The 2017 NFL season begins tonight, and every argument about why Colin Kaepernick remains out of the NFL has been debunked — except one.
“He is bad — he went 1-10!”
Yes, Kaepernick was 1-10 last season for the 2-14 49ers, but history tells us that a crappy record in merely one season is not enough to land a quarterback on the NFL’s unemployment list.
After all, Kaepernick’s 2016 was the 38th time in NFL/AFL history in which a quarterback in at least his 6th season won 3 or fewer games while losing 9 or more. Thirty-one quarterbacks other than Kaepernick produced such a season. Only two never played again.
Before we get to that list, it’s worth noting that the 1-10 record is the latest in a litany of excuses about why Kaepernick is unemployed. One by one, they’ve been debunked:
- “Kaepernick screwed himself by opting out of his contract!” False. The team was going to cut him. General Manager John Lynch said so himself.
- “We don’t know if Kaepernick still wants to play!” False. We do know. He does want to play, and has been working out five days a week.
- “Kaepernick cares more about activism than football!” False. He is an activist who loves football.
- “Kaepernick needs to show that he cares about football.” False. Jay Cutler retired, got a job as a broadcaster, released nude photos of himself, and still got a job.
- “Kaepernick is hurting himself by not talking to the media.” False. He is talking to “the media”— or anyhow, he is talking to certain reporters, most notably Dave Zirin, Evan Moore, and Shannon Sharpe. There is no such thing as “the media.”
- “Kaepernick is hurting himself by asking for $9-$10 million dollars and a guaranteed starting job.” False. He has not asked for any of that.
- “Fans are revolting against the NFL because of Kaepernick’s protest.” False. Polling about how Kaepernick’s protest did or did not impact viewership of the 2016 season have been inconclusive, as seen here, here, and here.
- “Kaepernick is a ‘distraction’ who pissed off his teammates.” False. His teammates overwhelmingly support him, even ones who initially did not.
- “Kaepernick can’t throw from the pocket / run a modern offense.” False. Retired NFL defensive end Stephen White broke down Kaepernick’s 2016 tape, as did Miles Liatos at Hawk Talk & Coffee.
- “Kaepernick just plain isn’t good anymore.” False. Richard Madrid of 49ers Webzone also studied Kaepernick’s 2016 tape.
- (Sept. 20 update: Bill Barnwell of ESPN wrote a wonderful article debunking the “Kaepernick is just plain BAD!” argument. In it, he linked to Jason Lisk’s 2016 piece in The Big Lead that simply documents quotes from media members from 1990 to 2016 lamenting the league’s “quality of play” and “poor quarterbacking.” I then found examples from 1984 and 1971 about claims of poor quality of play and bad quarterbacking, which means these talking points have surrounded the league for coming up on 50 years — or nearly the entire Super Bowl era.)
Now we come to the “But he went 1-10!!!” argument, and like the others, a little research is all it takes to prove that theory false. Like I said, using Pro Football Reference’s finder tool, I identified 38 seasons in which an NFL or AFL quarterback in his 6th year or after won 3 or fewer games while losing 9 or more games.
I sorted for a QB’s 6th season and beyond for two reasons, one general and one specific.
The general reason is that even future Hall of Famers have had abysmal seasons at the start of their careers — such as Steve Young (2-12 in his 2nd season), Troy Aikman (0-11 as a rookie), or Peyton Manning (3-13 as a rookie) — and I wanted to look at quarterbacks who have had enough time to show coaches who they are.
The specific reason is that 2016 was Kaepernick’s 6th NFL season, so I started there.
The point here is to see that Kaepernick’s continued NFL unemployment is a historical anomaly. 538 and Football Outsiders explored this concept, while the Undefeated catalogued the quarterbacks signed since Kaepernick became a free agent. Deadspin, meanwhile, has led coverage on both commentary and non-Kaep QB signings. The reason I focused on the “1-10” stat (or my version: 3-9 or worse) is that fans and even reporters use it erroneously to “prove” that Kaepernick is underserving of being an NFL quarterback in 2017.
Last three notes before we get started. If you need a refresher, remind yourself why Kaepernick protested in the first place: police accountability surrounding violent encounters with citizens, specifically people of color. If you need a timeline of events around Kaepernick, SB Nation compiled a terrific one.
