Colin Kaepernick was delivered the most guaranteed money in NFL history: $61 million.
In return, he'll be expected to deliver the next championship era for the San Francisco 49ers. He'll be expected to be the next face etched on the franchise's Mt. Rushmore of quarterbacks: Y.A. Tittle, John Brodie, Joe Montana, Steve Young … Colin Kaepernick.
It's a bold move by San Francisco. It's also a smart one.
The risk is obvious: the quarterback's deal is worth up to a reported $126 million through 2020. Kaepernick, who is entering his fourth season, is quick to run and quicker when he does run, but that means he's more susceptible to the kind of injury Robert Griffin III has suffered. It also means that by the end of the deal, he will be 33 and almost certainly less dangerous out of the pocket than he is now. Kaepernick is also dealing with an off-field incident involving a woman in Miami though it looks for now as if he will not be charged.
That kind of money feels like a lot for any athlete, let alone one who has been a starter in the NFL for only a year and a half. But the Niners are sure – so sure that the negotiations took only a day, according to NFL.com.
The most prominent reason for the Niners' certainty was Kaepernick's last game, an NFC championship loss in Seattle. Kaepernick gave the Seahawks more trouble in a hostile environment than Peyton Manning did on a neutral field in a Super Bowl blowout two weeks later. While Seattle looked dominant against the NFL's MVP and one of the best passers of all time, the league's best defense looked vulnerable at times against Kaepernick.
He helped lead the Niners to the Super Bowl in the season he took the job from Alex Smith, and nearly did it again in his first full season under center. In both cases, Kaepernick was within a touchdown of beating a championship defense. This is not likely a fluke.
Can he keep it up? Here too, there's reason to believe. Kaepernick hasn't had the most intimidating offense around him. There's been no Roger Craig, no John Taylor, no Jerry Rice. Frank Gore is good but no longer scary. Vernon Davis is terrific but not a consistent game-breaker. The addition of Anquan Boldin helped, but the real tell came when Michael Crabtree came back from injury last season. The Niners went on a tear that nearly vaulted them into the Super Bowl, and Kaepernick's famous final pass – batted away by Seattle's Richard Sherman – shows how close the team came to the top rung. It's likely that a completion on that play would have led to a championship in MetLife Stadium. Assuming Crabtree, Boldin, Stevie Johnson – acquired this offseason from the Bills – and Davis are all healthy this season, the Niners are certainly among the top three teams again. Kaepernick is a huge reason why.
Few mobile quarterbacks have led teams to championships in the NFL, but Steve Young was one. It's extremely difficult to win and last at the highest level if the pocket is abandoned with any regularity, yet Young did it. He was strong enough and slippery enough, and Kaepernick is in that mold. He is 6-foot-4, 230 pounds – roughly the same size as Andrew Luck – and he's been agile enough (so far) to avoid the direct hits that lead to serious injuries.
The Niners have had star quarterbacks who have lasted. Some of that is skill and some is luck. But it's happened with some regularity over the last several decades, and it didn't take long for the team to figure out what they had in prior stalwarts. Montana led the team to the Super Bowl in his first full season as starter, and Young had the Niners in the NFC championship game in his second full year in San Francisco.
There's also the mercenary reason for the big contract: the Niners are moving into a new stadium, scheduled to open next month, and they'll need to sell tickets. A strong team and a great fan base do most of the work, but it doesn't hurt to have a "face of a franchise" at quarterback. And although 2016 feels like far in the future, Levi's Stadium is hosting Super Bowl 50, and that will come when Kaepernick is 28 and in the prime of his career. Whether head coach Jim Harbaugh is in place after this season is not assured, but it is assured that if Kaepernick is healthy, the Niners will have a shot at becoming the first team to host a Super Bowl. (Though the Cardinals shouldn't be completely ruled out next February.) Harbaugh said Kaepernick has looked "bionic" in offseason workouts.
There is no such thing as safe money in sports. Kaepernick, like every quarterback, is vulnerable, meaning the Niners are one big hit away from Blaine Gabbert. But if you want to find an heir to a long list of iconic quarterbacks, and put your trust in a passer who is young enough to be worth the investment and still credentialed enough after one full season to be worth the bet, Kaepernick is about as safe as it gets. He's certainly a lot safer than Manning was when he got $96 million over five years from the Broncos after four neck surgeries. Manning has paid off, and he has brought his team to as many Super Bowl appearances as Kaepernick.
And Kaepernick is more than a decade younger.