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Opinion: Don’t make Elway’s answer about Kaepernick more than it was

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Don’t make this about politics; it was more about football.

Green Bay Packers v Denver Broncos Photo by Justin Edmonds/Getty Images

Denver Broncos’ GM John Elway answered a question about the likelihood of Colin Kaepernick coming to the Broncos as a veteran backup quarterback, and his answer has lit the sports world on fire.

Which is dumb.

Because his quote was nothing “anti-Kaepernick” in the way so many sports pundits wanted to make it (you know what I mean by that, but I promise, we’ll get there).

Elway was answering a flurry of questions about training camp, the upcoming season, why the first preseason game went so poorly and what to do about his backup quarterbacks.

Near the end of the interview, Nicki Jhabvala of The Athletic asked if he would consider the former San Francisco 49ers quarterback - who hasn’t played football since 2016 - coming in as the experienced backup.

“I said this a while ago: Colin had his chance to be here. We offered him a contract. He didn’t take it,” Elway said. “As I said in my deposition — and I don’t know if I’m legally able to say this — he’s had his chance to be here. He passed it.”

For a quick refresher, Broncos offered Kaepernick a deal in the spring of 2016 reportedly worth $7 million in base salary (the 49ers QB was to earn $11.9 million from the Niners, and according to ESPN’s Adam Schefter, his team refused to make up the $4.9 million difference). Kaepernick didn’t want to give up the nearly $5 million in salary, so the talks fell apart.

This is the “chance” Elway was referring to in his comment Thursday, but the sports media immediately made it about the political statement Kaepernick has sparked among players the past two seasons.

Kaepernick started the 2016 season on the bench, but due to an injury to starter Blaine Gabbert, Kaep started the final 11 games, going 1-10 for the Chip Kelly-led 49ers. It was during that 2016 season that Kaepernick began his protest of police brutality toward African-Americans by kneeling during the national anthem (it started with sitting but evolved to kneeling, which had become the primary protest method of other players, including Broncos’ Brandon Marshall). Kaep is currently suing the NFL for collusion, claiming he has been blackballed by owners for his political views rather than his ability.

As soon as the comment was tweeted out, the following headlines represent what has become “the story”:

Mercury News: Elway muddies Kaepernick case by invoking 2016 contract offer

CBS Sports: John Elway blames Colin Kaepernick for no job: ‘had his chance to be here’

Business Insider: Broncos won’t sign Colin Kaepernick after he turned down contract

Denver Post (Mark Kiszla): Broncos’ John Elway believes in giving second chances … unless your name is Colin Kaepernick

And the Twittersphere had a field day making a football story into a political story:

I already alluded to the absurdity of the “baiting” I believe Jhabvala’s question to be, but let’s go over this again.

Everybody in Denver knows Kaepernick isn’t coming here (I told you, we’d get to it) - including Jhabvala - so to ask if Elway is considering it, is just to set him up for a quote to make a story out of a scenario that’s not happening.

Elway and Kaepernick do not see eye-to-eye, obvi

You would have to live under a rock to not know Elway’s political views. He attended the inauguration of Donald Trump. He supported Neil Gorsuch as Trump’s nominee for the Supreme Court in 2017, and even wrote a letter to say so. And we know that he personally supports standing for the national anthem.

But to his credit, Elway has not insisted on Broncos players standing for the anthem, nor has he publicly said anything against the players who have. In fact, he even praised Brandon Marshall for how the linebacker followed up his protesting with action.

“Brandon made a point last year, but he carried it forward,” Elway said. “He just didn’t make a stand on the field before the games, he actually went out in the community and did something and talked to different people. He went and talked to law enforcement and got involved in the community. I was proud of Brandon in not only did he show his support for what it was last year, but also he went out and did something in the community.”

So it is fair to say Elway’s personal political views have not dictated his behavior as a GM for a football team - and this is an important point when dissecting his quote from Thursday. As a general manager looking to add good players on his team, Elway is well within his rights to consider whether a player would be a distraction and therefore not a good fit. Like any GM, Elway may not always apply this rationale consistently if there’s a player he wants because of football ability, but that still doesn’t make it wrong to have it be a reason whether a player is considered.