And if you need to see the realities of what Kaepernick is protesting, and why the “shut up and play football” attitude is insulting and bogus, here’s what happened to NFL player, 2x Pro Bowler, and Super Bowl-champion Michael Bennett last month in Las Vegas:
Okay, on to the list.
We’ll quickly see that a 1-10 record should not be keeping Kaepernick from NFL employment. Here is the Pro Football Reference list, sorted by passer rating (and, oh hey, look who’s at the top), and here is my own spreadsheet of these players, showing how they performed before and after the season in question, which we will call The Season or Bad Seasons, while calling this list The List. Six quarterbacks (Jeff Blake, Marc Bulger, Boomer Esiason, Jim Everett, Jon Kitna, Norm Snead) appear on The List twice, giving us a total of 32 QBs.
For Kaepernick and the other quarterbacks on The List, I am looking at three time periods: before The Season, The Season, and after The Season. Feel free to inspect The List and draw your own conclusions. The following are mine.
Performance before The Season
The notion that Kaepernick is “bad” based solely on his 1-10 record ignores his four seasons of varying levels of success as a starter before The Season. Some critics note that Kaepernick has regressed since 2013, which is true, but even in 2014 he led the 49ers to an 8-8 record.
That was Jim Harbaugh’s final season as 49ers head coach, and the roster deteriorated after his departure, with the team going 5-11 in 2015 and 2-14 last year. Kaepernick was hardly a unique failure in 2016 among 49ers players. He was, in fact, one of the team’s better players, leading the team in Pro Football Reference’s “Approximate Value” metric.
The point here is that if you think Kaepernick doesn’t belong in the NFL in 2017 strictly because of his performance in 2016, you’re wiping out his prior success, which topped most of the quarterbacks in our study of Bad Seasons, all but two of whom continued their NFL careers after The Season.
Nine quarterbacks had a winning percentage of 56% or higher prior to The Season:
- Sonny Jurgensen, 1962 Eagles, 3-9-1 — 13-5 before (72.2%)
- Zeke Bratkowski, 1961 Rams, 2-9 — 11-5 before (68.8%)
- Norm Van Brocklin, 1958 Eagles, 2-9-1 — 42-20-3 before (64.6%)
- Bernie Kosar, 1990 Browns, 3-10 — 39-23-1 before (61.9%)
- Bobby Hebert, 1996 Falcons, 3-10 — 53-34 before (60.9%)
- Marc Bulger, 2007 Rams, 2-10 — 36-24 before (60.0%)
- Neil O’Donnell, 1998 Bengals, 2-9 — 47-35 before (58.0%)
- COLIN KAEPERNICK, 2016 49ers, 1-10 — 27-20 before (57.4%)
- Bert Jones, 1981 Colts, 2-13 — 44-33 before (57.1%)
Prior to The Season, Kaepernick led the 49ers to two postseasons. Of the 32 quarterbacks on our list, the most postseason appearances as a starter before The Season was four, by Kosar, O’Donnell, and George Blanda.
Also worth noting is that Kaep is one of only six QBs on The List to reach a Super Bowl prior to The Season:
- Joe Namath, 1975 Jets, 3-10 — won SB III (1968) with the Jets
- Craig Morton, 1976 Giants, 2-10 — lost SB V (1971) with the Cowboys
- Boomer Esiason, 1991 Bengals, 3-11, and 1995 Jets, 2-10 — lost SB XXIII with the Bengals
- Neil O’Donnell, 1998 Bengals, 2-9 — lost SB XXX (1995) with the Steelers
- Kerry Collins, 2004 Raiders, 3-10 — lost SB XXXV (2000) with the Giants
- COLIN KAEPERNICK, 2016 49ers, 1-10 — lost SB XLVII (2012) with the 49ers
I will note that Kaepernick is not one of the 18 quarterbacks on The List who reached at least one Pro Bowl prior to The Season; Dan Fouts (1986 Chargers, 3-9) and Van Brocklin had the most Pro Bowls prior to a Bad Season with six apiece. Kaep is hurt in this respect by his breakout 2012 season, which likely would have ended in a Pro Bowl appearance had he not began as a backup.
Performance in The Season
I’ll add three notes to this.
First, here are Kaepernick’s statistical rankings in some categories among QBs in their Bad Seasons.
