Every offseason for the next several years, there is a contractual trapdoor under Colin Kaepernick – and perhaps now we know why. Maybe the San Francisco 49ers were always hedging against what is happening now, protecting against a potential unraveling of the star quarterback they leaned upon so heavily.
NFL contracts are cruel that way. They're naked and unemotional. There is a finite bluntness in their raw numbers and guarantees. Sometimes the digits and clauses say things that a coaching staff can't or a front office won't. And looking back at the $126 million extension Kaepernick signed in 2014, it's fair to wonder how certain the franchise was in his development. The 49ers built a whole lot of exits into his deal with very little "real" guaranteed money from one season to the next. Concisely, San Francisco has an opportunity (multiple, actually) to cut the cord with Kaepernick in the coming offseasons. That means if his current decline continues, you have to wonder if the 49ers will take that opportunity sooner rather than later.
Is this hindsight quarterbacking just four games into the season? Sure. But the time is right for it, with Kaepernick seemingly on a weekly slide that takes him further from the player who nearly led the 49ers to a Super Bowl win following the 2013 NFL season. The 49ers have lost three straight to the Pittsburgh Steelers, Arizona Cardinals and Green Bay Packers by a combined score of 107-28. In the past two horrific games, he has gone 22 for 44 for 227 yards and five interceptions with zero touchdowns. (If you want to throw in his 103 rushing yards with a touchdown as a redeemer, that's your prerogative.) NFL Films' Greg Cosell did a spectacular job of spelling out some of the problems recently.
The bottom line is exactly that – the bottom line. It keeps going lower for Kaepernick, and there are fewer things to blame beyond the quarterback. Strictly from the eyeball test, he has gone through a steady journey to the middle since that Super Bowl. The middle might actually be an improvement. He'll enter Week 5 among the lowest rated quarterbacks in the NFL. And it's not like he fell off a cliff over night, either.
In 2014, it was the Jim Harbaugh fallout and awkwardness that supposedly weighed on the whole franchise. Or it was the supporting cast. Michael Crabtree couldn't get separation at the medium or deep level. Maybe Anquan Boldin's age was starting to show. His defenders suggested that could be why Kaepernick's deep ball accuracy faded. Or he wasn't 100 percent healthy. Or the offense hadn't evolved to stave off changes from defensive schemes.
Now? The offensive line (which was intact during last season's struggles) isn't as good as it was a year ago. The free-agent addition, Torrey Smith (billed as a perfect match for Kaepernick's arm), is too one-dimensional. The running game is banged up and inconsistent. Boldin hit a wall. Vernon Davis can't play anymore. It goes on and on.
Or maybe it's just the guy in the middle, who has never grown beyond the read-option scheme. Maybe it's that Kaepernick has never shown he can consistently win from the pocket, or at the very least, build a passing acumen that makes surgical scrambling (like say, what Aaron Rodgers does) as effective as it can be. At this point, the 49ers would probably be happy to see him string together several first downs.
That's scary for a guy who is due $16.7 million next season and $19.3 million the season after that. It's hard enough defending those numbers for a quarterback who is proving to be average. Like, say, the guy Kaepernick unseated: Alex Smith. As much as 49ers fans want to cringe, there's a legitimate argument that Smith is a better player right now.
This brings us back to that $126 million contract, which was announced in the summer of 2014 with no shortage of puffery. As the numbers trickled out, it was recognized that the segmented deal gave the 49ers a litany of eject buttons. And they can easily separate this offseason so long as Kaepernick doesn't suffer a catastrophic injury that guarantees his 2016 salary. So long as they cut ties prior to April 1, the 49ers won't be responsible for anything but the remainder of his prorated signing bonus, which would amount to roughly $7.4 million. After the numbers are crunched, they could cut him at a salary-cap savings of $6.9 million next year. And, poof, the contract is gone.
Maybe that has been the plan all along. To respond to Kaepernick's Super Bowl run, the 49ers extended a big financial carrot for future development. Or maybe the 49ers were hedging their bets entirely, not certain that Kaepernick could live up to 2013 again. Considering what we know about the meltdown between Harbaugh and the franchise (which was in full effect when Kaepernick's deal was signed), maybe the plan was to always make sure there was a way to clear the books in case things went bad in the wake of jettisoning the former head coach.
It's all hindsight now but in light of the recent problems, that contract says something about the confidence the franchise had in Kaepernick in the summer of 2014. And it's not good.
At that time, Kaepernick said of the deal: "I'm going to work to make sure I'm worth every penny of this. That's something I feel like I can do."
Thus far, he hasn't done it. And now more than ever, it's fair to wonder how long the franchise is going to wait to see if he's ever going to be worth it.
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