What we see when we look at Kaeper­nick

San Francisco Chronicle Late Edition - - SPORTING GREEN - Ann Killion is a San Fran­cisco Chron­i­cle colum­nist. Email: akil­lion@sfchron­i­cle.com Twit­ter: @annkil­lion

You know that in their lush Park Av­enue of­fices, the NFL hon­chos ex­pected this to have blown over by now.

Their shiny, dis­tract­ing prod­uct would take cen­ter stage, they would mint money, and every­one would for­get about that un­em­ployed quar­ter­back who has po­lar­ized the league and much of so­ci­ety.

But that’s not hap­pen­ing. With the NFL sea­son un­der way, Colin Kaeper­nick is not fad­ing into the back­ground. He’s even more prom­i­nent. For a few rea­sons. The first is the over­all lousi­ness of the prod­uct the NFL has put out in its first 17 games of the sea­son. The quar­ter­back­ing has been wretched, pro­vid­ing a bet­ter em­ploy­ment ref­er­ence for Kaeper­nick’s skills than any words or pe­ti­tions or protests.

Sec­ond, Kaeper­nick re­mains news­wor­thy, even with­out a job. The NFLPA, in what seems a clear at­tempt to rub the league’s nose in the em­bar­rass­ing sit­u­a­tion, just

named Kaeper­nick its Week 1 Com­mu­nity MVP “for his com­mit­ment to em­pow­er­ing un­der­served com­mu­ni­ties through do­na­tions and grass­roots out­reach.”

The award is el­i­gi­ble to all who pay dues and are em­ployed by the NFL or who are ac­tively seek­ing em­ploy­ment as a free agent. And, yes, the Tex­ans’ J.J. Watt al­ready won the award last week for his fundrais­ing on be­half of Hur­ri­cane Har­vey vic­tims so no blus­tery out­rage, please.

Kaeper­nick qui­etly con­tin­ues to fol­low through on his pledge to do­nate $100,000 a month to char­i­ta­ble or­ga­ni­za­tions such as Meals on Wheels, Coali­tion for the Home­less and af­ter-school youth pro­grams. A re­cent story in the New York Times de­tailed some of the awards and the pro­found shock and grat­i­tude these grass­roots char­i­ties ex­pressed at be­ing rec­og­nized.

Next month’s con­tri­bu­tion will bring Kaeper­nick’s giv­ing in the past cal­en­dar year to $1 mil­lion. Even with­out a job, he hasn’t backed away from his pledge.

A third rea­son Kaeper­nick is not go­ing away: he has — in a weird way that he never in­tended — come to de­fine our frac­tured times. My friend Tim Kawakami of The Ath­letic calls him a Rorschach test, and that’s the per­fect de­scrip­tion of the quar­ter­back in today’s Amer­ica.

One side looks at the No. 7 ink blot and sees an af­front to Amer­ica, the rea­son the NFL is dy­ing, why our coun­try is trou­bled, why the pres­i­den­tial elec­tion went the way it did.

The other side looks at the ink blot and sees courage, a man who has walked his talk and risked it all, a right­eous non­vi­o­lent protest. And, oh by the way, that side also looks through the Kaeper­nick prism and sees the rea­son the NFL may be dy­ing: due to a pre­sumed black­ball of a player who did noth­ing more than ex­press his opinion.

(Those empty seats for 49ers games at Levi’s? I’ve had hun­dreds of re­sponses say­ing it is 1) be­cause their for­mer quar­ter­back dis­re­spected the flag or 2) due to fans boy­cotting a league that has no room for Kaeper­nick. Both are in­cor­rect as­sump­tions: the empty seats are pri­mar­ily the re­sult of a bad team play­ing in a flawed sta­dium).

Peo­ple want Kaeper­nick to be short­hand for all sorts of things. They in­ter­pret the ink blot based on their per­cep­tions. But what is not a sub­jec­tive psy­cho­log­i­cal test is the woe­ful per­for­mance of so many of the league’s start­ing quar­ter­backs in the first week­end-plus of the sea­son. The medi­ocrity has made Kaeper­nick’s con­tin­ued un­em­ploy­ment even more ab­surd.

Yes, Kaeper­nick strug­gled the past cou­ple of sea­sons. But less than half of the NFL’s start­ing quar­ter­backs (13) man­aged a quar­ter­back rat­ing bet­ter that Kaeper­nick’s ca­reer rat­ing of 88.9, and just 12 bet­tered his 90.7 rat­ing from last sea­son. Granted, some of those are anom­alies — Tom Brady’s rat­ing was 70.0 — but over­all the quar­ter­back play could be summed up in one word: atro­cious.

There were play­ers who had no busi­ness start­ing games in the NFL. Scott Tolzien in Indianapolis al­ready lost his spot. So did Tom Sav­age in Hous­ton. The worst thing a quar­ter­back can do is throw the ball to the other team: Andy Dalton has done it four times, match­ing Kaeper­nick’s to­tal for the en­tirety of last sea­son.

The player with the high­est rat­ing af­ter one week? That would be Alex Smith, the man Kaeper­nick re­placed in San Fran­cisco, who was stun­ningly good in a vic­tory over the Pa­tri­ots.

Over the year, Smith has kept his own coun­sel for the most part, only oc­ca­sion­ally let­ting him­self say some­thing off the record about his time with San Fran­cisco. But this week he sat down for an in­depth in­ter­view with Gra­ham Bensinger on YouTube and spoke hon­estly. It was a fas­ci­nat­ing trip down mem­ory lane for 49ers ob­servers. Among many top­ics, Smith dis­cussed los­ing his job to Kaeper­nick, af­ter be­ing out with a con­cus­sion.

“Here I’d dealt with all the dys­func­tion. I was so ex­cited. I went through all this and then, boom.”

Boom. That’s a de­cent de­scrip­tor of Kaeper­nick’s en­tire ca­reer to date.

The man has rocked the NFL, shook it to its roots.

Even from the out­side, he’s still caus­ing tremors. And, given the way the NFL sea­son is un­fold­ing, it is clear he shouldn’t be on the out­side.


Scott Straz­zante / The Chron­i­cle 2016

For­mer 49ers quar­ter­back Colin Kaeper­nick has fol­lowed through on a pledge to do­nate $100,000 a month to char­ity.

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