It's one thing to land a big contract in the NFL. It's an entirely different battle to justify that contract and earn every penny of the gaudy total.
Remember, though San Francsico 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick signed a massive new extension (first reported by the Bay Area Sports Guy) that could be worth as much as $126 million, it is extremely unlikely for any NFL player to see that kind of money over the course of one single contract. To wit, the contract is already being dissected and the "$61 million" guarantee is actually closer to $13 million and contains numerous "de-escalators."
In short, the monster contract is only a monster if Kaepernick plays like a monster.
If that happens, the 49ers will be just fine with shelling out that kind of money. If Kaepernick flops, the financial and time investment won't actually be that prohibitive.
Yet, team friendly though the contract may be, the 49ers are taking some flak for doubling down on a quarterback that is still acclimating to the NFL game. Making Kaepernick the highest-paid QB in the league—even only rhetorically speaking—seems silly to some just as the big-money totals did when Baltimore Ravens QB Joe Flacco and Chicago Bears QB Jay Cutler signed their latest deals.
Even if, somehow, Kaepernick ends up with every bit of that $126 million, this will have been a good investment for the 49ers.
A QB's Worth Is All About His Team's Plan B
It's a big paradigm shift for many, but we need to stop comparing big NFL contracts—especially at the quarterback position—to other players around the league. Yes, players and agents will use similarly skilled players to set a baseline, but much more goes into a negotiation than that.
A contract isn't about getting what you're worth. It's about taking what you can get.
The NFL is not a supermarket. Teams can't sit down with their coupons and calculators and pick out which quarterback is the best value, nor can the 32 teams sit down and proclaim which quarterback should be paid the most based on ability, which is second and so on.
No, the team makes an initial investment in a player via the draft, free agency or trade and then is forced to eventually make a decision on reinvestment. For a young quarterback like Kaepernick, the team has already gotten a chance to evaluate the player on a longer timetable post draft at a low amount of money and can decide whether or not that player fits their long-term plans.
Understand that this is a situation that is almost completely for the team's benefit.
A draft—especially one with such a restrictive pay schedule—is antithetical to almost any labor law enacted in the past couple of centuries. Whereas free agency works to elevate and inflate the pay of workers, the way in which players like Kaepernick enter the league is about as team friendly an institution as the NFL could want.
When a player reaches the opportunity to cash in on those years of proving himself, it's silly to think that any player should take less than he can get because another player elsewhere is making less. It's also crazy to believe that any team would let money stand between it and a player it's deemed worthy of further investment.
Instead of thinking of Kaepernick and his contract in comparison to the money made by people like Denver Broncos QB Peyton Manning or Green Bay Packers QB Aaron Rodgers, think about a 49ers team with Kaepernick at the helm against a 49ers team that lets him walk after next season.
What is the 49ers' plan B?
Without Kaepernick at quarterback, the Niners still have a championship-caliber remainder of the team. Yet, the position is so important that a lesser passer (like backup Blaine Gabbert) puts this team at closer to eight or nine wins than what it's become accustomed to. Certainly, Gabbert is not leading this—or any other—team to any NFC championship games anytime soon.
Well, why can't they draft another quarterback? Kaepernick was a second-round pick, why can't they just find another one?
Logically, that makes sense. Anecdotally, another "Kaepernick" in the second round or another "Tom Brady" in the sixth round sounds more appealing than shelling out $100 million for a quarterback that many feel still has plenty of work to do.
Statistically speaking, though, second-round quarterbacks like Kaepernick aren't exactly growing on trees or dotting the league with their presence. For every Kaepernick (or even Andy Dalton) of the world, there are plenty of quarterbacks drafted in the second and third rounds that aren't ever going to get the 49ers to the same heights as Kaepernick has.
In terms of what the 49ers would do without Kaepernick, just look around the league. I mean, teams like the Cleveland Browns and Minnesota Vikings are reeling after years of non-investment or poor investment at the position. Meanwhile, Cincinnati and the Kansas City Chiefs are potentially stuck in limbo if their quarterbacks stay at a level of mediocrity.
Kaepernick represents a solid building block for the 49ers based on his current level of play, and that's more than can be said for any potential/hypothetical Plan B. Furthermore, because of his physical tools, he also provides a level of upside only typically seen among very high draft picks—a place the 49ers never want to be drafting again.
Both on and off the Field, Kaepernick's Well on His Way
Sadly, this contract extension has dredged up some stupid narratives around Kaepernick.
