RIVERDALE, Ga. — Any thought that Colin Kaepernick would humble himself to return to the NFL vanished in the first moments of a post-workout soliloquy Saturday night, a monologue that capped off a surprising all-in gamble for Kaepernick’s future.
“I’ve been ready for three years, I’ve been denied for three years,” Kaepernick told assembled media following a 40-minute workout. “We all know why I came out here: to show you today, in front of everybody, we have nothing to hide. So we’re waiting for the 32 owners, the 32 teams, Roger Goodell, all of them, to stop running. Stop running from the truth, stop running from the people.”
It was a remarkable end to a remarkable day, a day that began with protesters at the gates of the sleek compound of the Atlanta Falcons and ended with a cheering crowd lining the chain-link fence of a high school 60 miles south. It included Kaepernick’s team staging a sudden last-minute walkout of the NFL-controlled workout, a move that allowed Kaepernick the luxury of demonstrating his skills in front of the world rather than just a few scouts.
Like so much else in this long-running saga, after all the sound and fury of the last few days, everything in the Kaepernick saga has ended up exactly where it began — both pro- and anti-Kaepernick sides dug in deeper in their philosophical foxholes, Kaepernick himself still out of a job — with the crucial difference that we’ve now seen Kaepernick in action. For Kaepernick’s team, the 40-minute workout on their terms made all the hue and cry of the last five days a worthwhile price to pay.
NFL re-opens Kaepernick story
The NFL blew open the Kaepernick story on Tuesday with its abrupt, unexpected offer of a workout, a take-it-or-leave it opportunity for Kaepernick, who hasn’t played since 2016, to demonstrate where his skills stand, nearly three years after he’d last taken a snap in an NFL game. Kaepernick’s proponents have argued that he’s at least the equal of the backups in the league, and possibly a few of the starters, too. His detractors contend that his skills were already on the decline when he began kneeling during the national anthem and ignited a nationwide controversy over the role of protest in sports.
For the most part, Kaepernick, who just turned 32, had faded from the headlines. Conventional wisdom held that he’d played his last game, a victim either of an unfair system or his own inability to keep his politics out of his workplace, depending on your point of view. Then came the NFL’s strange, out-of-nowhere workout offer with a two-hour deadline and virtually no specifics — an offer that seemed doomed from the start.
The NFL and Kaepernick’s team disagreed on an injury waiver, the receivers to be used, the date of the workout, the rules for filming, the coaches running the drills, the media access and the list of attendees — in effect, virtually everything beyond the shape of the ball to be used.
Kaepernick’s camp couldn’t get the NFL to give them any information on the wide receivers who’d be catching Kaepernick’s passes, and so at some point in the week began making alternative plans. They secured the use of the field at Charles Drew High School, security to staff the field and the services of four receivers — Bruce Ellington, Brice Butler, Jordan Veasy and Ari Werts, plus Eric Reid — just in case.
And then they waited.
‘Something didn’t smell right’
As late as Saturday morning, the two sides remained far apart on several significant issues, chief among them Kaepernick’s desire for transparency. Kaepernick’s camp simply didn’t trust the NFL to distribute the video, and wanted their own crew to film for their own purposes, including footage that could be used by Nike.
Also at issue: a waiver the NFL wanted Kaepernick to sign. Kaepernick wanted to use the standard liability waiver, but the NFL included a clause that indicated the workout was no guarantee of future employment.
Outside the Falcons’ facility in Flowery Branch, protesters both in support of and against Kaepernick began showing up as early as 7 a.m. There were few signs, and no overt hostility; the entire scene had the feel of a college football tailgate, with fans of both teams coexisting calmly under a brilliant blue sky.
“Thank you Atlanta Falcons for giving Colin Kaepernick a second chance,” read one sign. “Colin Kaepernick / Un-American Loser / Get out of my town,” read another. Cars driving past on Falcon Parkway honked in a near-constant stream of support.
At about 2 p.m., media began gathering near the entrance of the Falcons’ indoor facility where the workout was scheduled to take place, while NFL scouts arrived in a steady stream of rental cars. As the pro-Kaepernick crowd swelled — the anti-Kaepernick one stalled out at three people — the quarterback’s reps were furiously trying to negotiate more favorable terms.
“Something didn’t smell right,” Kaepernick’s agent Jeff Nalley said. “Nothing like this has ever happened. Roger Goodell has said the league does not get involved in personnel decisions. So why now? From the beginning it seemed odd. We had to protect [Kaepernick] in this whole process.”
