Colin Kaepernick was 25 when he made his NFL playoff debut, rushing for 181 yards and throwing for 263 more in a 45-31 playoff rout of the Packers en route to a 49ers Super Bowl appearance.
He was 26 the next season when he took the 49ers back to the NFC title game in his first full season as a starter.
Kaepernick was 28 when he took a knee during the national anthem for the first time in protest of police brutality during the 2016 season.
He had turned 29 later that season by the time he took his most recent snap in the NFL — playing for, by then, a dreadful 49ers team but still managing to throw 16 touchdowns with just four interceptions.
At that point, he was blackballed from the NFL. Nobody exactly used that word, opting instead for the soft rebuke of terms like “distraction.” Heck, even Joe Montana used that word. President Trump used much harsher language to smear those players who continued to protest in 2017.
By quantitative measures, Kaepernick was in his career prime when he was forced out. That five-year sweet spot lasts from age 26-30, it says here. By the time quarterbacks are 31, they tend to start to show some sort of decline.
Kaepernick is now 32. On Monday, the commissioner of the league that kept him out of a job for three years — finally — seemed to indicate Kaepernick would be welcome back.
“Well, listen, if he wants to resume his career in the NFL, then obviously it’s going to take a team to make that decision,” Roger Goodell said as part of ESPN’s The Return of Sports special. “But I welcome that, support a club making that decision and encourage them to do that.”
It is right and proper to be suspicious of Goodell suddenly dipping his toes in The Resistance — wondering if he is doing so sincerely or merely following a shift in public opinion from two years ago (when the majority of those polled thought protesting during the anthem was inappropriate) to now (when 61% of people think Goodell owes Kaepernick an apology).
Barely six months ago, Goodell said the league had “moved on” from Kaepernick, though you could parse the words and meaning of what he said to be incredibly broad or very narrowly focused on a tryout gone awry.
But if we focus too hard on the sincerity of the shifting message, we lose sight of three-plus years of action.
All 32 NFL teams combined to waste part of the prime of a very capable and proven quarterback’s career, instead employing various other lesser men. Some might have passed for football reasons, but many did so for more nefarious ones.
And now that Kaepernick is publicly being welcomed back into the league by Goodell, he is still better than plenty of other options. But he’s almost certainly not as good as he was at the start of 2017.
Will a team — hey, like the Vikings, who have been public about their search for a better backup option to Kirk Cousins — employ Kaepernick on a roster in 2020? After three years out of the league, and in an environment where, because of the coronavirus pandemic, teams likely will be gathering for the first time in groups at training camp in late July?
It’s certainly better for Goodell to have said what he said instead of remaining silent. But nothing can undo how wrong the NFL, led by Goodell, has been about Kaepernick for so long
Nothing can give back to Kaepernick the NFL career he should have had.