- Passer rating: 1st (90.7)
- Fewest interceptions: tied 1st (4)
- Lowest interception percentage: 2nd (1.21)
- Touchdown percentage: 5th (4.8%)
- Completion percentage: 8th (59.2%)
- Touchdowns: 13th (20)
- Yards per attempt: 14th (6.77)
- Yards per game: 20th (186.8)
In other words, he had one of the best seasons among the Bad Season producers.
Second, here are Kaepernick’s statistical rankings in those categories among the 30 NFL quarterbacks in 2016 who compiled at least 300 pass attempts (Kaep had 331):
- Passer rating: 19th (Matt Ryan, 117.1)
- Fewest interceptions: 2nd (Tom Brady, 2)
- Lowest interception percentage: 6th (Tom Brady, .46%)
- Touchdown percentage: 13th (Matt Ryan, 7.1%)
- Completion percentage: 26th (Sam Bradford, 71.6%)
- Touchdowns: 26th (Aaron Rodgers, 40)
- Yards per attempt: 24th (Matt Ryan, 9.26)
- Yards per game: last (Drew Brees, 325.5)
As we can see, Kaepernick was a mediocre quarterback in 2016, yet he is still pretty obviously one of the 64 best quarterbacks in the NFL. The idea that teams don’t want “a distraction” at backup quarterback is of course probably true; the idea that Kaepernick is “a distraction” (or that distractions exist at all among highly-trained athletes whose success depends on intense focus) is probably not true, a claim I base on:
- Kaepernick’s teammates’ statements
- Kaepernick’s teammates voting him the recipient of the team’s prestigious Les Eshmont Award (for “inspirational and courageous play”)
Lastly, attributing wins and losses in football to one player, even a quarterback, is arguably very, very misleading. There’s even an entire Twitter account dedicated to debunking the team’s win-loss record as a meaningful quarterback statistic.
49ers record and points allowed per game since Harbaugh took over as head coach:
- 2011: 13-3, 14.3 points allowed per game (2nd in NFL)
- 2012: 11-4-1, 17.1 (2nd)
- 2013: 12-4, 17.0 (3rd)
- 2014: 8-8, 21.3 (10th)
- 2015, 1st season without Harbaugh: 5-11, 24.2 (18th)
- 2016: 2nd season without Harbaugh: 2-14, 30.0 (last)
You get the idea.
Performance after The Season
Here’s where The List gets really interesting.
As I said above, 29 of the previous 31 quarterbacks on The List continued playing after posting The Season. Here are some brief notes on each, sorted by the total number of seasons they played after The Season.
12 more seasons
- Sonny Jurgensen, 1962 Eagles, 3-9-1, age 28 — 53-57-6 after The Season. Jurgensen played only one more season with the Eagles, went 1-6-1, landed in D.C. and had his greatest career success, with four more Pro Bowls including an All Pro season in 1969. Injuries in 1972 and 1973 kept him from the playoffs (including Super Bowl VII against the Dolphins), though he did reach the playoffs after the 1974 season. He was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1983.
10 more seasons
- George Blanda, 1965 Oilers, 3-9, age 38 — 4-5 after The Season. After spending 10 years with the Bears, (and playing one game with the 1950 Colts), Blanda went to the AFL’s Houston Oilers, where he was an All Pro quarterback and star kicker, reaching the league’s Pro Bowl in 1961, 1962, and 1963. He went 16-30 as a starter from 1963 to 1966, stopped playing quarterback (for the most part), and went to the Oakland Raiders in 1967. He reached the Pro Bowl in ’67 as a kicker, played nine seasons with the Raiders until the age of 48 (an NFL record), and started only one game at quarterback during that time. Blanda was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1981.
9 more seasons
- Steve DeBerg, 1985 Buccaneers, 1-10, age 31 — 35-34-1 after The Season. DeBerg won a List-low 28.8% of his starts before his Bad Season, and 50% after, mostly with the Chiefs, where he reached the playoffs in 1990 and 1991. At age 44, after five years out of football, DeBerg earned a trip to Super Bowl XXXIII as a backup with the Falcons.
