The Kaepernick Triangle
Whether Colin Kaepernick remains in San Francisco or becomes a Bronco presents as, to me, the most interesting team-player dynamic of the offseason. It is a triangle of tension between the 49ers, Kaepernick and the Broncos, a soap opera now in its second month with no end in sight. Perhaps a deadline can spur some action, although I am not sure that even the upcoming draft presents as a true, hard deadline. Grab a Snickers; this is not going anywhere for a while.
Although a bystander to the drama in the Bay area, the Broncos appear to be in the driver’s seat here. Their recent history of taking a hard line with quarterbacks—they jettisoned Tim Tebow the moment Peyton Manning signed in 2012, squeezed a $4 million pay cut from Manning last year and let Brock Osweiler leave this year—now continues with a $7 million price tag for their next quarterback. They are far less worried about their quarterback depth chart—currently led by Mark Sanchez—than are fans or media. And while they have met with Kaepernick and would like to have him if the price (both in terms of draft choice given up and salary) is right, they’ll figure something else out if it falls through.
As to the 49ers, they continue to say nice things about Kaepernick but have not provided a full embrace to solidify the relationship. My sense from afar is the conversation about Kaepernick inside team offices is far different from their public stance. Further evidence of a schism is that Kaepernick’s agents requested permission to seek a trade earlier this year and arranged at least one, perhaps two meetings with the Broncos. Their action is straight out of the agent handbook: when a player wants out, try to stir the pot with the team to force enough angst in the front office for them to act.
Something has happened between the 49ers and Kaepernick. Perhaps Kaepernick does not like management, perhaps he does not like incoming coach Chip Kelly, perhaps they do not feel he is progressing, perhaps he thinks he should not have to compete with Blaine Gabbert and/or a rookie for the starting role, perhaps he doesn’t like the talent on the team, etc. Whatever the case, Kaepernick and his agents have found a willing trade partner fresh off a Super Bowl victory. However, that team has set a price for the position almost $5 million below Kaperick’s scheduled $11.9 million rate. Therein lies the rub.
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Time will tell if there is a shaving of the contract to suit the Broncos, with sacrifice from either Kaepernick or the 49ers (or potentially both). As to the 49ers’ sacrifice, NFL teams cannot trade cash as permitted in the NBA or Major League Baseball. However, the 49ers could “bonus out” some of the $11.9 million—presumably $4.9 million—before trading the remaining $7 million to the Broncos. While that is clearly something they do not want to have to do to make a trade, it is an option.
While the 49ers and the agents for Kaepernick tolerate each other for the moment, the Broncos sit back like Roman senators waiting to give the thumbs-up, content with the status quo despite an unimpressive group at quarterback. The $5 million question, of course, is how much and how badly the 49ers and/or Kaepernick want out. If and when the trade happens, we will find out.
Will the trade happen? My gut tells me it will, with some financial sacrifice by either or both Kaepernick and the 49ers to make it happen. The Broncos will be the fortunate benefactor of bad blood between the 49ers and their quarterback. It may not happen for a while, but when they’re ready, John Elway is sitting and waiting with his $7 million.
“Voluntary” not “Early”
Speaking of Elway sitting back and waiting, the Broncos’ signing of Russell Okung—a player that called them rather than vice versa—certainly spelled doom for incumbent left tack Ryan Clady, although he was not released at the time. The Broncos hoped to get something—anything—for Clady rather than just releasing him. Fortune struck with the retirement of Jets longtime tackle D’Brickashaw Ferguson, leaving a hole in the Jets’ line now filled by Clady. Although it is what I call a “ham sandwich” trade—the Broncos give up Clady and a seventh for a fifth—it is certainly better than nothing.
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When with the Packers, I remember the Jets taking Ferguson with the fourth pick in the 2006 NFL Draft (following selections of Mario Williams, Reggie Bush and Vince Young) as we had the next pick and selected A.J. Hawk. Ferguson started every game over ten years, an extraordinary statistic in a sport with a 100% injury rate. As I well know from being around Brett Favre so many years, front offices crave that type of dependability. Despite his ironman status, Ferguson was reportedly being asked to accept a pay-cut for this upcoming season. In my experience, when a team makes this demand, it is prepared to release him should the answer be “no”; otherwise it would lose credibility. Although the timing may suggest otherwise, I accept Ferguson’s retirement at face value, based on principle rather than dollars.
Let’s clear up a misconception, though. Retirements such as Ferguson and Calvin Johnson—and many others players above or around the age of 30—are not “early” retirements. Their careers were long (Ferguson played 10 seasons, Johnson nine) and highly lucrative (Ferguson made $70 million, Johnson $113 million). Somehow they get lumped in with players like Chris Borland and now A.J. Tarpley, both retiring after one season in the NFL. Those players retired early; Ferguson and Johnson—and others such as Patrick Willis and Mike DeVito, who retired this week—hardly did so.
While Ferguson’s retirement is not “early,” it is still rare as it is voluntary. Hundreds of players leave the NFL every year, but only a handful do so willingly. Most players are “retired”; Ferguson—giving him the benefit of the doubt that it was not related to the Jets’ pay-cut request—got to retire. Ferguson played a decade in the NFL, all for one team. There are literally thousands of players who wish they could have played that long before (involuntary) retirement.
At a more macro level, these voluntary retirements inevitably bring up the “future of football” issue, with suggestions that these cases will lead to such a decline in participation that football will face extinction. Well, let’s hold the phone on that.
The players opting out of football—whether early or voluntary—are still counted by hand; they are outliers in the greater scheme. There is no foreseeable shortage of talented players wanting to play professional football; there will be over 1,000 NFL players released (involuntarily) over the next few months and they will join thousands of others desperate to sign with an NFL team.
Rather than sensationalistic predictions about the future viability of football, the more reasoned and hopeful effects of seeing players preemptively retire with many mentioning concussions and head trauma—is a continual culture change. Players are now looking past the short term and becoming mindful of future issues. Let’s hope the continued awareness will deter the “play through” mentality. To me, that is the lesson learned from players walking away from football on their terms. As I tell every young player: Football is not a career, it is a head start on a career.
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