Even before the football-following world realized that 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick had opted to not stand for the national anthem during each of the three preseason games, a weird vibe existed between player and team. Starting in February (when his agents asked for permission to seek a trade), continuing in March (when he met twice with the Broncos about a trade), and extending into August (when he didn’t practice for more than a week due to a supposedly dead arm), some developed the distinct impression that Kaepernick would never play another regular-season game for the 49ers.
Now that the situation has been complicated by Kaepernick’s refusal to participate in the anthem and his vow to keep sitting, the 49ers are in a much tougher spot. The trade market, if there was one, has likely evaporated, at least for now. Cutting him is complicated by the reality that, with a strong possibility that no one else would sign him, the 49ers would end up stuck with his full $11.9 million salary, with no offset.
Then there’s the question of whether and to what extent the 49ers would absorb a P.R. hit for cutting Kaepernick. The organization has taken great pains to support his right to sit, which easily can be interpreted as an effort to ensure that an eventual move to cut him could be sold as a football-only gesture. Still, plenty of casual fans will be inclined to not accept that explanation, since they remember Kaepernick as a guy who nearly won a Super Bowl but are oblivious to his regression over the past three years.
Letting him play entails the risk of an injury that lingers into 2017, and that keeps the 49ers from avoiding a $14.5 million base salary that becomes fully guaranteed as of April 1. At a minimum, then, there’s a belief that he’ll be kept in bubble wrap, RGIII-style, once the regular season begins.
With the team on the hook either way for the $11.9 million, and in light of the P.R. fallout that could arise from cutting him, the 49ers could choose to keep Kaepernick on the roster and wait for a possible injury to a starter elsewhere. Five years ago, Raiders quarterback Jason Campbell broke a collarbone two days before the trade deadline, opening the door for the Bengals to unload Carson Palmer, who had retired (i.e., quit). If a team that believes it can get the most out of Kaepernick (and/or that has seen first hand the havoc he can wreak) needs a starter, trading for Kaepernick could be the best way out of a bad situation.
The Sunday report from FOX’s Jay Glazer, who said he’ll be shocked if Kaepernick is on the team at the end of the season (for football reasons), is being viewed by some as a message from the team that the plan is to squat on Kaepernick for now, hold out hope (slim as it may be) for a trade, and then cut him later in the year, after the controversy dies down, as all controversies inevitably do.
Regardless, it will still be a surprise if he actually suits up and plays for the 49ers in the regular season, which means that it will be a surprise if he ever plays for the team again after Thursday’s preseason finale.