- John Brodie, 1964 49ers, 3-9, age 29 — 49-43-7 after The Season. Like DeBerg, Brodie was better after The Season than before it. Like Kaepernick, Brodie played his entire career with the 49ers (though hopefully Kaepernick works again). In 1965, Brodie had one of his two best seasons, reaching the Pro Bowl and leading the NFL in passing yards and touchdowns. He reached his 2nd Pro Bowl in 1970 and was named All Pro, leading the 49ers to the postseason for the first time in his career, and the first of three straight seasons ending in the playoffs.
8 more seasons
- Jon Kitna, 2002 Bengals, 2-10, age 30 — 24-39 after The Season. This was the first of Kitna’s two Bad Seasons. The Bengals were his second team, and his 2002 helped lead to Cincinnati getting the 1st pick in the 2003 NFL Draft and selecting USC quarterback Carson Palmer. Kitna kept the seat warm for Palmer all of 2003, with Palmer winning the starting job in 2004 and taking the Bengals to the playoffs in 2005. Palmer was lost for the game with a knee injury on his first pass attempt, giving way to Kitna, who played poorly in reserve and went to the Lions in 2006.
- Norm Snead, 1968 Eagles, 2-9, age 29 — 22-37-3 after The Season. Like Kitna, this is Snead’s first of two appearances on The List. Also like Kitna, Snead was on his 2nd NFL team, and proceeded to bounce around the league. A Pro Bowler with both Washington (1962, 1963) and Philly (1965), Snead lasted two more seasons on the Eagles before launching the journeyman portion of his career, beginning with the Vikings in 1971.
- Zeke Bratkowski, 1961 Rams, 2-9, age 30 — 5-16-1 after The Season. Drafted by the Bears in 1954, Bratkowski backed up Blanda and Ed Brown in Chicago, amassing an 11-5 record in five seasons before heading to the Rams and going 3-21. In the middle of the 1963 season he went to the Packers, where he spent the final seven years of his career mostly as Bart Starr’s backup. Bratkowski won two Super Bowls with the Packers, going 0-1 in Super Bowl I and attempting no passes (while taking one sack) in Super Bowl II.
7 more seasons
- Kerry Collins, 2004 Raiders, 3-10, age 32 — 19-28 after The Season. After success with the Panthers (one Pro Bowl, one NFC championship appearance) and Giants (one Super Bowl appearance), Collins played two years with the Raiders in 2004 and 2005, going 7-21. He caught on with the Titans and had one resurgence season in 2008, making his 2nd Pro Bowl and going 12-3 as a starter while leading the Titans to an NFL-best 13-3 record. He finished his career in 2011 with the Colts.
6 more seasons
- Craig Morton, 1976 Giants, 2-10, age 33 — 41-23 after The Season. Morton had a weird career, to say the least. The 5th overall pick in 1965 to the Cowboys, Morton backed up Don Meredith for four seasons and won the starting job in 1969, taking the Cowboys in 1970 to Super Bowl V, which they lost. He then ceded the job to Roger Staubach, went to the Giants in 1974, had The Season in 1976, went to Denver in 1977, took the Broncos to the Super Bowl (lost again), and played five more seasons in Denver. He retired at age 39 as that franchise’s all-time leader in passing yards and touchdowns.
- Norm Snead, 1970 Eagles, 3-9-1, age 31 — 15-20-1 after The Season. Snead Part 2! After committing another Bad Season in 1970, Snead spent one year in Minnesota and then went to the Giants, where he made the Pro Bowl in 1972. A played a season-and-a-half more for Big Blue, a season-and-a-half for the 49ers, and retired after the 1976 season, back with the Giants.
- Jeff Blake, 1999 Bengals, 3-9, age 29 — 14-20 after The Season. A Pro Bowler with the Bengals in 1995, Blake went 3-9 in 1999, his final season in Cincy. He went to the Saints in 2000 and helped guide them toward the playoffs, though backup Aaron Brooks finished the job. More on Blake later.
- Boomer Esiason, 1991 Bengals, 3-11, age 30 — 26-40 after The Season. A three-time Pro Bowler who brought the Bengals to Super Bowl XXIII (and nearly won it), Esiason had a brutal 1991 and lasted one more season in Cincinnati before a mini-resurgence with the Jets in 1993. More on Esiason later.
- Jim Everett, 1991 Rams, 3-13, age 28 — 27-46 after The Season. Like Blake and Esiason, Everett was a former Pro Bowler whose success fizzled out. After leading the Rams to the playoffs in 1988 and 1989, Everett compiled a 17-40 record in his final four seasons with L.A. He landed with the Saints in 1994. More on him later.
