It is one thing for Colin Kaepernick, former quarterback of the San Francisco 49ers, to be getting plenty of ink on his odd, cognitively dissonant, protest of racial inequality and police brutality from his perch as a multi-millionaire with a privileged mixed-race upbringing and later sports star adulation. Perhaps one can even stomach Sports Illustrated’s self-serving and self-promotional granting of its 2017 Muhammad Ali Legacy award to the free agent professional football player. Most probably do not appreciate the irony of receiving an award that lionizes a boxer that despite a remarkable career in and out of the ring the face of protracted racism, was obviously no great American. But one has to draw the line when sports pundits, like Tanya Ray Fox of Touchdown Wire and USA Today’s Rams Wire, can’t even get the statistics right when attempting to show that Kaepernick’s performances are comparable (and therefore he is being unfairly blacklisted for his activism) to quarterbacks still in the league, or on the 49ers’ current roster for that matter.
Fox’s talking points revolved around three stats accumulated by Kaepernick in his last five full games in 2016 (skipping a week 13 game at Chicago where he was 1-5 passing for 4 yards with five sacks and 6 runs for 20 yards and a fumble that was recovered) and comparing them to Jimmy Garoppolo’s five games in 2017. Both recorded 67% completion percentages (her figure for Kaepernick was actually incorrectly reported as 64.6%). And while Garoppolo put up 1542 passing yards against Kaepernick’s 1093, Garoppolo threw 6 TD’s against 5 interceptions versus Kaepernick’s 9 TD’s against 2 interceptions. And to add icing to the statistical argument, Kaepernick also rushed for 188 yards and 1 TD (in 27 rushes) against 7 yards and 1 TD in 14 rushes for Garoppolo.
Fox asserts that Kaepernick’s superior TD-INT ratio, comparable passing percentage, and better running yardage indicated that the excitement over Garoppolo was misplaced–more attributable to “the fact that he was under Tom Brady’s tutelage for years and possesses the same confident charm and handsome all-American looks”. Additionally, Garoppolo “entered those games with no pressure to save the team or their season. Essentially, all of his starts were in garbage time”. Really? The fact that Garoppolo is fighting for a new contract with the 49ers, or any other team, that will give him a chance to be a starter is irrelevant? Or perhaps that the record of New England backups as starters for other teams is more than a little checkered?
Kaepernick, Fox asserts, “was playing under immense stress brought on by the scrutiny of a nation full of people who all seemed to have an opinion about the kind of football player he was, the kind of person he was and the kind of American he was.” Are we talking about the same guy who started as QB in a Superbowl and had already put up gaudy stats that earned him a fat multi-year contract? Or who was featured in commercials jauntily kissing his biceps? Or who waited to get big money before putting into play his anthem-disrepecting stunt at perhaps the instigation of his new flashy leftist DJ girlfriend?
Fox doesn’t stop there. She goes on to disparage Jim Tomsula and Chip Kelly as substandard coaches who apparently misused Kaepernick for two seasons. Never mind that Tomsula had coached at the professional level as a coordinator, head coach, or defensive line coach for almost twenty years previously, or that mere journeyman quarterbacks under Chip Kelly during his stint with the Philadelphia Eagles posted eye-popping passing and completion statistics. No, apparently Kaepernick was “great” when Harbaugh was the head coach (now back coaching college ball just like Chip Kelly), and then “pretty damned good” while he suffered under the pitiful tutelage of the two successors.
Not exactly. In his last five full games in 2016, Kaepernick was sacked 15 times against 8 occurrences for Garappolo. This is in spite of the fact that Kaepernick is recognized as superior in mobility over Garappolo. And those additional seven sacks, on top of 449 less passing yards, really mattered. The 49ers scored 99 points against 141 scored by opponents during Kaepernick’s five game stint, versus 144 points scored by the 49ers against 99 points scored by opponents during Garoppolo’s stint. Higher sacks and less yards passing (even when adding in the rushing yards) yielded less touchdowns by the team, which factored in Kaepernick’s 1-4 win-loss record versus that of Garoppolo’s 5-0 record. So while the additional three turnovers by Garoppolo undoubtedly hurt the 49ers, his game management and productivity more than overcame that deficit.
For another thing, why is the five games that Fox chose more relevant than the other five full games (six including a partial game) Kaepernick played during the 2016 season? Because the other games were earlier in the year in better weather against less prepared defenses? Come on. In those games Kaepernick’s completion percentage was only 52% (with comparable total yardage). Sure, he rushed 42 times for 280 yards in that stretch, but he also fumbled eight times, losing six of them. And he was sacked an unbelievable 21 times. Little wonder San Francisco lost all six of those games.
And then there is the story underlying the completion percentage and rushing yards statistics. Kaepernick’s well known flaw is his inability to patiently wait for plays to develop if the primary receiver is not open and to effectively read defenses. If he throws the ball, it is usually to his primary receiver if he is open. If the primary is not open, rather than going through his progressions or relying on his inaccurate (albeit strong) arm, he often takes off running. Thus completion percentages tend to be higher than what would be expected given the unwillingness to throw under pressure (unless scrambling to break down zone defenses) or through difficult passing windows. All this assumes that Kaepernick executes the play as actually called, which often does not happen.
Perhaps it is time to accept the truth about read-option quarterbacks. If they cannot beat coverages in a collapsing pocket, they are not going to play. That’s why one dimensional read-option specialists like Kaepernick and Robert Griffin III are still free agents, and why a similar but significantly more capable read-option specialist like Russell Wilson is a starter in Seattle. And it is why an effective pocket passer like Jimmy Garoppolo might be starting again for San Francisco in 2018.
9/2/18 Update. Kaepernick’s collusion case against the NFL received the green light from an arbitrator to continue to trial. The NFL has unsuccessfully sought a dismissal. Kaepernick’s legal teal will now be able to subpeona for evidence. The quarterback has alleged that the league has conspired to keep him from winning a new contract because of his anthem disrespecting.