The six-year, $126 million contract extension recently signed by San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick has created a scenario that benefits both the team and the player. The 49ers wound up with an agreement that protects them over the long run, and Kaepernick made a strong bet on his ability to earn every penny of the $61 million structured as guarantees in the deal. What hasn't been discussed enough is how Kaepernick ushered in a new generation of thinking with his commitment to the 49ers. Any young quarterback eyeing his own fat payday should realize that the very trait necessary to ensure his own success is the one Kaepernick doesn't get enough credit for: self-awareness.
We live in a world where franchise quarterbacks expect to get paid a king's ransom once they've produced a few 4,000-yard seasons or made a couple of Pro Bowl appearances. It says here that it's time for the NFL to start rethinking that approach to a market that has spawned stunning deals of late (see: Joe Flacco, Baltimore; and Tony Romo, Dallas). Kaepernick's package indicates his understanding that a good amount of his success had plenty to do with the talent the 49ers placed around him. Without those assets -- including the mentoring of former 49ers quarterback and current Kansas City Chiefs starter Alex Smith, the strength of a stout offensive line and the dominance of an attacking defense -- he wouldn't be in the position to score such a lucrative raise as he enters his fourth season.
This is something Carolina's Cam Newton should pay close attention to in the near future. The same holds true for Russell Wilson in Seattle, Andy Dalton in Cincinnati and Nick Foles in Philadelphia. Right now, Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck is the only young signal-caller who looks comfortable and confident with an entire team perched on his capable shoulders. Every other young passer on the rise has at least one sizable question in his game, a flaw or flaws that are somewhat masked by the overall strength of his respective team.
What Kaepernick clearly realized is the same thing his peers should see in the coming years: Being paid as an elite quarterback doesn't actually make you one. It takes years of hard work, the constant tutelage of smart coaches and the good fortune to have a talented supporting cast around you. We've become so spoiled by the annual exploits of longtime stars such as New England's Tom Brady, Denver's Peyton Manning and Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers that we've somehow forgotten that. There are only a handful of great quarterbacks in this league, and they tend to be the same players every year. After that, you're looking at a long list of signal-callers hoping to eventually grind their way into that select company.
Kaepernick's deal suggested that the 49ers weren't ready to anoint him as such a player, and he wasn't prepared to put himself in that category. The hope here is that quarterbacks around the league adopt a similar attitude, because it will allow them to create better opportunities for their own futures. We've reached a point where a top quarterback seeking a new deal can ask, with a straight face, for anywhere from $18 million to $20 million a year. But as one AFC personnel director said, "A lot of these guys aren't worth that. It just happens that it's the going rate for quarterbacks in today's game."
The question worth asking in the wake of the Kaepernick deal is why teams feel like they have to pay that kind of money in order to secure a quarterback. The NFL has done a great job of reminding people that this is a passing league, that you can't win in today's game without a legitimate signal-caller. The problem is that so many teams have bought so deeply into that line of thinking that the compensation of today's quarterbacks has gotten out of hand. More general managers need to have the courage to do what San Francisco's Trent Baalke just did, which is ask his quarterback to keep earning the money his team is more than willing to give him.
The Chicago Bears just did that with Jay Cutler. His seven-year, $126 million extension really amounts to a three-year, $54 million deal that allows the team the flexibility to cut bait if Cutler isn't working out a few seasons down the road. The Chiefs may want Smith to accept a similar contract as they talk about his extension. He's supposedly been seeking a deal in the range of $18 million annually, but it's far more sensible to see him in the neighborhood of $14 million to $15 million.
What teams should want to avoid is the kind of deal that Flacco earned in the wake of his Super Bowl win over the 49ers two seasons ago. Flacco scored a six-year, $120.6 million contract that made him the NFL's highest-paid player at the time. A season later, after several key playmakers on that Ravens team vanished from the roster, Flacco was guiding an offense that ranked 29th in the league and a team that missed the postseason. He simply isn't the kind of quarterback who can live up to the kind of money he will make for the foreseeable future.
That's partly his fault and partly that of the Ravens. They believed he was worth all that cash because he'd been a productive player and a Super Bowl winner. The reality is that Flacco won a lot of games in Baltimore because he had a lot of good players around him. He delivered in the 2012 postseason, but he may never be that hot in the playoffs again.
These are the key facts that other young quarterbacks have to examine as they start to think about what they deserve when their current contracts expire. Foles just enjoyed a breakout season in Philadelphia, but will he really be the same player without DeSean Jackson or if Chip Kelly isn't his head coach someday? Dalton has made the playoffs for three consecutive seasons in Cincinnati, but does anybody really think he's destined to reach elite status in this league? Even Wilson will have an interesting negotiation with the Seahawks. Despite his potential, he's also thrived over his first two seasons with a team that has been built around a strong running game and a devastating defense.
ESPN NFL analyst Trent Dilfer recently argued that it would be worthwhile for many of these young quarterbacks to think about their actual value and for their teams to take a hard stance in negotiations. His rationale was that the most successful quarterbacks, particularly those with less experience, generally benefit from the talent around them. The ones who think they make everything happen -- that they're worthy of the same money as Brady, Manning, Rodgers and Drew Brees -- run the risk of embarrassing and exposing themselves at a later date. As Dilfer said, a good quarterback can get paid less than market value from his current team, keep more good players around him and still make considerable money in potential endorsements.
This may be the very strategy that Kaepernick employed before accepting his deal. He might have been able to push for more guarantees, and he certainly could've been offended by having to reach certain incentives to realize the full value of the contract. Instead, he had the maturity to see that his success was directly tied to being blessed with extraordinary talent around him. It would be refreshing to see more young quarterbacks choosing to follow the example he just set.