- Bernie Kosar, 1990 Browns, 3-10, age 27 — 11-21 after The Season. Another former Pro Bowler whose career with his first NFL team eventually crashed and burned. Kosar played two-and-a-half more seasons with the Browns, won a Super Bowl ring as a Cowboys backup in 1993, and finished his career with the Dolphins.
5 more seasons
- Neil O’Donnell, 1998 Bengals, 2-9, age 32 — 6-2 after The Season. O’Donnell made a Pro Bowl with the Steelers in 1992, famously lost Super Bowl XXX, famously signed a huge — ultimately failed — deal with the Jets in 1996, and spent one season with the Bengals in 1998. That was his last season as a full-time starter, though as Steve McNair’s backup on the Titans in 1999, O’Donnell went 4-1 in place of an injured McNair in a season that ended in a heartbreaking Super Bowl loss. He finished his career in 2003, all with Tennessee.
- Jim Hart, 1979 Cardinals, 3-10, age 35 — 9-18 after The Season. Hart made four straight Pro Bowls with the Cardinals from 1974 to 1977, and went 11-26 with the team from 1979 to 1981, including The Season in 1979. He ended his career in Washington in 1983 at age 40.
- Joe Ferguson, 1984 Bills, 1-10, age 34 — 2-6 after The Season. Ferguson was a Cutlerian 76-76 from 1973 to 1983, all with the Bills. He bottomed out in 1984, and then bounced around with the Lions, Buccaneers, and Colts, retiring at age 40 in 1990. (He did not play at all in the 1987 season, which is why I’m calling this 5 more seasons, not 6.)
4 more seasons
- Jon Kitna, 2006 Lions, 3-13, age 34 — 11-18 after The Season. Back to Kitna. This was his first season after leaving the Bengals, and things… did not go well. No matter: Kitna got one more season as the team’s full-time starter, went 4-9 in 2008 and 2010, and retired after spending the 2011 season backing up Tony Romo in Dallas.
- Archie Manning, 1980 Saints, 1-15, age 31 — 3-26 after The Season. The former 2nd overall pick in 1971 went 31-68-3 as the Saints’ starter during his first nine years, and that was with a career-best 8-8 season in 1979. Then came the 1-15 stink bomb in 1980, followed by a 3-8 run in 1981. Manning played three more seasons with the Saints, Oilers, and Vikings, and retired after 1984.
3 more seasons
- Greg Landry, 1979 Colts, 2-12, age 33 — 2-0 after The Season. A one-time Pro Bowler with the Lions, Landry’s first of two seasons in Baltimore resulted in a 2-12 debacle. He played one more year in the NFL, spent time in the USFL, and finished his pro football career playing one game for the 1984 Bears.
- Gary Danielson, 1984 Lions, 3-10-1, age 33 — 5-3 after The Season. Danielson is one of our best examples of the uselessness of using a team’s win-loss record as an individual statistic for quarterbacks. From 1976 to 1983, he was 20-18 with the Lions, passing for 125.8 yards per game with a 72.0 QB rating, 52 touchdowns, and 56 interceptions. In 1984, Danielson passed for 205.1 yards per game, eclipsed the 3,000-yard marker for only the 2nd time in his career, threw 17 touchdowns against 15 interceptions, had an 83.1 rating, and went 3-10-1. Go figure. He went to the Browns the following season, retiring after 1988.
- Jim Harbaugh, 1997 Colts, 2-9, age 34 — 11-18 after The Season. Captain Comeback’s luck ran out with the Colts in 1997, his fourth season in Indy. He played three more seasons in the NFL, one with the Ravens and two with the Chargers, and retired after 2000 at age 37.
- Eddie LeBaron, 1960 Cowboys, 0-9-1, age 30 — 5-13 after The Season. One of only two quarterbacks on The List with a winless season, LeBaron went 0-9-1 in his first season in Dallas after reaching three Pro Bowls with Washington. He earned back the league honor in 1962 with the Cowboys, and retired after 1963.
2 more seasons
- Jeff Blake, 2003 Cardinals, 3-10, age 33 — 0-0 after The Season. After one year with the Ravens, Blake’s final season as an NFL starter came in a forgettable turn in Arizona. He spent 2004 with the Eagles and 2005 with the Bears before retiring.
