Kaepernick Deal Reveals Realities Of New NFL

Jun 11, 2014 4:59 AM EST

Colin Kaepernick’s new contract offers a great vista at where the NFL is going.

First of all, you need to bring with you some understanding of business and finance. The NFL, more than any other league, is the sport of tycoons and big, complicated deals. (Can you picture Roger Goodell in a top hat? I sure can.)

It can be confusing. Some writers misreported the deal as saying that Kaepernick was guaranteed $61 million. That’s only for injuries. In fact, he’s guaranteed only $13 million.

Here’s what we know about the deal. 

It’s much more team-friendly than player-friendly. He has “de-escalators” that will lower his salary if he doesn’t meet certain incentives. Kaepernick has to take 80 percent of the snaps and be either first-team or second-team all-pro. The San Francisco 49ers also have to do well for him to get all his salary.

Like all NFL contracts, the end of the deal isn’t guaranteed and is basically worthless.

Kaepernick’s salary, which would have paid him through 2014-15, was “only” $1 million. What he did was make sure he’d get tons of money if he happened to get injured or if he did extremely well. 

Is that playing it safe? Well, in a way. He grabbed at the most that he could get instead of rolling the dice after the season to get the best offer with either the 49ers or some other team.

Deals such as this one show the situations the two sides are in with quarterbacks, who are often projects who take longer to develop than players at other positions.  

Teams are caught between a rock and a hard place.

The situation reminds me of women I’ve known contemplating their romantic options. They have their main man, and they give him every chance to fulfill their expectations, but they give themselves an out if it doesn’t pan out. And they want control of the situation, which they usually get.

Who can blame them? (Teams, I mean.)  They’re in the position of either paying big bucks to someone before he’s proved himself or letting them go and handing the keys to the Cadillac (or, in many cases a used Ford) to an unknown.

Kaepernick has been a starter for the 49ers for only a year and a half. His numbers are very good but not astounding. And you have to keep in mind that the team is great on defense and has had a solid running game, so he hasn’t had to overcome big leads. 

But what choice do they have? It’s the same question many teams and even more fans ask. Only a handful of quarterbacks each year meet all expectations. (Just like few of us guys meet women’s expectations, as they fantasize about Matthew McConaughey or Ryan Gosling.)

Consider the situation in Dallas. Tony Romo is a solid quarterback, but hasn’t been good in big games. Is that his fault? Well, partly, but the Cowboys have plenty of lineup issues. 

The Cowboys could’ve drafted Johnny Manziel in the first round a month ago but didn’t. I’d bet lots of money that owner Jerry Jones gave it serious thought. Yet that would’ve been like betting all your chips with only a pair of jacks. 

I think the 2011 draft was a touchstone for selecting quarterbacks. Three teams dropped the ball in the first round: the Jaguars, who picked Blaine Gabbert; the Vikings, who selected Christian Ponder; and perhaps most forgivably, the Titans, who selected Jake Locker.

Two of those teams officially accepted defeat and went for first-round signal-callers this year, the Jags (Blake Bortles, with the third overall pick) and Vikings (Teddy Bridgewater, with the last pick of the first round). The Titans went for Zach Mettenberger in the sixth round.

After that overreaching debacle of 2011, teams have been gun-shy.  That’s why Manziel slipped down as far as he did, although he doesn’t seem to be as big a gamble as Gabbert or Ponder.  

Getting rid of a starter is risky. Few teams have quality backups. Not many guys can step in and learn the craft quickly.

Also, you can’t expend valuable draft choices on quarterbacks every year. Not many coaches are as smart as Bill Belichick, who found one his backups while he was playing with the second string at USC (Matt Cassel). 

Players, on the other hand, realize they’re in a team-friendly league. Most of their contract is made up of funny money. It’s pie in the sky: after the guarantee, they’re on their own.

Their careers could be over in the snap of their fingers. … or their ACL. They have a short window to make money, but they’re dealing with tough negotiators.

So incentive-based deals with de-escalators are the wave of the future. This was not a particularly generous deal, but why should it be? Kaepernick, after all, hasn’t won a Super Bowl. He hasn’t played well against the Seahawks (but who has?).

Every player’s greatest fear is that he’ll suffer a career-ending injury. Presto, Kaepernick got protection against injury. He thinks he’ll do well and earn all the incentives and not trigger de-escalators. We’ll see. 

Players have adapted to the reality that their union is weak. They’d like more clout, but they don’t have it. That’s the reality of the NFL. Teams have more security than players, who have to “get rich or die trying,” a philosophy I overheard once as a description of contemporary America. 

The NFL community will be hearing about de-escalators and incentive clauses a lot more. We’re already familiar with guaranteed vs. non-guaranteed.

NFL reporters have already gotten used to being familiar with details from the police beat. Now they’ll have to know as much as their counterparts on Wall Street.