By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston

BOSTON (CBS) — The National Football League was always wrong to try to silence players. Even the NFL now admits that.

The admission likely does not represent an ethical or moral revelation. It is more likely just an example of a massive corporation going along with whichever way the wind is blowing. Nevertheless, even that didn’t exist in recent years, so it must be considered a positive step regardless.

Progress is of course made slowly, though, so as Roger Goodell sat in his basement, recording a low-resolution choppy video as if on a live stream, the commissioner naturally could not bear to mention the name Colin Kaepernick. To do so after the league fought the hardest to stamp out his voice would bring a certain level of admission that neither Goodell nor the owners are ready to offer at this moment in time.

Yet whether or not Goodell said the two words he fears saying didn’t stop the message from being delivered: We. Were. Wrong.

Given the significance of that statement from a league that only admits fault in the most extreme circumstances, there’s no chart that shows what will come next in terms of a league-wide implementation of policies and actions that will go toward supporting racial equality — something several star players publicly demanded from the NFL this week. While ideally Goodell would have added some heft to his statement if he added more than the verbatim demands of players, it does show the potential for some positive growth.

One item that’s certain to be discussed, though, is Kaepernick himself. Ever since he went unsigned in 2017, and again in 2018, and of course once more in 2019, the conversation surrounding Kaepernick has been convoluted. Those who wanted to believe the then-29-year-old who had led his team to a Super Bowl three years prior was out of the league because he wasn’t good enough were eager to shout that from every rooftop possible.

Really, since Kaepernick’s unceremonious departure from the NFL, three prevailing narratives have dominated the conversation from those who refused to believe that his outspokenness did not account for reasons one through 100.

1. He opted out of his contract.

2. He turned down a contract from Denver.

3. He wasn’t good enough.

Nos. 1 and 2 are simple enough to address with a single sentence each. He opted out of his contract because the 49ers were going to cut him, and opting out gives a player a much better free-agency situation rather than waiting for the team to potentially cut the cord later in the offseason when most teams have already made the moves they want to make. Secondly, Kaepernick turned down a contract from Denver … in the spring of 2016, before he had ever taken a knee on a sideline. That “offer” would have come after a trade from San Francisco, and it would have included a significant pay cut. This “rejection” has become part of the narrative because John Elway said in 2018 that Kaepernick refused Denver’s offer, conveniently leaving out the specifics.

So that’s that part. Now let’s tackle the third part, which has gotten woefully warped over time by people intent on screaming that “COLIN KAEPERNICK WAS NOT GOOD ENOUGH TO BE IN THE NFL ANYMORE. HE WAS THE WORST QUARTERBACK IN THE NFL IN 2016.”

These people do exist, and while they may be unwilling to honestly explore the topic, let’s nevertheless embark.

In 2016, Colin Kaepernick was a top-20 NFL quarterback.

That’s a partially subjective conclusion. But consider that he started just 11 games, after coming off surgeries in the offseason. Despite playing in under 70 percent of the season’s games, he ranked 29th in the NFL in passing yards, and 26th in touchdown passes. That is to say: Despite not playing five games, he still statistically ranked as a top-30 quarterback in the league. Which … is to say that he was certainly playing at the caliber of an NFL starting quarterback in 2016.

Kaepernick’s touchdown total of 16 may have been low, but so was his interception total of four. That 4-to-1 TD-to-INT ratio better than Drew Brees’ 2.5-to-1 mark, better than Andrew Luck’s 2.4-to-1 mark, better than Philip Rivers’ and Eli Manning’s 1.6-to-1 marks, and better than Ryan Fitzpatrick’s unsightly 0.7-to-1 mark.

The only starting QBs with better TD-to-INT ratios in 2016 were Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, Matt Ryan, Dak Prescott, and Derek Carr.

Kaepernick ranked 24th in yards per attempt and 17th in passer rating, both numbers indicating his play was in line with that of a starting NFL quarterback.

His dual-threat ability was still very much intact, as he had the second-most rushing yards (468) among all NFL quarterbacks. Again, that was despite not playing in five of the team’s 16 games. His 6.8 yards per rushing attempt marked the highest of his career, an indication that in Year 6, he had made improvements on deciding when and where to run the football.

Bills quarterback Tyrod Taylor led NFL quarterbacks in rushing yards that year, but he only had 112 more yards than Kaepernick despite 26 more attempts.

Kaepernick ranked 37th overall in league rushing stats, better than dozens of running backs who had more carries.

Having played only 11 games, the apples-to-apples comparisons of Kaepernick vs. other players that year can be challenging. Fortunately, the aforementioned Ryan Fitzpatrick also started 11 games that season. Here’s a side-by-side comparison of how the two QBs fared.