- Norm Van Brocklin, 1958 Eagles, 2-9-1, age 32 — 17-7 after The Season. Van Brocklin arguably had the most successful post-Bad Season career of anyone on The List. A six-time Pro Bowler with the Rams, he went to the Eagles in 1958 and made his 7th Pro Bowl despite his 2-9-1 record as a starter. Van Brocklin played two more seasons in the NFL, both with the Eagles, earning All Pro honors in 1960. In his final pro game, he led the Eagles to a 17-13 win over the Packers for the 1960 NFL Championship, completing 9-20 passes for 204 yards with one touchdown and one interception. He was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1971.
- Boomer Esiason, 1995 Jets, 2-10, age 34 — 7-6 after The Season. After his fourth and final Pro Bowl berth in 1993 with the Jets, Esiason posted a 2-10 record in 1995, leading to one season with the Cardinals and one final season back with the Bengals in 1997 before retiring. He did have one final highlight after his 2nd Bad Season: a career-high 522 passing yards with the Cardinals at age 35.
- Mike Livingston, 1977 Chiefs, 1-10, age 32 — 5-13 after The Season. Like Brodie, Livingston was a one-team man. The Chiefs drafted him in the 2nd round of the 1968 Draft, and he played his entire career in Kansas City, mostly as a backup for Len Dawson. In 1969, the Chiefs lost both Dawson and backup Jacky Lee, and Livingston led the team on an improbable five-game winning streak. At the end of the season, both he and Dawson were named to the Pro Bowl en route to K.C.’s only Super Bowl championship. Livingston was the full-time starter from 1976 to 1978, including The Season in 1977. He retired after the 1979 season.
- Joe Namath, 1975 Jets, 3-10, age 32 — 3-9 after The Season. After injuries devastated his abilities, the former Super Bowl-guarantor Namath hobbled to a 3-10 record with the ’75 Jets. He played one more season with Gang Green and finished his career with the Rams.
- Marc Bulger, 2007 Rams, 2-10, age 30 — 3-20 after The Season. One of six players with two appearances on The List, Bulger had probably the worst run of any QB here, ending his career with records of 2-10, 2-13, and 1-7.
- Josh McCown, 2014 Buccaneers, 1-10, age 35 — 1-10 after The Season. As soon as the 2017 season starts, McCown will actually be moved up one bracket to the “3 more seasons” group, since he is now with the Jets. No matter. His 2014 campaign in Tampa was a disaster, particularly after a surprisingly strong showing with the Bears in 2013. He spent 2015 and 2016 in Cleveland.
1 more season
- Jim Everett, 1996 Saints, 3-12, age 33 — 1-0 after The Season. After leaving the Rams, Everett had back-to-back 7-9 seasons in New Orleans, and then went 3-12 on his way out of town. He won one game for the ’97 Chargers and then retired.
- Dan Fouts, 1986 Chargers, 3-9, age 35 — 5-5 after The Season. Fouts was a six-time Pro Bowler between 1979 and 1985 and a two-time runner-up in the AFC championship game. Coming off his final Pro Bowl season in 1985, the 35-year-old Fouts threw six more interceptions than touchdowns in 1986 and went 3-9. He played one more season and retired, spending his entire 15-year career with the Chargers. Fouts was elected into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1993.
- Bert Jones, 1981 Colts, 2-13, age 30 — 1-3 after The Season. Jones was an All Pro in 1976, his lone Pro Bowl season, and played his first nine NFL seasons with the Colts. His 2-13 run in 1981 was his final season in Baltimore. He ended his career with the 1982 Rams.
- Marc Bulger, 2008 Rams, 2-13, age 31 — 1-7 after The Season. See above. A brutal finish to a strong career.
- Aaron Brooks, 2005 Saints, 3-10, age 29 — 0-8 after The Season. After going 35-34 in five seasons with the Saints (and leading the franchise to its first ever playoff win), Brooks had a rough 2005. He played one more season in the NFL, with the Raiders in 2006.
0 more seasons
- Bobby Hebert, 1996 Falcons, 3-10, age 36. Now we get to the truly interesting (and most relevant) part of The List: the only two players (so far) whose Bad Season was their final season. The first was the veteran Hebert, who made his only Pro Bowl in 1993 with the Falcons after seven seasons with the Saints. Hebert played with Atlanta until 1996, and then retired.
