When Colin Kaepernick exploded onto the scene midway through the 2012 season, which culminated in a narrow defeat in Super Bowl XLVII, it was difficult to find anyone who doubted his long-term future with the club. Even the most ardent critics of the read-option seemed to believe that Kaepernick possessed enough arm talent to overcome the inevitable adjustments opposing defenses would make to his running abilities. In short, there was little doubt that he and Jim Harbaugh had firmly established themselves as one of the top quarterback-head coach combos in the league, the West Coast equivalent of Belichick and Brady.
Although 2013 did not bring with it the same explosive success for Kaepernick, the 49ers still came devastatingly close to having another crack at the Lombardi Trophy, with Kaepernick throwing an endzone interception in the waning seconds of the NFC Championship Game to seal a 23-17 win for the eventual-champion Seahawks. Kaepernick finished the regular season with 21 touchdown passes to just eight interceptions, and he added 524 rushing yards and four rushing touchdowns.
But then 2014 happened. Amid reports that Harbaugh was on his way out at the end of the year, Kaepernick saw his performance slip, throwing 19 TDs to 10 picks and ranking as the 28th-best quarterback in the league per Pro Football Focus’ advanced metrics (subscription required), behind the likes of Mark Sanchez, Shaun Hill, and Kirk Cousins.
Now, as Tim Kawakawi of the San Jose Mercury News writes, 2015 has essentially become a lame-duck year for Kaepernick, as the seven-year, $126MM extension he signed last summer was for all practical purposes a $13MM signing bonus accompanied by seven one-year contracts. That means that the 49ers could, if they wanted, release Kaepernick without blinking an eye and without paying him another dime. Combine that reality with Kaepernick’s cap number, which will be $15.3MM in 2015 and will only go up from there, and throw in the fact that none of the current San Francisco coaches have the same personal investment in Kaepernick as Harbaugh did, and the quarterback’s status with the team becomes more than a little unclear.
And then there is the 2015 season itself, which could see the offense further regress with the possible departures of Frank Gore and Michael Crabtree and a potential schematic overhaul with the promotion of Geep Chryst to offensive coordinator. If that happens, or if the revamped coaching staff and Kaepernick do not mesh, next offseason will bring with it a great deal of uncertainty under center. With the way Kaepernick’s contract is structured, his margin for error is pretty slim, and each season will essentially serve as a new audition for an organization that has proven it is willing to prematurely cut ties with even its most successful personnel.