There still seems to be some sticker shock whenever discussion of a quarterback contract begins to percolate around the Internet’s various tubes. Vaguely, the cycle often goes something like this: a gasp or chuckle at the reported pay being sought, further disbelief and poking holes in the quarterback’s game when said number is finalized, and then silence when the sparkling golden arm in question returns to the field and does exactly what he always does: be a boss.
We’re about to jump into that spin cycle with Colin Kaepernick, and as we do it remembering a simple yet fundamental detail is important: quarterbacks get paid like the most important player on a roster because, with maybe a few rare exceptions, they are the most important player on the roster. Once you remember that, and once you remind yourself of the current state of the quarterback market in this pass whacky league, it’ll be easy to understand why a 26-year-old entering his prime is worth every penny of the $18 million-ish he seeks.
That was the report over the weekend from the Boston Globe as the Kaepernick extension talks move on while the 49ers locker room continues to go up in flames because the whole world may or may not despite Jim Harbaugh (probably not, but hey, there’s still a week until free agency so dammit we must be entertained). Specifically, the report from Ben Volin dropped this:
The 49ers and quarterback Colin Kaepernick began discussions on a new contract extension at the combine, and sources tell us that the three-year veteran wants a deal similar or slightly better than the ones given to Jay Cutler ($18.1 million per year, $38 million guarantee) and Tony Romo ($18 million per year, $40 million guarantee). While no one expects the 49ers to let Kaepernick go anywhere, we hear that if the 49ers don’t get in Kaepernick’s range, the quarterback would be willing to play the 2014 season at his base salary of $973,766 and postpone negotiations until next offseason instead of signing a below-market deal.
A firm approach is the right one for Kaepernick with that number in mind, and he can thank those two — Cutler and Romo — for his leverage.
In many ways this is admittedly a flawed comparison, but that’s the difficulty with the quarterback split screen. Quarterbacks often have widely varying skillsets, and they do some things well, others not so well, and others horribly. One quarterback will also get far more support from either his surrounding offense or the defense that prevents points from being scored than the other.
But no one ever said the system we have is meant to be perfect and fair. When discussing finances, the market is set by precedent, and in Romo and Cutler we have two quarterbacks who have made a combined zero playoff appearances during Kaepernick’s short time as a starter. Meanwhile, in nearly two full seasons under center and 30 total starts, six of those starts have come during the post-season for Kaepernick, and one in the Super Bowl.
He’s been wonky at times, to be sure, most notably ending the 49ers’ playoff run this year with turnovers on three straight drives. But even after we shake our collective heads at Kaepernick’s sporadic bouts with young QB-itis, the fact remains that both of San Francisco’s playoff exits over the past two years have come on plays when a last minute (or second) throw sputtered by inches. And that throw mattered because of Kaepernick.
Wins are a horrible quarterback metric due to their random nature, though, but the problem with Kaepernick is that comparing him to others is difficult because what he does or attempts to do is much different than what’s asked of Romo and Cutler. The latter are both more conventional pocket passers, though they can move around when needed. Kaepernick is creative, and beyond merely mobile. He’s fast, and an offense can be structured around that unique ability, which is what the 49ers have done with their deployment of the read-option. Unlike some of the other fleet of foot quarterbacks who have come before him (here’s lookin’ at you, Michael Vick and Robert Griffin III), Kaepernick is also careful with the football, throwing 31 touchdowns to only 11 interceptions over the past two years.
Of course, there’s a point-counterpoint statistically that will happen in negotiations. Kaepernick and his posse can nod to that TD:INT ratio, his seven games this year with a yards per attempt above 9.0, his 243 rushing yards during the playoffs (and record-setting 181 yards against the Packers a year ago), and mighty fine career passer rating of 93.8. Niners management can then do some cherry picking of their own and note his simple lack of experience, and a completion percentage that was meh this year (58.4), and it even fell below 50.0 three times. Worse, it drops to 43.6 when he’s under pressure.
That’s where their leverage ends. Just as we’ve done in the past with Romo and Cutler, attempting to pick apart a quarterback can always be done if you look hard enough. But conveniently, this question is often ignored: if you don’t pay him what the market determines (this is the part when I should also remind you of three other contracts with influence here: Matthew Stafford was deemed worthy of $15.3 million annually, setting the floor, and Matt Ryan is receiving $18.59 million, while Joe Flacco is getting $20.1 million) who are you replacing him with?
This is the nature of football economics, and the relationship with the quarterback. As the Seahawks have shown us, a team has a brief window to win before the quarterback throws down his contract anchor as dictated by other league precedents. The team then either caves, or starts over, and that choice is easy.