I can’t speak for all the GMs - and I am on record in my support of the players’ protest that Kaepernick spearheaded and many players have continued (many of them in much more professional ways too) - but it just isn’t correct to paint this situation as an unfair political snub by Elway.

Whatever political differences Elway may have with Kaepernick, deciding not to bring the former 49ers quarterback in because of the distraction factor has merit on its own - because when you’re trying to bring a team back from a 5-11 season, distractions are a major obstacle and should be strongly considered before being acted upon.

But there are very good football-only reasons for Elway’s position here, and those should not be forgotten:

Elway hasn’t totally decided if the Broncos need a veteran backup.

This may be shortsighted given that Chad Kelly is completely untested and Paxton Lynch just doesn’t seem to be able to make it over the NFL hump, but the fact is, Elway is still deciding whether he even needs a veteran backup.

“We’ll wait through this week and see what happens and go from there,” Elway said about needing a veteran in a backup role. “I feel like we still have time. At the end, guys continue to take their reps and we’ll go from there.”

Before the protests, Kaepernick showed his hand to Elway - money.

Elway is known for being frugal (aka cheap) when it comes to keeping good players. He’s a businessman. Sometimes that’s smart (i.e., Julius Thomas) and sometimes not so much (i.e., Malik Jackson). But it is not uncharacteristic for Elway to lowball a player with a contract. He tried with Von Miller, but thankfully, Miller called his bluff and Elway knew better than to let him get away.

But when Kaepernick was not about to come to Denver for a pay cut - despite being iffy after injury - he let Elway know what was more important than playing football - getting paid.

And that was his classic mistake with Elway - far more than any protest. Elway likes players who are loyal to the franchise and want to be Broncos more than they want to get paid.

Do not compare this to re-signing Brock Osweiler.

When Elway brought Osweiler back last season for pennies (vet minimum) while the Browns picked up the remaining tab on $18 (cough) million, he got a steal and he knew it.

But aside from the money - in case you want to argue that Kaepernick would settle for vet minimum to play again in the NFL - Osweiler represented several intangibles that the Broncos needed. He knew the system, and he knew the coaches. Elway needed a leader - whether that was as backup or starter - because he had two very green, inexperienced guys trying to play quarterback. He also needed someone who could get up to speed quickly in the system.

Plus, for all Osweiler’s faults over the handling of his contract negotiations following the Super Bowl season, he was very humble in coming back to Denver. I’m sure that made a big difference to Elway in considering whether Oz could and would make a smooth transition back to Mile High and would be embraced by Denver.

It is fair to say that whatever Elway thinks of Kaepernick, he also knows that Denver fans are very mixed in their support of the player, and he likely doesn’t want that headache - even if fans are not the driving force behind his decisions.

Kaepernick has not played football for two years.

One of the big questions for Elway in 2016 was whether Kaepernick was healthy enough to play after having surgery on a torn labrum in late 2015.

Add to that that Kaepernick hasn’t played on a football team since the 2016 season. Any football player and coach will tell you, there’s being in shape and there’s being in football shape.

No doubt Kaep is fit and strong. But he cannot be in game-ready football shape, so bringing him to the Broncos in August to be ready for the regular season would not be smart planning no matter who the player was. I’ll give you that there may not be a lot of other free agent vet QBs out there who could be ready in time, but I would argue they wouldn’t be any better than just rolling with Kelly or Lynch at this point either.

It’s not political, it’s football

I have no doubt that Kaepernick being outspoken on police brutality and racism in America has tainted his chances for a job in the NFL. Whether it is true collusion on the part of NFL owners, I have no idea. Nor is it my decision to make.

And I’m sure that after the brouhaha over kneeling during the anthem, Elway was relieved the embattled quarterback did not take the deal offered by the Broncos in the spring of 2016.

But neither of those factors can be construed to make Elway’s comment on Thursday anything more than it was - a view that Kaepernick was once given a chance to be a Bronco that he turned down and now Elway has no interest in him for many reasons.

Most of them about football.