In June 2014, Colin Kaepernick signed what seemed like just another big-money contract for a young quarterback who could chew gum and throw the deep ball: six years, $126 million. The previous off-season, Matthew Stafford (three years, $53 million), Matt Ryan (five years, $103 million) and Joe Flacco (six years, $120 million) had agreed to deals that could put a midrise apartment complex full of kids through college, so Kaepernick’s number didn’t seem all that absurd. And besides, NFL teams don’t pay the full value of these sorts of contracts anyway; there’s always an out after a certain number of years, or a clause that reduces a player’s salary unless he hits some difficult-to-achieve benchmarks.
What was astounding about Kaepernick’s contract, fans and media realized as they picked through the finer points, was how many of these “outs” there were. Kaepernick had, in essence, put his name to a series of one-year deals, rendering himself cut-able throughout the duration of the pact. If he kept improving, he’d likely see a sizable chunk of the money he’d been promised. But should he regress, the 49ers brass could rid themselves of their one-time quarterback of the future, with only a minimal cap hit to show for their troubles.
Unfortunately for Kaepernick, he is plummeting into a ravine this season. Through Week 4, the 49ers slinger is 28th in the league in passing yards, 26th in passer rating, and fourth in interceptions. In his last two games, Kaepernick has gone 22-for-44 for 227 yards with five picks and no touchdowns. Worse still, Kaepernick looks out of sorts on the field — a sad and strange thing, considering how natural and freewheeling his initial ascension seemed.
When a quarterback is playing well, he dances to a rhythm only he can feel. He leads the team down the field smoothly, insulated from the chaos around him: the defensive end crashing through the line, the ball leaving his hand, the flanker shimmying free, and the pass arriving in the small space between the closing safety and the recovering cornerback. Everywhere, the earth is opening up, and the quarterback is hopping over chasms that go straight down to the mantle, as if they were cracks in the sidewalk.
Right now, Kaepernick is tripping through the cracks, with two left feet and a face marked with wide-eyed panic. He has a bad habit of fidgeting in the pocket even when there’s no pass rush, which puts him out of sync with his receivers’ routes and dooms him to all manner of off-balance throws. He gets to his secondary reads a half-second late. In classic quarterback-in-crisis fashion, he delivers a few passes per game that leave announcers stammering for analysis. Well, Kaepernick just, uh ... just kinda missed his target there, Joe. The role confidence plays in a good quarterback’s success is probably overblown — Aaron Rodgers isn’t picking defenses apart with just gusto — but the self-doubting quarterback is invariably an underperforming one. Kaepernick is having a hard time keeping his chin up, along with all the other difficulties of his job.
But Kaepernick isn’t flailing and failing on his own. A once-great offensive line was scrapped in the off-season, save for left tackle Joe Staley, and as is porous as would be expected as a result—the protection and run blocking have both fallen off. Pro Football Focus pegs the 49ers’ line as the 22nd-best in the league, after finishing ninth last season. The right-sided tandem of Jordan Devey and Erik Pears, in particular, have left Kaepernick on the run early on a regular basis.
The 49ers aren’t significantly more talented at the skill positions. Vernon Davis is settling into a post-prime decline and has been dealing with injury. Anquan Boldin wasn’t fleet of foot when he was 25, and now, a decade later, he is a sure-handed statue. The Torrey Smith experiment isn’t working, because the coaching staff curiously has neglected to build any deep throws to accommodate the most expensive free agent signing in the franchise’s history. Second-year running back Carlos Hyde might be good, but it’s hard to tell when he’s looking for holes along a line reinforced with bubble gum and paper clips. Reggie Bush is Reggie Bush, which is to say he hasn’t played much due to a bum calf.
After the 49ers jettisoned Over-Competitive Weirdo In Chief Jim Harbaugh to Michigan last December, only to lose a significant portion of their roster to retirements and free agency, they didn’t rush to remake themselves. With their squad of young players and stopgap veterans, GM Trent Baalke and team CEO Jed York have projected complacency. Comfortably nestled in their snazzy, taxpayer-funded Santa Clara digs, the 49ers are content to let this season function as an extended tryout for the also-rans they’ve tasked with winning games. The team’s record is 1-3, which is to say they’re more or less playing up to their potential.
This overall dropoff in the talent surrounding him obviously has hurt Kaepernick. He has the sort of skills — speed, a strong arm, a certain wildness that makes defenses nervous — around which you can build a system, but he is not the system by himself. He can’t transform a lean receiving corps into a prolific one; he can’t compensate for a leaky offensive line with quick reads. Surely, he isn’t as bad as he’s looked recently. But he needs help where he cannot find it.
Perhaps the lack of help is by design, and the 49ers are trying to figure out definitively whether the guy they signed to a massive contract can carry an undermanned offense by himself. If that’s the case, it’s a cruel trial indeed. Kaepernick signed his deal two summers ago, but it only just kicked in this season. As such, he’s struggling through what might turn out to be little more than a one-year contract, on a team he thought would be much more competitive at the time he agreed to terms. Kaepernick knew he was betting on himself — he’d already been to a Super Bowl, after all — but he couldn’t have known the weight of the burden he’d carry in order for the bet to pay out.
If Kaepernick continues to flounder, he could be headed to a reclamation project in Miami or Houston next season. To be sure, some of the Niners’ woes are on him—he’s been awful, regardless of the lens you use to view his performances. But it’s also easy to see how he’s been set up for failure by Baalke and York, who in six months can write Kaepernick off as a not-particularly-expensive mistake and still hang onto their jobs.
San Francisco's one-time quarterback of the future isn't earning his hefty paycheck, but neither are the folks who assembled the roster that surrounds him, and who continue to see him as a kind of football Houdini: capable of escaping any situation, even when the chains aren’t of his making.