Play ball? Monday isn’t just start of baseball season, it’s the start of the offseason for NFL teams with new coaching staffs.
That, of course, includes the 49ers and coach Chip Kelly, who along with every other 49ers observer will be eager to see whether his most expensive, most controversial, most enigmatic player, quarterback Colin Kaepernick, shows up for the start of the team’s offseason program.
Kaepernick has spent the past three months not in Santa Clara, where the 49ers’ practice facility is located and where he has a home, but in Vail, Colo., where he is recovering from three surgeries. He’s still a month or so from being cleared by his private doctors there.
In Vail, Kaepernick has been 95 miles or so from the man who is considering making him his starting quarterback this year, Denver Broncos general manager John Elway. Kaepernick and Elway have met twice in the past three weeks, which tells us two things:
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1. The Broncos are interested in Kaepernick.
2. The 49ers are willing to let him go; Elway would be guilty of tampering with Kaepernick if he didn’t have permission to talk.
There are some practical reasons for Kaepernick to stay away from the 49ers’ offseason program.
He’s not going to be able to take part in the conditioning sessions with his teammates anyway because he’s still recovering from his injuries, most notably to his left shoulder and left knee. He’s been making steady progress in Colorado and may not want to interrupt that.
More important is the tactical reason for Kaepernick showing up – it will make Elway and the Broncos sweat a bit.
Steering clear of Santa Clara also would allow him to avoid an awkward situation. After all, things were tense between him and team officials at the end of the 2015 season. The conditions only have grown worse since he decided to have his surgeries elsewhere – an implicit no-faith gesture to the 49ers’ medical staff – and asked to explore a trade.
But there are also good reasons for him to be on hand, including an obvious one: His contract calls for him to earn $400,000 if he takes part in 90 percent of the offseason workouts. It’s easy money; few Americans would turn down that kind of cash just because they can’t stand their bosses.
Most important is the tactical reason for showing up – it will make Elway and the Broncos sweat a bit.
Denver has two quarterbacks under contract, Mark Sanchez and Trevor Siemian. The latter has taken one regular-season NFL snap, a kneel-down. The former threw 18 interceptions, lost eight fumbles and finished with a woeful 66.9 passer rating in 15 games in his last stint as a full-time starter with the New York Jets in 2012.. Neither gets hearts racing in Denver, nor do possible additions like Mike Glennon, Brian Hoyer, Josh McCown or a rookie the Broncos could get with their first draft pick, No. 31 overall.
The worry might be that if Kaepernick starts spending time in Santa Clara, the cold war he’s been waging with the 49ers will thaw. He’ll interact with Kelly, who could impress upon him the benefits of his offensive system, which has worked wonders for mobile quarterbacks in the past. And besides, Kaepernick can make as much as $14.3 million with Kelly this year.
Elway reportedly wants to slash that figure in half, which is why the saga has been stagnant for weeks.
If Kaepernick shuns the 49ers, it would confirm to the Broncos what they’ve suspected all along and what they’ve used as leverage to this point: That Kaepernick and the 49ers don’t like each other and can’t co-exist.
Why else would they be offering San Francisco a single midround draft pick, which could be a third rounder but also could be a fifth? Why else would Denver insist that Kaepernick has to cut his 2016 salary in half?
In order for the 49ers and Kaepernick to get some leverage back, they at least have to look as if they’re working together. They have to play ball.