Analysis  

 

Seahawks, Niners ride tenuous QB situations into 2012 season

US Presswire/Associated Press
San Francisco's Alex Smith (left) and Seattle's Matt Flynn both received three-year contracts in the offseason.

One team was the toast of the NFL last season, rising out of a decade-long slumber and landing on the doorstep of the biggest stage in American sports. The other spent the second half of 2011, even while in the middle of franchise overhaul, as one of the league's most dangerous teams, beating the Baltimore Ravens, and blowing out the Philadelphia Eagles and Chicago Bears.

But most interesting is that months after an optimism-pumping fall, in a quarterback-driven league, neither the San Francisco 49ers nor the Seattle Seahawks have a definitive answer going forward at the game's most important position.

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Yes, the Niners have Alex Smith, who led the club to a 13-3 mark last fall. And sure, Seattle signed Matt Flynn, the biggest quarterbacking name on the market outside of that fella who used to play for the Indianapolis Colts.

But facts are facts. Both Seattle and San Francisco made runs at Peyton Manning. Both clubs have drafted a quarterback outside the first round, but inside the first 75 picks in the past two years.

And for the rest of the story, let's take a cue from "All the President's Men" and follow the money on Smith and Flynn, both of whom signed three-year deals in March. Here's a look ...

Alex Smith's contract

• 2012: $5 million base salary (fully guaranteed); $3 million roster bonus; $1.25 million in likely-to-be-earned incentives; $1.75 million in unlikely incentives.
• 2013: $7.5 million base salary ($1 million guaranteed); $1 million roster bonus; $1.25 million in likely-to-be-earned incentives; $1.75 million in unlikely incentives.
• 2014: $7.5 million base salary; $1.25 million in likely-to-be-earned incentives; $1.75 million in unlikely incentives.

What it means: Smith was guaranteed $9 million upon signing ($10.5 million with injury guarantees), but this could well be a deal that runs a year and is worth only that much. The 2013 roster bonus is due in March, and if Smith is on the roster on April 1 of next year, his $7.5 million base salary will be guaranteed. If they cut him before the roster bonus comes due, they only owe him the $1 million guarantee. So, at least from a practical standpoint, the Niners will have to make a decision next March if Smith will be the starter for 2013.

Matt Flynn's contract

• 2012: $6 million signing bonus; $2 million base salary (fully guaranteed); $200,000 Pro Bowl bonus; $200,000 NFL MVP bonus.
• 2013: $5.25 million base salary ($2 million guaranteed); $200,000 Pro Bowl bonus; $200,000 NFL MVP bonus.
• 2014: $6.25 million base salary; $200,000 Pro Bowl bonus; $200,000 NFL MVP bonus.

What it means: Flynn's guarantee is similar to Smith's -- at $10 million -- but the structure is different. Where Smith's deal forces the club to declare intentions after Year 1, Flynn's deal gives him two years to develop, which makes sense since he's new in Seattle and Smith isn't in San Francisco. If the Seahawks cut Flynn next spring, the cap hit would be $6 million, whereas the hit would be $7.25 million to have him on the roster. That makes the deal almost like a two-year pact with a third-year option.

* * *

From a team standpoint, there's clarity in the Niners' intention to make Smith their starter in 2012 and decide where things go in the future from there. There's more murkiness as to where Flynn fits in for Seattle.

Though Flynn was a big name on the market, Seattle's financial commitment to its first two quarterbacks isn't much different now from where it was last fall. In 2011, Tarvaris Jackson and Charlie Whitehurst pulled in about $8 million, where the club will sink between $9 million and $10 million on Jackson and Flynn this year. Flynn was initially looking for a deal in the neighborhood of what Matt Cassel got in Kansas City, but the Seahawks' message is clear through the finances: A starting job isn't promised.

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And that is central to Pete Carroll's "Always Compete" philosophy, as is rookie Russell Wilson's entrance into the fray last weekend. Wilson's performance at rookie minicamp was enough to buy him that shot, which is about as much as a first-year guy can accomplish this early. People in the building will remind you, too, that Carroll, going back to USC and his propensity there for playing freshman, won't shy away from counting on a kid like Wilson. Carroll proved that last year in replacing Brandon Stokley with undrafted rookie Doug Baldwin.

In San Francisco, they have a developmental player at the position, too. Colin Kaepernick was taken just four picks outside the first round in 2011 and one pick behind Andy Dalton, who led the Bengals to the playoffs as a Day 1 starter.

The jury is still out on Kaepernick, with some questions having surrounded his instincts for the position. Conversely, the Niners were comfortable enough with him to take a hard-line approach in the Smith negotiations in March, a tact that could've led to Kaepernick ascending to the top spot of the depth chart for a Super Bowl contender.

Where does that leave us? Two "competitive piece" veterans and a promising young player fighting for time in Seattle, and a starter playing to keep his job with a young player fighting to prove he's the answer long-term in San Francisco.

And around those guys are two nicely rebuilt clubs with plenty to be excited about in 2012.

Maybe that dynamic won't make either of these teams the surest bet to be visiting the Superdome in February. But it sure will be interesting to follow.

Follow Albert Breer on Twitter @AlbertBreer

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