Colin Kaepernick, age 28, 2016 season
196-for-331 (59.2% completion rate)
2,241 yards, 6.8 yards per attempt
16 TDs, 4 INTs
90.7 passer rating
69 rush attempts, 468 yards, 2 TDs

Ryan Fitzpatrick, age 34, 2016 season**
228-for-403 (56.6% completion rate)
2,710 yards, 6.7 yards per attempt
12 TDs, 17 INTs
69.6 passer rating
33 rush attempts, 130 yards, 0 TDs

**Fitzpatrick threw 45 passes in three games which he did not start.

Kaepernick was better than Fitzpatrick in every measurable way, sometimes significantly so. Fitzpatrick has of course remained in the NFL, and even now at age 37, he’s the de facto starter in Miami. Fitzpatrick has started 23 games in the NFL over the past three seasons.

And that’s how Kaepernick compares to a reasonably mediocre NFL quarterback. Over the past three years, here’s a partial of quarterbacks to land free agent contracts with NFL teams. The list is much longer than this, but here we’ll include some of the more egregious signings since 2017.

Derek Anderson
Matt Barkley
Brian Hoyer
David Fales
Ryan Fitzpatrick
Landry Jones
Blaine Gabbert
Mike Glennon
Thad Lewis
E.J. Manuel
A.J. McCarron
Josh McCown
Luke McCown
Matt McGloin
Aaron Murray
Brock Osweiler
Nathan Peterman
Mark Sanchez
Matt Schaub
Brandon Weeden

Colin Kaepernick is … better than those quarterbacks. There cannot be any argument to say otherwise. That’s particularly true with Gabbert, who lost his starting job to Kaepernick in 2016.

Of course, some of those quarterbacks signed as backups. Others signed with a chance to compete to start. Others were considered to be starters.

Brock Osweiler provides another worthy point of comparison. In 2015, coming off the bench for a dead-armed Peyton Manning, Osweiler was … mediocre at best. He threw 10 touchdowns and six interceptions, while completing 61.8 percent of his passes and posting an 86.4 passer rating.

Compare Osweiler’s 2015 with Kaepernick’s 2016:

Brock Osweiler, 2015 season
170-for-275 (61.8%)
1,967 yards, 7.2 Y/A
10 TDs, 6 INTs
86.4 passer rating
21 rush attempts, 61 yards, 1 TD

Colin Kaepernick, age 28, 2016 season
196-for-331 (59.2% completion rate)
2,241 yards, 6.8 yards per attempt
16 TDs, 4 INTs
90.7 passer rating
69 rush attempts, 468 yards, 2 TDs

After starting just seven games in 2015, Osweiler landed a four-year, $72 million contract with $37 million guaranteed from Houston.

After Kaepernick’s season in 2016, he received no offers.

That alone should be enough to show that, yes, unequivocally, Colin Kaepernick was a top-20 quarterback in 2016, in the middle of what should have been the prime of his career.

We could also mention that the 49ers’ top receiver in 2016 was Jeremy Kerley, followed by Quinton Patton, Vance McDonald, and tight end Garrett Celek. It may have been the worst receiving corps in the league, which worked as a fair explanation for Brady’s statistical dip in 2019 yet rarely enters the conversation with Kaepernick.

And here’s one more comparison for the sake of comparison:

Blaine Gabbert, with the 49ers, 2016 season
91-for-160 (56.9% completion rate)
925 yards, 4.7 yards per attempt
5 TDs, 6 INTs
68.4 passer rating
40 rush attempts, 173 yards, 2 TDs

Colin Kaepernick, with those same 49ers, 2016 season
196-for-331 (59.2% completion rate)
2,241 yards, 6.8 yards per attempt
16 TDs, 4 INTs
90.7 passer rating
69 rush attempts, 468 yards, 2 TDs

Gabbert got a contract with the Cardinals after that abysal season, starting five games. He remains in the league.

Kaepernick got nothing.

Will the NFL make amends for seeing to it that the vocal quarterback who stood up for civil rights in America was quickly and effectively eradicated from the field? Only if they feel pressure to do so.

While the league would never concede such a point out of mere benevolence and altruism, and while that civil settlement last year surely complicates matters, the right amount of pressure could ultimately lead to Goodell and the NFL admitting specifically that Kaepernick’s disappearance from the NFL was simply unfair. Considering the way the league allowed Kaepernick to become a national punching bag for years, only to suddenly change course in June of 2020, they at least owe the man that.

You can email Michael Hurley or find him on Twitter @michaelFhurley.