SANTA CLARA – The six-year, $126 million contract extension the 49ers gave Kaepernick seemed preposterous.
Why make Kaepernick the highest-paid player in football after just 29 starts? That’s not enough data to justify paying anyone that much money. Kaepernick may turn out to be a Hall of Famer, or he may turn out to be a talented player who never improved and never won a Super Bowl and never made an All-Pro team – like Mike Vick, although Vick has been to four Pro Bowls and Kaepernick has been to zero.
The 49ers had Kaepernick under contract for one more season. There was no pressure to gamble and sign him now. They could have waited a year, gathered more data and made a wise investment.
The 49ers blinked first – that’s how I started the column I half-wrote Wednesday afternoon before the details of the contract came out. The 49ers flinched. They gave Kaepernick too much money way too soon for no good reason. What was the hurry? To explain their hastiness, I invoked Trent Baalke’s favorite book – “Blink,” Malcolm Gladwell. The column was a rip-snorter, really clever stuff.
But, then the details came out, and the contract didn’t look preposterous anymore.
It looked brilliant. And I had to blink.
The 49ers did NOT go all-in with Colin Kaepernick. No, sir. They threw some money at him now – not a lot – and protected their future.
According to multiple published reports, the 49ers can terminate Kaepernick’s contract whenever they want for any reason. His extension basically is a series of one-year deals. If the 49ers don’t want him anymore after next season, Kaepernick will earn just $13 million from this extension.
Until Kaepernick makes another Super Bowl appearance or a first-team or second-team All-Pro selection, the 49ers will penalize him $2 million annually. When he meets one of those two requirements, the 49ers will stop penalizing him.
Say the 49ers keep him for the next three seasons. If he makes an All-Pro team or goes to the Super Bowl starting next season, his base salary could cost the 49ers as much as $39 million during that time. Reasonable.
But, if Kaepernick doesn’t make a Super Bowl appearance and doesn’t make an All-Pro team during the next three seasons, his base salary would cost the 49ers just $33 million, or $11 million per season. That’s a bargain. That’s Alex-Smith territory. The 49ers gave Smith a three-year, $24 million contract two years ago.
The 49ers required Kaepernick to buy disability insurance on his deal. If he suffers a career-ending injury scrambling or running the read-option or taking a sack or doing anything, two things will happen: One, the insurance company will pay him off, not the Niners. They will be off the hook. Two, the insurance company will pay the 49ers $20 million. Sweet deal.
Wednesday afternoon at Kaepernick’s press conference, he thanked the 49ers. “I think everyone is very happy that this organization – my coach to Jed (York) to everyone throughout the building – had this kind of confidence to do it at this point in time. I think we all greatly appreciate that.”
“Confidence” is a strange word for Kaepernick to use in this context. The 49ers don’t seem to have unwavering confidence that he will become the elite quarterback they publicly say he’ll be. That’s why they leveraged his contract in case he doesn’t pan out. That’s shrewd.
On the other hand, the Niners didn’t give Kaepernick this extension thinking he won’t pan out. The idea is for him to strike gold. And if he does, he’ll get paid accordingly – he can earn more than $70 million in base salary from 2017 to 2020. He can make even more money through incentives and bonuses. And the deal apparently leaves enough money for the 49ers to re-do Vernon Davis’ contract or extend Michael Crabtree’s contract if the 49ers are so inclined. Win-win.
The 49ers provided the avenues for Kaepernick to earn big money down the road, and the 49ers will pay him based on his performance. What’s not to like?
Here’s the best part – Kaepernick agreed to the extension on Day 1 of the negotiation. He didn’t hold out for a fully guaranteed contract. He got an opportunity to bet on himself and he grabbed it. It’s like he said, “No-brainer, I’m Colin Kaepernick, I believe in myself, hand me the pen already.”
Kaepernick is not some happy quarterback who is set for life before he has achieved anything. He’s hungry. He has to earn every penny, and every year he has to show the 49ers why they should keep him.
That’s the American Way. That’s the way all sports contracts should work. Good for Kaepernick and good for the 49ers.
Grant Cohn writes sports columns and the “Inside the 49ers” blog for The Press Democrat’s website. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.