The 49ers won’t be the same when they put their uniforms back on this summer. That’s just life in big and small pro cities these days. The spiffy new stadium comes with a hefty mortgage, which translates into higher ticket prices, loftier expectations, and itchy ownership.
Jim Harbaugh is already working on his next last play. And on his young quarterback. Count on it.
The next time the 49ers head coach bellows, “who has it better than us?,” he will remember last Sunday and Seattle and the Seahawks, and the fact Pete Carroll and Russell Wilson and Richard Sherman are headed to the Super Bowl while the 49ers title drought continues, and at least partly answer his own question.
The other part of the question/answer session – which most assuredly leads to an ongoing offseason conversation – pertains to Colin Kaepernick. The third-year quarterback became eligible to sign a contract extension Monday, meaning the 49ers are confronting two immediate and delicate tasks: Determining his financial value and then figuring out a way to accelerate his development. Because right now? After these last two postseason finales? Those two ill-fated passes aimed at Michael Crabtree in the endzone?
Kaepernick is a proven talent, but he remains an unpolished commodity. So what is the going price for that powerful arm and those spectacular feet? For a young player still learning to read defenses and prone to late-game mistakes? He certainly can’t command the salary of a Joe Flacco, Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees, Peyton Manning, among others whose salaries average between in the $20-million range. They won Super Bowls, and he didn’t, and that’s how it works.
The 49ers also want to avoid anything resembling a Flacco-esque dilemma. Flacco’s timing a year ago was terrific for his own fiscal security, but not so great for the Baltimore Ravens salary cap management. The six-year, $120 million deal he signed weeks after being named Super Bowl MVP led to the roster purge in which Boldin and several other important, impactful players were waived or traded.
Yet both parties who maintain varying degrees of interest in the opening next season of the new stadium – the 49ers and Kaepernick – the prudent move is to embrace the best and the worst of the past, and compromise on an extension. The 49ers don’t need another crushing defeat. By securing their most important player, the 49ers would maintain stability at the most important position in professional sports – and a position that not so long ago was the very model of instability. Tim Rattay. Ken Dorsey. Cody Pickett. Trent Dilfer. Shaun Hill. Chris Weinke. J.T. O’Sullivan. Troy Smith. Alex Smith.
Those were the starters at various times after Jeff Garcia left after 2003. Alex Smith, of course, flourished under Harbaugh, reviving both the franchise (13-3 in 2011) and his own career before being dumped in favor of the more athletic, explosive Kaepernick.
The 49ers don’t want to revisit that part of their recent anymore than Kaepernick wants to revisit New Orleans or Seattle. Really, he should take the money and run, and then collaborate with Harbaugh on how to become a galloping ghost of Joe Montana and Steve Young.
Youthful mistakes shouldn’t define a career. And lest anyone forget – and the temptation is to seize the moment and forget about Green Bay and Carolina, and obsess about Seattle – Kaepernick recovered from a poor start and finished strong. He also continued contributing to the 49ers record book: His 91.6 passer rating was the highest since Garcia in 2001; his three road postseason victories are the most among 49ers quarterbacks; his 58-yard run in the opening half against the Seahawks ranks right up there with some of his most impressive footwork by any quarterback, in Northern California or elsewhere.
True, that stubborn streak might need tempering. While Kaepernick didn’t attend Monday’s media availability session, and therefore was unable to say whether he reconsidered after looking at game film, he insisted late Sunday that he would make that same throw to Crabtree again and again. “I was going there, though I could have put it deeper in the corner,” he said, Sherman’s formidable presence and abilities notwithstanding.
Maybe that changes. Maybe it doesn’t. This particular offseason would seem to inspire introspection. Harbaugh, who understands the delicate dance of the quarterback more than most, seemed to make a deliberate effort to avoid criticizing or second-guessing Kaepernick in the immediate aftermath of a defeat.
“Colin, all our guys made great strides, they’re great football players,” a somber Harbaugh said. “Just one drive, one touchdown and we move on.”
Instead, it’s on to next season, and a new stadium, and an entirely different set of circumstances.