- Steve Spurrier, 1976 Buccaneers, 0-12, age 31. At last, we come to the one and only man on this list whose career parallels Kaepernick’s in one crucial way: a QB who wanted to return to the league and never got a full shot. Spurrier’s career was much different than Kaepernick’s, though: after the 49ers drafted him 3rd overall in 1967, he spent nine years with the 49ers, playing as much in his first five seasons at punter (230 punts) as quarterback (204 passes). From 1972 to 1975, he was 11-8-1 as a starter, and then went to the expansion Buccaneers where, for the first time in his career, he was a full-time starter. He went 0-12 on a team that finished 0-14, caught on with the Dolphins in the offseason and was let go before the season started.
So there you go: 32 quarterbacks have gone 3-9 or worse in the NFL or AFL in their 6th season or beyond. Twenty-nine have played again. The ones who haven’t:
- 36-year-old Bobby Hebert, who retired
- 31-year-old Steve Spurrier, a quarterback and punter who couldn’t get another job
- 29-year-old Kaepernick, who took the 49ers to the Super Bowl just five seasons ago
Other than Kaepernick, only Spurrier tried to get another job and couldn’t. After going 0-12 as a starter, Spurrier looked ahead to the 1977 season, but was waived by the Bucs in April of ’77, a move he said “blindsided” him. As he said in his 2002 biography by Bill Chastian, “The Steve Spurrier Story: From Heisman to Head Ballcoach,” his head coach John McKay “didn’t give me much of a reason” for his release.
Spurrier signed with the Dolphins on Sept. 5, 1977, and was released seven days later. His NFL career was over.
Interestingly, when Spurrier reflected on his NFL career in 2002 for the book, he spoke about himself in terms that Kaepernick-detractors often use:
“I probably didn’t have the best attitude in the world, the best commitment,” Spurrier said. “I didn’t have the best ambition. At times I could get excited about playing and at other times maybe I settled into being a backup quarterback.”
The huge difference between Spurrier and Kaepernick, of course, is that Kaepernick had great success before The Season, and Spurrier did not. He barely even played.
“I only played about two of the 10 (seasons), so I didn’t get beat up,” Spurrier said. “I see a lot of my former teammates with a lot more aches and pains than I have. So, looking back, you’ve got to look at all your experiences as a positive, and that’s the only way I look at it now. I didn’t get beat up too bad being the backup quarterback. So it may help me now and later in life.”
Spurrier, of course, became one of the greatest coaches in college football history, something that, as he notes, perhaps would not have been possible had the NFL sapped him of his physicality and mental acuity. If there is an upside to Kaepernick’s unemployment, that’s it: his ability to perform social change and activism will be greater with fewer NFL seasons.
That’s a fine argument for leaving the league on one’s own terms, but that’s not really what we are discussing here. The facts are plain: Colin Kaepernick wants to continue playing football, he is capable of continuing to play, and teams are not signing him because of his stance.
I know a lot of people take offense to Kaepernick’s protest specifically because it took place during the national anthem, but I would encourage you to read my story from last year that looks into the history of the anthem in professional sports.
Spurrier, interestingly, does not think the NFL should have any rule about players standing for the Anthem:
In the meantime, the only questions to answer about Colin Kaepernick are these:
- Is Colin Kaepernick capable right now of being one of the best 64 quarterbacks in the NFL?
- If you don’t think he is, what proof do you have, other than the “proof” that many people have already debunked?
- If you do think he is, why do you think he is not in the league?
- If you think the reason is protest, do you think NFL owners and executives should make football decisions based on a player’s non-violent, legal actions away from the field of play?
- If you think owners should, do you think silent protest, even during the national anthem, is an action worthy of banishment?
- If you think that it is, would your opinion change based on the cause being protested?
- Do you think police accountability in violent encounters with citizens is a cause worthy of protest?
- If you think it is not, is it because you yourself are not affected?
- If that is the case, who will you turn to when you are?
Jack M Silverstein is a sports historian and author. He is the official Bears historian for Windy City Gridiron and is the author of the 2016 book “How The GOAT Was Built: 6 Life Lessons From the 1996 Chicago Bulls.” Say hey at @readjack.