So John Elway offered to trade for Colin Kaepernick and make him a Denver Bronco in 2016 – if Kaepernick was willing to take a significant pay cut from the $12.3 million he was about to earn from the San Francisco 49ers. Kaepernick declined the pay cut, Elway said that was his chance to be Denver and he blew it forever. History moved on.
Until Thursday, when Elway engaged in the latest iteration of the NFL’s shell game of arguable excuses for why Kaepernick can’t get a job in the league.
Elway told reporters, “Colin had his chance to be here. He didn’t take it. We offered him a contract. He didn’t take it. As I said at my deposition – and I don’t know if I’m legally able to say this – hey, he’s had his chance to be here. He passed it.”
In the Kaepernick narrative, it was a stunning statement. Not only did it appear to be a breach of the confidentiality order in the Kaepernick collusion case against the NFL, there is a devil in the broad, illogical details. And in that broader view, it’s worth considering facts about Elway that are football-related (see: quarterback Brock Osweiler spurning Denver in 2016 free agency, only to be signed by Elway one year later) and also politically related (see: Elway’s documented support of Kaepernick foe, President Donald Trump).
In short, there are layers here. And like many of the simple rationales tossed out regarding Kaepernick’s unemployment, there appears to be some significant intellectual dishonesty taking place. Why Elway opened this can of worms is anyone’s guess. But he did, and that makes a recounting of the facts worthwhile. With that in mind, here is what went down between Kaepernick and the Broncos – including some time stamps and political leanings that should be considered in the context of Elway’s claim.
From multiple sources familiar with the timeline:
In March of 2016 – more than five months before Kaepernick first protested during the national anthem at an NFL game – the Denver front office was coping with the reality that it was about to lose Osweiler in free agency. Running on a parallel track, agents for Kaepernick were pursuing trade partners for the 49ers, hoping to find a team that would entertain the quarterback’s pending $11.9 million base salary and a $400,000 workout bonus. The Broncos were one of the teams Kaepernick’s agents targeted as a potential trade partner. Calls were made arranging permission from the 49ers for a Kaepernick visit to Denver, where he would meet with Elway personally.
During his visit in Denver, Kaepernick joined Elway at his home, where they discussed details of his time with the 49ers, including how Kaepernick had been fitting into the locker room and what he envisioned for himself going forward in the league. Sources familiar with the visit termed it as a “positive meet-and-greet” between the two. At the time, Kaepernick was aware that Elway and the Broncos’ scouting staff had previously given him some positive evaluations heading into the 2011 draft. He also believed he would have the opportunity to compete with Mark Sanchez for the starting job. When Kaepernick departed, he was optimistic the Broncos would be his next team, pending an agreement on contract details.
In the wake of Elway’s meeting, the Broncos told Kaepernick’s agents that he would be worth the trade investment if one of two things happened: Either the 49ers agreed to pay a portion of Kaepernick’s 2016 salary in an effort to trade him, or Kaepernick agreed to take a pay cut from $11.9 million to $7 million and forgo his $400,000 workout bonus. The 49ers ultimately refused. After some back and forth with Kaepernick’s agents, the Broncos were informed that he had declined to take the pay cut. The trade talks were scuttled, and Denver’s focus on drafting a rookie quarterback in the first round began to take shape. Ultimately, the belief in Kaepernick’s camp was that if Denver didn’t trade for him, he would eventually be cut by San Francisco and line up suitors in free agency – or he could potentially reestablish himself under Chip Kelly and regain his cornerstone quarterback status.
That’s the thumbnail of what transpired between Elway and Kaepernick, a fairly garden-variety trade effort in the NFL that fell apart. But the backdrop of Elway’s latest comments add a new twist to a fairly mundane piece of history. By bringing his deposition details into focus on Thursday (and in turn, Kaepernick’s collusion case), Elway’s implication is that Kaepernick isn’t an option for the Broncos because he turned down a pay cut to $7 million and chose to return to the 49ers, where he ultimately ended up booking the full $12.3 million if his remaining salary in 2016.
Now the added context that is worth consideration:
Much like Elway’s apparent disappointment with Kaepernick’s refusal to take a pay cut, the Broncos general manager appeared to come out of the 2016 departure of Osweiler with some hurt feelings. Some less-than-veiled criticism was exchanged between the two parties and some bridges appeared to be burned. Despite spurning the Broncos in 2016, Osweiler was brought back into the fold by Elway roughly 18 months later, verbally agreeing to terms one day after Osweiler was cut by the Cleveland Browns. For whatever reason, Osweiler’s contentious free-agent divorce from Denver was apparently less hurtful than Kaepernick’s refusal to take a pay cut to consummate a trade.
Politically, some interesting things happened surrounding Kaepernick and Elway after the scuttled trade. First, Kaepernick began protesting during the national anthem, sparking an initial skewering from Trump during his campaigning for president in September of 2016. That skewering from Trump would eventually grow into a large part of his political platform as president, resulting in multiple direct and indirect political attacks on Kaepernick. In the midst of this: Elway attended Trump’s inauguration in January of 2017, then later made the monumental gesture of writing a letter to the Senate Judiciary Committee (on Broncos letterhead), stumping for Trump’s first Supreme Court nominee, Neil Gorsuch, in March of 2017.
Unless Elway decides to expound on it further, it’s unlikely we’ll get a full accounting for why he decided on a “one shot” mandate on Kaepernick. Instead, we’ll be left with a few facts to try and interpret why Elway took such an open swipe at Kaepernick: the quarterback refused to take a pay cut and was apparently unemployable by Elway from that point forward; Osweiler engaged in a messy divorce with Elway and somehow returned to the good graces of the franchise; and along the way, Elway engaged in some political stumping for Trump.
Like so many other parts of the NFL’s saga with Kaepernick, the relation of those facts to each other is open for debate. But as always, the devil is in the details, regardless of how intellectually dishonest their presentation may be.
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