A comeback for Colin Kaepernick … or CYA from the NFL? “We should have listened to our players earlier,” NFL commissioner Roger Goodell told ESPN’s Mike Greenberg last night, perhaps especially the one that made the biggest splash. In the most direct comments on the years-long standoff between the league and its most high-profile exile, Goodell held out an olive branch, offering him a “role” in the league’s new efforts on social justice, but he also “encourage[s]” teams to consider signing Kaepernick to a contract.

That would certainly make the NFL and Goodell look better with a significant segment of its audience. Is that what Kaepernick really wants, though?

“Well, listen, if he wants to resume his career in the NFL, then obviously it’s gonna take a team to make that decision,” Goodell said. “But I welcome that, support a club making that decision and encourage them to do that.

“If his efforts are not on the field but continuing to work in this space, we welcome him to that table and to help us, guide us, help us make better decisions about the kinds of things that need to be done in the communities. We have invited him in before, and we want to make sure that everybody’s welcome at that table and trying to help us deal with some very complex, difficult issues that have been around for a long time.

“But I hope we’re at a point now where everybody’s committed to making long-term, sustainable change.”

One thing Goodell could do is just get out of the way. He tried to stage a PR campaign last year to get Kaepernick signed that turned into an utter disaster over Goodell’s high-handedness. Kaepernick didn’t cooperate much either, but after being given an ultimatum on the parameters of the exhibition and no negotiating room over the waivers involved, it’s not tough to see why.

The legalities are out of the way now, at least. Goodell negotiated a new collective bargaining agreement with the players’ association, which means he doesn’t need to make goodwill gestures to Kaepernick to woo players any more. The league settled the collusion lawsuit with Kaepernick and Eric Reid over a year ago. The only things keeping Kaepernick on the sideline are worries over his age and training, and of course the headache of having him on a roster. Kaepernick doesn’t want to just sign a contract — he wants a real shot at being the starting QB, and his presence would almost certainly start a QB controversy in the media no matter what team signed him.

Still, his stats look good compared to the backups playing now. His lifetime quarterback rating of 87.8 would have put him mid-range among starters last season, and way above the bench-riders. His final season rating of 90.7 in 2016 put him ahead of names like Tom Brady, Mitch Trubisky, and Philip Rivers in 2019. Even his worst full-season rating as a starter (78.5) was comparable to the seasons Andy Dalton and Baker Mayfield had last year, although that’s hardly a recommendation. The question will be whether taking three seasons off has eroded his skills, or whether it has made him fresher and given him more potential years at the end of his career.

Teams will have to decide whether he’s worth the headache, of course, but at this point Kaepernick’s headache comes with a side benefit of credibility, too. The team that signs him can market that as outreach and real commitment to social-justice issues that the league is now scrambling to embrace. The headache cost is probably a lot less, too; after all the unrest this year, kneeling probably won’t carry the same level of offense and negativity as it did in years past. Kaepernick’s return will close up a wound with one part of the league’s audience while the riots more or less cauterize it with the rest.

But again … is that what Kaepernick wants? Or does he prefer his status as an exile/martyr for the cause? This is probably the last year he has that option, because it’s tough enough to come back after a three-year hiatus at 32. Another lost season and Kaepernick probably won’t have many options left.