SANTA CLARA – Colin Kaepernick is still supposedly competing to be the 49ers’ starting quarterback for the opening of the regular season.
The whole idea that Kaepernick can win the job right now appears far-fetched. Although Blaine Gabbert has not exactly been spectacular during training camp and the exhibition season, it’s obvious at this point he will be named the 49ers’ starter.
It’s just a matter of time.
Kaepernick’s status on the team’s 53-man roster appears to be in serious jeopardy.
Coach Chip Kelly, the 49ers organization and his teammates reacted publicly in a way that demonstrated they support Kaepernick’s right to remain seated during the playing of the national anthem to, he said, protest police brutality and other injustices for minorities.
Kaepernick has the right to freedom of speech and protest peacefully. But that does not mean there cannot be repercussions from his actions. Although Kelly, the 49ers and Kaepernick’s teammates all said the right things, this situation must be a cause of varying degrees of embarrassment and a distraction that nobody in the organization welcomes.
When asked whether he believes his protest could lead to his release from the 49ers, Kaepernick on Sunday said, “I don’t know. But if I do (get cut), I know I did what’s right. And I can live with that at the end of the day.”
But Kaepernick’s tenuous spot on the 49ers for the next six days is not entirely about his decision to step apart from his teammates and take a controversial position with an act that was sure to alienate and anger a lot of people – including a large portion of the fan base.
Things between Kaepernick and the organization were about as bad as possible last year. As his play declined, the whispers grew louder about how Gabbert, then the backup, watched far more game film. It became an issue within the organization that Kaepernick shut himself off from his teammates by wearing headphones in the locker room and cafeteria.
Then, there was the obvious lack of communication with the 49ers’ athletic training and medical staffs. Kaepernick’s season came to an end a couple weeks after he had been benched due to poor performance. He underwent season-ending surgery on his left shoulder injury that had gone unreported and untreated for nearly two months. Kaepernick and those close to him believe the 49ers mishandled the situation. The 49ers believe Kaepernick was not forthright about his condition.
His relationship with his team and teammates was strained – and some thought irreconcilable. His representatives asked permission from the 49ers to seek a trade. General manager Trent Baalke granted the request. Kaepernick met with Denver Broncos GM John Elway. The only reason Kaepernick is still a member of the 49ers is because his side and the Broncos could not agree on a new contract that gave both sides what they wanted.
By that point, Kaepernick was already fully guaranteed his $11.9 million base salary because he was on the roster – and he was not healthy – when April 1 arrived. The Broncos did not view Kaepernick as a player worthy of that kind of financial commitment. They wanted him to accept a $5 million pay cut. The 49ers could have paid that $5 million difference to facilitate the trade but refused.
That is a decision the organization likely regrets at this point.
Kaepernick has already earned a $400,000 roster bonus for his perfect attendance during the 49ers’ offseason program. His $11.9 million base salary is fully guaranteed. And his contract calls for a total of $2 million in roster bonuses – divided up over 16 weeks of the regular season – if he suits up as one of the team’s active 46 players this season.
Even though Kaepernick’s salary for this season is guaranteed, there is a huge financial reason for the 49ers to cut ties with him now.
They might want to take no chances that there’s a repeat of what has occurred in the past year. Again, there’s a magical April 1 deadline. If Kaepernick is on the 49ers’ roster on April 1, 2017 – or he is injured at that point and cannot be released – his entire scheduled salary for next season of $14.5 million becomes fully guaranteed.
Kaepernick does not appear as if he has regained all his strength and weight. He missed nearly two weeks with arm fatigue. It very well could be if he is forced into action now, he could be more susceptible to a long-term injury.
The 49ers have plenty of salary cap room, but they also have a lot of young players they can sign to long-term deals after this season. The last thing they want is the possibility of Kaepernick, again, being the highest-paid player on the team.
Kaepernick and Gabbert have been competing for the starting job. The feeling all along was that Kaepernick would clearly have to out-perform Gabbert to win the job. But that did not happen through the first two weeks of practices when the men were splitting first-team practice snaps. And, now, Gabbert clearly looks better after Kaepernick has returned to action.
If veteran Thad Lewis had remained healthy, it might be a foregone conclusion at this point that Kaepernick would be on the way out. The only reason the 49ers might have some hesitancy to cut ties with Kaepernick now is due to the readiness of raw – but talented – rookie Jeff Driskel. Perhaps, they add a veteran who is released during final cuts. Or, maybe, Christian Ponder can do enough in a short period of time to convince the coaching staff he can handle an emergency role.
All across the NFL, teams make decisions on players based on skill, contract status and off-the-field issues – whether that’s study habits, work habits, how a person fits in the locker room or how he represents the organization.
Right now, Kaepernick is 0-for-3 in those areas. And that leaves the 49ers in an awkward position as they near the decision of which 53 players they will retain for the start of the regular season.