When it became clear that the NFL would not bend on either the waiver or video issues, Kaepernick’s team attempted a different approach, asking that the assembled media be allowed into the workout, scheduled to begin at 3 p.m. ET. The NFL declined that request, and at that point — about a half-hour before the workout’s scheduled start — Kaepernick’s camp pulled the plug on the Falcons venue and went with what Nalley called a “backup plan.”
Next stop: Charles Drew High School in Riverdale, an hour south of Flowery Branch.
Saturday’s remarkable twist
As Kaepernick’s crew, the media and a handful of supporters made the trip south, the NFL released a 500-word, six-point statement condemning how the Kaepernick camp had handled the entire afternoon.
“We are disappointed that Colin did not appear for his workout. He informed us of that decision at 2:30 pm today along with the public,” the statement read. “Today’s session was designed to give Colin what he has consistently said he wants — an opportunity to show his football readiness and desire to return to the NFL.”
The NFL indicated it agreed to allow Nike to name the teams present at the workout, though it was unclear from the NFL’s statement whether the league would have allowed Nike to film at the event. The league also said it sent Kaepernick’s team “a standard liability waiver based on the waiver used by National Invitational Camp at all NFL Combines and by NFL clubs when trying out free agent players,” but that Kaepernick’s representatives returned “a completely rewritten and insufficient waiver” at noon on Saturday.
A league source told Yahoo Sports that the Atlanta Falcons were extremely frustrated at the developments on Saturday, after having worked to make preparations for the workout. The team itself was an afterthought at its own facility, leaving in three buses bound for the airport in advance of Sunday’s game against the Carolina Panthers.
Many of the NFL personnel in attendance opted not to make the trip to Riverdale. Twenty-five were at Flowery Branch; eight made the trip south. Hue Jackson, who’d been selected by the NFL to run passing drills in Flowery Branch, departed for the airport when the change in venue took place and it became clear Kaepernick was going to use his own trainer, not Jackson, to run drills. Jackson never did speak to Kaepernick himself, only speaking to Kaepernick’s agent during the process.
The scene at Charles Drew High School was nothing short of surreal — one of the most famous football players of the decade stretching out on a field ringed by a track while assembled media and scouts filed into the aluminum bleachers. A couple hundred fans lined the fence beyond one end zone. As the sun set behind one scoreboard, all the scene needed was a marching band and a few cheerleaders to capture the “Friday Night Lights” feel.
Kaepernick, sporting a black shirt that read “Kunta Kinte,” began his workout throwing passes of ever-increasing yardage to his receivers. They ran patterns, some crossing, some deep, and more often than not, Kaepernick found their fingertips with his throws. Kaepernick’s team broadcast the footage live on YouTube, and it was a Rorschach test of a video — if you wanted to see an NFL-ready quarterback, you could, and if you wanted to see a guy who lacked NFL-quality accuracy on some throws, you could see that too.
But the workout proceeded at a leisurely pace, a test more of Kaepernick’s arm (quite strong) than his fitness, speed or decision making (untested). He was playing in the friendliest possible environment — the highly partisan crowd beyond the fence cheered every completion, and called for receivers to catch even the passes that sailed out of their reach.
After 40 minutes of throws, the workout concluded, and Kaepernick walked to the fence to sign autographs for a half-hour. He returned to offer up a 90-second monologue to the media, taking no questions.
“Our biggest thing today was making sure we had transparency in what was going on,” Kaepernick said. “We weren’t getting that elsewhere, so we came out here.”
What’s next for Kaepernick? Impossible to say. His passing skills are now on video for every team to see, and teams could be poring over those passes to see if he has, at a bare minimum, the game necessary to rejoin the league. Nalley indicated that eight teams were present at the second workout, and said they pronounced Kaepernick’s arm talent “elite.”
But it’s equally likely that Kaepernick’s last-minute switch — or stunt, depending on your perspective — could snuff out any flickers of interest. Teams will want Kaepernick to come into their house on their terms, not his.
Nalley confessed to being a little “pessimistic” because he’s reached out to all 32 teams in the recent past, and none have expressed interest. “No team asked for this workout,” he said. “The league office asked for this workout.” He noted that “half a dozen” general managers and assistant GMs reached out to him asking who had set up the workout, and he could only answer that it was the league itself.
If nothing else, though, Kaepernick got to show he’s still got mileage left in his arm. “He’s been telling everyone he’s in shape,” Nalley said. “Now everyone gets to see it.”
“We’re ready to play, ready to go anywhere,” Kaepernick said. “We’ll be waiting to hear from Roger Goodell and 32 teams. We’ll let you know if we hear from them. We’re ready to go.”
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