On Wednesday, the San Francisco 49ers signed their star quarterback Colin Kaepernick to a six-year $126 million extension, placing him firmly among the elite moneymakers in the NFL. Upon scribbling his John Hancock on the dotted line, the 26 year old signal-caller assured himself $61 million in guaranteed money–exactly $1 million more than even Tom Brady secured during his last trip to the negotiating table. San Francisco closely hugs the salary cap, and even though the team has several notable players with contracts that expire following the upcoming season, the Niners display an overwhelming sense of faith in Kaepernick to guide the team back to glory.
When former 49ers starting quarterback Alex Smith went down with a concussion halfway through the 2012 season, Kaepernick was given his first NFL start on Monday Night Football versus the swarming defense of the Chicago Bears. Instead of shying away from the moment, he embraced it by tossing for 246 yards and two touchdowns en route to a 32-7 win. Kaepernick became an overnight sensation as he led the 49ers to the Super Bowl–coming up five yards shy of the victory–while Smith never started a game for the Niners again.
The story is one with which fans in San Francisco are very familiar–the athletic understudy who impatiently bides his time on the bench until given the opportunity to shine. In the 1980s, Joe Montana led San Francisco to four Super Bowl titles while cementing the 49ers as one of pro football’s all-time dynasties. Montana was arguably the most clutch quarterback in NFL historyand an unrivaled playoff performer. A few injuries, however, opened the door for Steve Young to flash his athletic brilliance and ultimately push the hall-of-famer right out of a job. The only differences between now and then is Alex Smith is certainly no Joe Cool–even though both players came to call Kansas City home after being pushed out of the bay area–and though Colin Kaepernick may be a human highlight reel, he is not Steve Young–at least not yet anyway.
In being a superior athlete, Kaepernick has often relied on his imposing physical traits to secure wins, and while he has found success with his legs in the pros, it has not led to the ultimate victory. Learning when to tuck it and run and when to wait for a play to develop is something with which many athletic quarterbacks have difficulty when making the transition from college to the pros. NFL defenses are much faster than those at the NCAA level. Passing lanes close up faster, receivers are rarely wide open, and defenders close in to make stops much faster than often anticipated.
That is why football people talk about how important it is for quarterbacks to ‘trust their eyes’ and to anticipate the play before it happens. A strong arm and great accuracy only go so far, but reading and reacting to a defense is what raises a passer to the next level. That is what made Steve Young so great, possessing both athleticism and pocket presence. Kaepernick is still very raw in that regard. He is an athlete with all the tools, but his skills as a true passer are still underdeveloped. Fortunately for the 49ers, their young quarterback is putting in the work, and is determined to raise his level of play as high as it can possibly go. If his skills in the pocket ever do catch up to his athletic ability, the league will be in serious trouble. San Francisco management has done everything in their power to assist in that development by revamping the receiving corps this off-season.
The Niners have become one of the elite teams in pro football once again, even though the past three seasons have not ended in their favor. A very tight Super Bowl loss sandwiched between two three-point losses in the NFC Championship have the red and gold looking very similar to the 1990s Buffalo Bills, a team which made four consecutive Super Bowl appearances but lost every one–the antithesis to those old Niners teams which always won in the big game. San Francisco would ultimately like to steer clear of that backhanded sense of accomplishment and instead square away the franchise’s sixth title. With this big extension, the Niners have displayed their faith that Colin Kaepernick is the man to do just that.
Commentary by Kalen Skalesky