The NFL at large (fans, executives, coaches, former players, etc) generally has a stereotype of how quarterbacks should look and act. It isn't necessarily right that they do so, but quarterbacks are expected to be clean cut, buttoned-up, stoic, well spoken and (for the most part) lack a fair amount of pigment in their skin.
Again, it's not true in all cases, but that's historically what quarterbacks have looked and acted like, so it's what many in the scouting, coaching and pundit community value at the position.
It's also idiotic.
When Detroit Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford wears his hat backward and ESPN analyst/former coach of "da Bears" Mike Ditka has something to say about it, it's as inane as it is predictable. In much the same way, when someone bloviates about Kaepernick's tattoos or backward hats, we can expect it—because we know it's coming—but we can also roundly reject it as completely asinine.
Instead of caring what columnists and talking heads think about Kaepernick as a leader and field general, let's take a look at what his coaches and teammates think.
Last year, 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh pointed to Kaepernick as an example for the young players on the 49ers, saying on KNBR (via Ashley Fox of ESPN):
For us, that's a great thing, that is a wonderful thing that we have a young, ascending, improving dynamic player that is Colin Kaepernick, and the way he leads, too. You talk about the leadership, just by example, just by what he does, just what he does every single day, the continuous effort that he displays is a great leading factor.
Publicly, following the deal, numerous teammates and former teammates reached out on social media to congratulate the young quarterback. More importantly, he's gotten the leadership bona fides from both linebackers Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman and from former 49ers quarterback Trent Dilfer, who, though now one of those aforementioned talking heads, was citing people on the team as having passed that along.
On the field, some of the criticisms of Kaepernick are even more blind and tone deaf.
Last season, Kaepernick was the 18th-best QB by Pro Football Focus' (subscription required) estimation. Digging into their proprietary metrics, he struggled both with accuracy and especially while under pressure.
Yet, when you look at their adjusted QB rating of 88.56—eighth best in the league—it jibes more with ESPN's QBR of 68.6, which was seventh in the league last season.
Let's dig deeper though and explain why that might be.
Kaepernick is still growing as a passer. Former 49ers great Steve Young said as much on NFL Live (via Pro Football Talk) and Kaepernick himself agreed with that sentiment on NFL Total Access. It makes sense, though, as Kaepernick maturated through the college ranks as a run-heavy pistol-option quarterback and has been asked to do some of the same early on in his NFL career as a bit of a crutch.
Yet, the reason QBR and Pro Football Focus' adjusted ratings like him so much is because he tends to show up in big situations with a strong arm that can pick up huge yardage through the air. Unlike game-managing quarterbacks (not used pejoratively, I promise) or those who facilitate an offense with quality targets, Kaepernick succeeds by shouldering a heavier piece of the load.
His yards per attempt of 7.69 is eighth best in the league but how he got those yards is what's really impressive. In 2013, the San Francisco 49ers had the third-worst yards after catch as a team in the NFL. The leading receiver was an over-the-hill Anquan Boldin, and Michael Crabtree somehow fell in as the team's third-best receiver statistically, even though he missed a huge chunk of time.
|New Weapons For Kaepernick|
|Carlos Hyde||RB||Drafted—2nd Round|
|Bruce Ellington||WR||Drafted—4th Round|
|Brandon Lloyd||WR||Signed via Free Agency|
|Devon Wylie||WR||Signed via Free Agency|
It's possible to rhetorically try to blame those passing woes on Kaepernick, but not when one actually watched the game.
Kaepernick does have work to do, but it's work that the 49ers want to reap the rewards of when he completes it. Teaching a quarterback like Kaepernick to go through reads and operate an offense isn't just a simple task; it's what quarterback coaches are paid to do. He's shown promise there and has steadily improved as a young passer.
This isn't a rebuild mechanically or trying to teach a quarterback to feel the rush and stand tall in the pocket rather than skittishly make mistakes. No, Kaepernick has simply faltered—at times—as the Niners have moved him from the collegiate offense he was running into a more pro-style attack.
Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III and Russell Wilson have all gone through similar hiccups early on in their careers, even though Luck and Wilson came from much more advanced college offenses than Kaepernick, who rarely was asked to win games solely with his arm.
If the Niners were handing Kaepernick this money because of past performance, critics' responses to it might be a little more understandable. But NFL players aren't paid for what they've done, they're paid for what they're expected to do over the course of the contract.
San Francisco expects Kaepernick to take that next step, and it's found a way to structure the contract in such a way as to protect itself if he doesn't. Because of that, it is likely that Kaepernick will justify every single penny he earns over the next couple of years.