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Super Bowl LIII

Roger Goodell, NFL need better answers to Colin Kaepernick and coaching issues

At Super Bowl LIII, the NFL commissioner failed to deliver on tough questions

ATLANTA — Colin Kaepernick might as well have been seated on the dais Wednesday during NFL commissioner Roger Goodell’s annual state-of-the-game news conference days before the Super Bowl. Kaepernick’s presence was definitely in the room.

Being that Atlanta, with its strong historical ties to the civil rights movement, is the game’s host city and Kaepernick, the onetime San Francisco 49ers quarterback, has become the new face of the fight for social justice, it was inevitable that Goodell would face a volley of questions from reporters about the player whose actions have defined the national discussion surrounding the league for more than two years. And predictably, Goodell continued to bob and weave and counter punch as best he could. But it still wasn’t a winning strategy.

Goodell maintained the company line that Kaepernick remains unsigned after last playing for San Francisco in 2016 because, essentially, no teams believe that the proven veteran is capable of helping them win.

“If a team decides that Colin Kaepernick, or any other player, can help their team win, that’s what they’ll do [sign Kaepernick],” Goodell said. “They want to win. And they make those decisions individually, in the best interests of their club.”

The problem is, that dog won’t hunt.

It’s simply not credible that, with the dearth of quarterback talent in a quarterback league, no team has signed Kaepernick because he lacks the requisite skills to contribute. Kaepernick has both experience (he has made 58 starts) and the fourth-best touchdowns-to-interceptions ratio of all time.

NFL coaches want quarterbacks with experience who take care of the football. Suddenly, it doesn’t seem to matter that Kaepernick can check both boxes?

Even playing for the horrid 49ers during his most recent season (in 2016, San Francisco went 2-14), Kaepernick showed big-play ability. San Francisco receivers had the second-highest percentage of dropped passes in the league. Still, Kaepernick completed almost 60 percent of his passes (59.2). He passed for 16 touchdowns and threw only four interceptions.

One pillar of the false Kaepernick-can’t-help-any-teams narrative is that, at 31, he is too old and has been away from the game too long. Well, the Washington Redskins blew up that specious argument this season.

After starter Alex Smith suffered a potentially career-ending injury in November, they signed failed 32-year-old passer Mark Sanchez. After Sanchez did what Sanchez does, the Redskins dipped back into the free-agent quarterback market and signed Josh Johnson, who’s also 32 and who had not thrown a pass in a regular-season NFL game since 2011.

There are quarterbacks on NFL rosters who can’t chew gum and complete 50 percent of their passes at the same time, and yet there isn’t a single team Kaepernick could actually help? I mean, Goodell is all about pushing the brand of the shield, but that’s an absurdly hard sell.

Look, from the moment Kaepernick first sat and then kneeled during the national anthem to shine a light on police brutality and systemic oppression, Goodell and the billionaires for whom he works have been flummoxed about how to handle the most divisive issue facing the league. And the situation became only more confounding for them after Kaepernick filed a collusion grievance against the NFL, alleging owners conspired to ruin his career because of his political beliefs (a full hearing on the grievance is expected sometime this year).

It wouldn’t be surprising if Kaepernick never plays in the NFL again. It also wouldn’t be a shocker if the league, regardless of the outcome of Kaepernick’s case, continues to suffer in the court of public opinion for how the former Super Bowl quarterback has been treated. Even this year’s halftime act has been affected by the backlash.

In a departure from the event’s past practice, Maroon 5 will not have a news conference before the game, the NFL announced late Tuesday night. It sure appears that the likelihood of facing tough questions about the response of many African-American superstar entertainers — Rihanna was among the musicians who reportedly turned down doing the show, and other A-listers, including Jay-Z, Meek Mill, Common and Nick Cannon, have supposedly lobbied rapper Travis Scott not to perform with Maroon 5 — to Kaepernick still being without an NFL job made someone uncomfortable.

“This is the biggest stage in the world,” Goodell said. “And I know people want to be a part of that.

“We have close to 200 million fans. We know that there are segments [that] are going to have different reactions to different things that go on in our league. But ultimately, I think people respect and admire the things we do and want to be a part of it.”

The other parts of Goodell’s session weren’t a bunch of laughs for the league either.

Right off the top, Goodell addressed the blow to diversity during this head-coaching hiring cycle. Owners are batting 1.000 in filling positions so far: seven openings, seven white guys picked. Of course, that’s not the type of perfection Goodell wants, especially after the league moved to strengthen the Rooney Rule, which states that an NFL team must interview at least one minority candidate for head coach, general manager and equivalent front-office positions.

The Miami Dolphins have the only remaining job vacancy that’s not linked to a Caucasian. New England Patriots linebackers coach Brian Flores, the team’s de facto defensive coordinator, is expected to be introduced as the team’s new head coach after the New England Patriots face the Los Angeles Rams in the Super Bowl. Going 1-for-8 this cycle, however, is an awful look.

Goodell declined to directly address the deplorable situation this cycle, preferring instead to emphasize that the league and the Fritz Pollard Alliance, which helps oversee compliance of the rule, will continue to have discussions about how to increase the pool of minority candidates. Of course, having more qualified minority candidates won’t help much if owners remain obsessed with finding the next Sean McVay, who leads the Rams into the Super Bowl at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Sunday.

“Well, we don’t look at the success or failure of the Rooney Rule in one-year increments,” Goodell said.

Perhaps he should. And it may also benefit the NFL to come up with some new talking points regarding Kaepernick, who’s still casting a shadow over it.

Jason Reid is the senior NFL writer at Andscape. He enjoys watching sports, especially any games involving his son and daughter.