Excuse me for stifling a laugh and tweeting a LOL emoji. But the concept of Colin Kaepernick succeeding Peyton Manning in Denver is akin to Adele, after a concert for the ages, yielding her soundstage to Pussy Riot.
Out with the Sheriff, in with the Scattershot? Out with the Legend, in with the Loose Cannon? A quarterbacking colossus celebrated for his precision, work ethic, leadership and prolific production, replaced by one of the least prepared, wildly inaccurate, mysteriously unreliable and indisputably regressing QBs in the profession?
Has John Elway, hailed for his prowess as an NFL executive after a Hall of Fame playing career, suddenly lost his gourd? Is the wi-fi not working at Broncos headquarters? Has he not watched recent tape of Kaepernick, not heard the reports about his aloof and moody ways and his MTV-host girlfriend in New York? He’d really hand over the reins of a defending Super Bowl champion, an elite franchise that has won five consecutive division titles, to the Red-Headphoned Enigma?
If so, that is wonderful news for 49ers fans. Not only should Chip Kelly avoid a disgruntled locker-room influence who requested a trade last month — only hours after Kelly tried to send an olive branch — but he also must realize that his coaching tenure won’t be taken seriously until he begins anew at the most important position. Now that supposed-Manning-successor Brock Osweiler has fled to sign a four-year, $72 million contract with the Houston Texans, Elway is desperate enough in a flimsy offseason marketplace to consider Kaepernick and another failing former dual-threat star, Robert Griffin III. That he counts 49ers general manager Trent Baalke as a friend and frequent trading partner — remember, the teams made a 2011 draft-day deal allowing Baalke to move up nine spots and take Kaepernick — makes the process an easier no-brainer.
“I’ve always liked Colin,” Elway told the media last August when the 49ers and Broncos scrimmaged. “He’s very athletic and he can make a lot of big plays. He’s doing more within the pocket, which I think if he continues to do that, it’ll help him. But he’s a great athlete, and he’s got that big-play ability to avoid things and make things happen.” Never mind that few of those abilities surfaced last season, when Kaepernick was a drive-killing, turnover-making machine before succumbing to surgeries to repair a torn ligament in his throwing thumb, a tear in his left shoulder and particles in his left knee. Let Elway believe what he wants to believe.
So, put a cap on the confounding, disappointing Kap Era. Dump the remainder of Kaepernick’s contract, including the $11.9 million owed him on April 1. Take whatever draft pick is offered — probably a low round selection or two in 2017, in that the Broncos have traded away their 2016 picks in the fourth, fifth and sixth rounds and aren’t about to relinquish a third-round choice.
And move along to the increasing possibility that Jared Goff, he of the “small” hands and big potential, will be available at the No. 7 spot in the first round as Kelly’s local, groomable, hope-coated project.
In their fledgling days as a decision-making tag team, nothing that Baalke and Kelly do is more crucial than creating a master plan at quarterback. We should thank Kaepernick for rescuing Kelly from himself and requesting a trade, because it allows Kelly to avoid what would have been a lost 2016 season. This organization has no time to waste as thousands of disgusted season-ticket holders — I hear from them, constantly — want to unload Stadium Builders Licenses and deal with possible legal consequences. CEO Jed York has made it resoundingly clear that his new coach “will be here a long time,” but if the positive aspects of Kelly’s uneven reputation have been built on offensive innovation, it’s paramount to immediately build a foundation. Or the fans will turn on Kelly as quickly as they did in Philadelphia, if not quite as angrily.
Right in front of his visor is a union that makes perfect sense: a kid from Cal, by way of Novato and Marin Catholic High School, joining the team he watched growing up. In the long view, drafting Goff might reverse the bad karma of 11 years ago, when coach Mike Nolan, given too much front-office power by York’s parents, ignored a Cal QB named Aaron Rodgers to select Alex Smith with the No. 1 overall pick. In the shorter view, Goff is viewed as one of the best two QBs in this draft, along with North Dakota State upstart Carson Wentz. Baalke, with ties to that small program, has gushed like many league insiders over Wentz’s arm strength and athletic ability and a durable 6-5, 230-pound body.
But Wentz is said to be the darling of new coach Hue Jackson and the Cleveland Browns, who are drafting No. 2 and also need a QB. All league eyes then would shift to Santa Clara, where the 49ers couldn’t possibly enter Kelly’s first season with Blaine Gabbert behind center, backed up by journeyman Thad Lewis and unused Dylan Thompson. Only the Dallas Cowboys, at No. 4, could foil the Goff plot if they want to pick an eventual replacement for brittle Tony Romo. Even so, Baalke could swap slots and send another draft choice to Jerry Jones, who might prefer the third-best prospect, Paxton Lynch, because he’s a longer-term project.
I shouldn’t have to repeat this, but Goff to the 49ers is a natural. In the best-case scenario, he heads down the 880 freeway, turns Levi’s Stadium into his playpen and becomes a franchise giant. In a more sober outlook, he at least solidifies the position for years with steady work. But Baalke and Kelly do have to try, and if York agrees that his franchise needs a local jolt to avoid further perceptional slippage, he should push the Goff envelope inside the offices.
ESPN commentator Jon Gruden, whose film-room grilling of QB prospects has become cult TV, loves Goff because he endured a 1-11 freshman horror in Berkeley before leading the Bears this past season to an 8-5 record and blowout bowl victory. If he could survive that hell, Goff would be better positioned for pressure to bring back the 49ers from a sudden, disastrous comedown that left them at 5-11 — and Jim Tomsula without a job.
“It taught me a lot about football,” Goff said of the 2013 season. “I had to grow up, mature. We were terrible, and we had to really start from the floor and build from the ground up. I had to kind of become the leader of the team that next year. I was able to go through it with a lot of great guys who were there this past year when we were able to be successful. But, yeah, it taught me a lot. I’m very grateful for that experience, for sure. It’s been a part of my football journey that I’ll definitely look back on as something that helped me.”
As for those hands, Goff’s measured in at nine inches. That is considered small by NFL standards, about the size of a certain fabled QB from San Mateo who needed footballs to be deflated to better fit his paws. Kelly, not speaking specifically of Goff, said he prefers passers with bigger hands. It’s hoped he’s playing possum, because if Goff really has a major issue here, he’d have fumbled more than four times last season. “I’ve been told I have pretty big hands my whole life,” he said. “No, I’ve never had a problem with that or expect it to be a problem at all.”
It’s time for the 49ers to do something dramatic, command our attention spans again. So far in free agency, they’ve lost guard Alex Boone and re-signed nose tackle Ian Williams. With all their struggles and stumbles, the Niners don’t deserve huge favors.
But they’ve been handed one anyway, the Gift of Goff.
If they don’t claim it, may Blaine Gabbert be their quarterback for years to come in a half-empty stadium, where the seats will be redder than their faces.
Jay Mariotti is sports director and lead sports columnist at the San Francisco Examiner. He can be reached at email@example.com. Read his website at jaymariotti.com.