mark Sanchez was able to move the ball in two full quarters.

Washington is just one game behind first place in the wide-open NFC East. The team would have a pretty navigable route to the postseason were it not for the fact that its current quarterback plays like a gout-stricken mall Santa. Speaking with reporters after Monday’s loss, Washington coach Jay Gruden dismissed an obvious candidate the team might bring in for the position. “He’s been talked about,” Gruden said, referring to Colin Kaepernick. “But we’ll probably go in a different direction.”

Kaepernick, who inaugurated the league’s social justice protests in 2016 by sitting and then kneeling during the national anthem, has been out of the NFL for going on two full seasons now. While NFL owners clearly don’t want Kaepernick in the league on account of his activism, he’s maintained his training regimen and has expressed his desire to try out for a team. Despite missing the entire 2017 season and (probably) the entire 2018 season, Kaepernick’s last NFL start came on the same day as Sanchez’s last start, and his career passer rating, touchdown-to-interception ratio, and completion percentage are all better than those of the current Washington starter. Nevertheless, Gruden insists that his team is staying away from Kaepernick for “strictly football” reasons. That logic doesn’t exactly pass muster, as Steven Ruiz explains in his comprehensive piece over at USA Today.

“There’s not a lot of time to get a brand-new quarterback and system installed in a couple of days,” Gruden said. Kaepernick became a star when he filled in for a concussed Alex Smith in 2012, performing so spectacularly well that the San Francisco 49ers immediately promoted him to be the team’s starter. Why should Gruden expect him to be able to fill in for, uh, Alex Smith?

Nevertheless, Gruden said it would be “very difficult” for Kaepernick to adjust to the kind of offense Sanchez took for a spin during his blistering performance on Monday. As a result, Washington signed a different kind of backup to be at the ready in case Sanchez disappoints. (He will disappoint.) That player: former Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Josh Johnson, who hasn’t thrown a pass in the NFL since 2011.

Gruden’s reasoning may seem bizarre, but it’s actually standard coach-speak. While NFL team owners are the most likely culprits for keeping Kaepernick in the cold (as the quarterback alleges in his grievance against the league), it’s usually up to the coaches to publicly formulate the excuses. According to the men who prowl the sidelines, learning an NFL offense is more challenging than solving the Hodge conjecture. You need to be a Nobel-winning super genius to do it. Or Tom Savage.

After Tennessee quarterback Marcus Mariota got hurt in 2017, then–Titans head coach Mike Mularkey said, “I know [Kaepernick’s] not familiar with our offense.” That offense, which Mularkey dubbed “exotic smash mouth,” ranked 23rd in total yards last season. How on earth could Kaepernick have memorized such an intricate playbook, which, judging by the Titans games I watched, consisted of the following three plays: hand-off left, hand-off right, pass to the tight end?

At least Mularkey sounded as if he’d considered bringing in Kaepernick. When Aaron Rodgers broke his collarbone last October, (recently fired) Packers head coach Mike McCarthy gave an an ornery response to a reporter who asked about Kaepernick. “Did you just listen to that question I just answered?” he said. “I got three years invested in Brett Hundley. Two years invested in Joe Callahan. The quarterback room is exactly where it needs to be. OK?” McCarthy never saw a return on those investments. Hundley lost six of the nine games he started and threw nine touchdown passes and 12 interceptions. Callahan threw for 11 total yards all season.

The Houston Texans were also in the market for a backup quarterback last season after Deshaun Watson tore his ACL. Despite running a read-option offense that Kaepernick is familiar with from his days in San Francisco, the Texans opted to look elsewhere. “Colin Kaepernick’s a good football player,” Houston coach Bill O’Brien said, “[but he] hasn’t played football in a while.” The Texans instead signed Josh Johnson who, as mentioned earlier, hadn’t thrown a football in an NFL game since 2011. (And still hasn’t.)

According to all these coaches, Kaepernick—and seemingly only Kaepernick—lacks what it takes to learn an NFL offense. He’s had too much time away. (Unlike, say, Josh Johnson.) Or he hasn’t had enough time to catch up. Either way, you won’t see him behind center any time soon.

On Sunday, Jay Gruden will have to pretend that Mark Sanchez represents Washington’s best hope to make the playoffs and that Josh Johnson’s body of work has been enough to earn him the backup role. To be fair to Gruden, though, the coach did give another reason for rejecting Kaepernick. Gruden said he wanted “someone with a similar skill set” as the unremarkable Sanchez to be his backup. In 2018, Johnson certainly fits the bill.