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For 49ers, Kaepernick becomes the new Harbaugh

Kaepernick

With 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick entering a contract year in 2014, the franchise persuaded him to agree to a ridiculously team-friendly deal, one that gives the 49ers until April 1 of each of the next five years to walk away with no further financial obligation.

Apart from whether and to what extent the financial package slights Kaepernick (and at times last year his performance suggested that perhaps he has been overpaid), the ability of the organization to assess all options on an annual basis for three months after the regular season ends puts Kaepernick annually in a precarious spot. In contrast, players like Drew Brees had their salaries become fully guaranteed in February; already, the Saints are on the hook for $18.75 million in 2015 for Brees, thanks to contract language that made the salary fully guaranteed on the third day of the waiver period.

And so, as Tim Kawakami of the San Jose Mercury News explains it, Kaepernick has become this year’s Jim Harbaugh for the 49ers. Although the team is prepared to go forward with Kaepernick for at least one more year (especially since his failure to make the All-Pro team or to take the 49ers to the Super Bowl in 2014 dropped his base pay from $12.4 million to $10.4 million), Kaepernick’s status for 2016 will hover over the franchise the same way Harbaugh’s status for 2015 did.

Beyond from the many flaws in Kaepernick’s contract, the failure to anticipate a coaching change becomes perhaps the biggest problem; with Harbaugh now gone, Kaepernick’s performance will be largely influenced -- and evaluated -- by coach Jim Tomsula, offensive coordinator Geep Chryst, and quarterbacks coach Steve Logan. What if Tomsula, Chryst, and Logan decide Kaepernick isn’t the right guy for the long haul? What if Kaepernick doesn’t respond to them the way he did to Harbaugh and his shoulder-pad slapping enthusiasm?

Even under Harbaugh, Kaepernick never quite became the guy everyone thought he’d be. Under Tomsula, Chryst, and Logan, Kaepernick could regress -- and the 49ers could decide a year from now to move on. The contract makes it easy, and the new circumstances in San Francisco could make it a necessity.

Whatever happens with Kaepernick in 2016, it’ll be a constant question and, eventually, distraction for the player and for the team.