A week ago, Colin Kaepernick’s football problem was represented by his future with the San Francisco 49ers. Today, it’s a little less easy. The quarterback’s national anthem protest has put the organization at complicated crossroads, where the realities of performance, salary and protest all unite into the exact same lane.
The 49ers have less than a week to choose a direction with Kaepernick. And it probably won’t be appealing – whether he remains on the roster or not.
The stance on his football career is somewhat less debatable while the NFL landscape surrounding Kaepernick’s protest was filled with support and condemnation. Kaepernick has continued slipping. And the 49ers found this became a national lightning rod. Two employees sources told Yahoo Sports the quarterback wasn’t making the improvement expected for in coach Chip Kelly’s offense before Kaepernick’s anthem stance. While there was no clarity offered on the 49ers potentially cutting Kaepernick, the bottom line was clear: The confidence of Kelly’s offense successfully rebooting the quarterback’s career had developed considerable uncertainties.
Had football been the only variable, the idea of the 49ers relieving Kaepernick was problematic enough.
This despite Kaepernick demanding a trade in the offseason and a locker room that had apparently embraced Blaine Gabbert as the team ’s starting quarterback.
But the sources suggested there has been some frustration with Kaepernick’s progress since the offseason actions started. A large part of the problem has been his seemingly constant physical constraints due to nagging injuries. The 49ers hoped he’d dive into the offseason with renewed vigor under Kelly, who offered him a clean slate. Instead, he missed the most rigorous parts of the offseason plan and never attained the needed traction to persistently challenge Gabbert for the starting job.
If Kaepernick endures a career-ending injury this season, the 49ers are on the hook for $19.7 million in bonded salaries ($14.5 million in 2017 and $5.2 million in 2018). But there’s a rub which works in the team’s favor: As part of his deal, Kaepernick bought an insurance policy that gives $20 million in the occasion of such an injury to the 49ers. In essence, the 49ers are covered if Kaepernick’s livelihood comes to a sudden disastrous ending.
That insurance policy was assumed to take some of the risk out of the later phases of Kaepernick’s contract, making it more palatable to retain him if he was relegated to backup status. But the contract also includes counter language, which means the 49ers could cut him loose and not be held responsible for an amount fitting whatever another team pays him. Should he be released and land a $3 million contract elsewhere, the 49ers save not only that money, but also avoid a $1.125 million roster bonus that kicks in when the 53-man rosters are finalized on Saturday.
So the 49ers have financial protection to keep Kaepernick. But there is also some financial incentive to release him. What couldn’t be foreseen in all this contract preparation was the protest twist, which adds another element of drama to the equation. While the 49ers have said their support for Kaepernick’s stand, there is an underlying reality that exists for virtually every NFL team (aside from possibly the Dallas Cowboys). Most front offices and coaching staffs attempt to practice drama-avoidance as it pertains to a team’s make-up. Back-ups are rarely afforded important breaks while exceptions happen for exceptional players. And now, Kaepernick is a seemingly fading backup who has ongoing physical issues. Teams scarcely go out of their way to accommodate players like that.
This is where the 49ers run into a mess of issues that are converging. There is an problem while Kaepernick’s football state and future salaries would suggest a departure is the wisest choice. While the team would really indicate cutting Kaepernick is a football-only choice, there won’t be any shortage of skeptics who indicate the move is related to societal views or his protest.
Laid out on the table are choices that NFL teams normally seek to avert. One is keeping Kaepernick despite understanding the franchise may experience continued media distraction from a regressing backup player who isn’t in the long-term strategy. Another is cutting Kaepernick loose and withstanding the inevitable criticism that his anthem stance must have played a role in the decision.
San Francisco has only a day or two to make that choice. And it likely won’t get any easier as the deadline draws closer.