Mort & Schefter: Every game's a referendum on 49ers QB Colin Kaepernick's future

— -- From the moment Colin Kaepernick signed a six-year, $114 million contract long on years but short on guarantees, it gave him security and the San Francisco 49ers flexibility.

But that arrangement soon will be approaching a critical juncture.

Each game Kaepernick plays -- continuing with tonight's in San Francisco against the Seattle Seahawks -- becomes a referendum on what the 49ers should do with him after this season.

Kaepernick is due $11.9 million in base salary and another $2 million in roster bonuses next season. If he's traded or cut before April 1, the 49ers would save $14 million in cash and $9.4 million in salary-cap space.

Those are some big numbers for a big decision that San Francisco must soon confront. Kaepernick has shown signs of growing up, maturing, changing. The headphones he used to wear in the 49ers' lunch room are gone, allowing him to interact more with the teammates he is dependent upon. It's as if the walls and barriers have come down, with the hope his play continues to rise. It's just a sign, but it's also revealing. Kaepernick has become more a part of the team, and the team has become more a part of him.

Yet more important than conversing with his team, he must perform for his team. This ultimately is what will determine whether he stays. He has 10 more games to prove his worth.

And the 49ers are hardly the only team staring straight at the prospect of a call that will shape the franchise's future. Detroit is in a similar situation.

In the next two seasons, Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford is scheduled to make $17 million and then $16.5 million in base salary. But his contract, like Kaepernick's, contains no more guaranteed money after this season. Therein lies the reason the Lions would have an opportunity to trade Stafford if they wanted, though the belief is that they have no intention of doing so.

If the Lions were to make the franchise-altering decision to trade Stafford between now and June 2016, the pro-ration on his contract would be $11 million, but Detroit actually would save $6 million on its 2016 salary cap.

So if the Lions wanted, they could deal Stafford for draft-pick compensation -- probably a fair amount of it -- and reshape and remake their franchise with the surplus of added picks and salary-cap space.

It's risky, it's bold, it's imaginative, and it's probably unlikely.

But it's not out of the question, either -- in either team's case. The Week 7 games will affect the NFL standings. But they also will influence the standing of Kaepernick and Stafford and the turns their franchises take.

Charcandrick West sneaks up on football fans

Charcandrick West is no Jamaal Charles. He's no John David Crow, either, but the fact West knew about Crow helped get him an opportunity to replace the injured Charles for the Chiefs.

West was signed as an undrafted free agent in 2014 out of Abilene Christian. He played his high school football at Springhill, in the suburbs of Shreveport, Louisiana.

Enter Chiefs general manager John Dorsey, a self-described football grunt who asked West a question about the greatest running back in Springhill High history.

"The kid [West] lit up and said, 'Everybody knows John David Crow,' " recalled Dorsey. "I knew then he was a football guy. I love football guys."

Crow was a Springhill High grad (Class of 1954) who became the only Heisman Trophy winner coached by Paul "Bear" Bryant when Bryant was at Texas A&M.

West's path to the NFL has been far different than the one traveled by Crow, who lived up to the hype and celebration of a Heisman winner.

West was signed to the Kansas City practice squad last season and promoted to the 53-man roster in November. When he emerged from the 2015 training camp as the No. 2 back on the Chiefs' depth chart at running back, surpassing Knile Davis as Charles' primary backup, the reaction was a predictable "really?"

"You don't replace a Jamaal Charles, but if this kid plays like he practices, he'll open some eyes," Dorsey said. "He's short [5-foot-9], but he's not small. He's a thick 212 pounds. He can make you miss in space. He runs hard. He can handle blitz pickups. He loves football. He has one of those infectious personalities."

West had a mixed debut as the Chiefs' disappointing season continued with a 16-10 loss to the Vikings. West played 43 snaps and had 33 yards on nine carries and one catch for 6 yards. He was benched after a fourth-quarter fumble, but he also had some moments, including a fourth-and-1 run in which the officials ruled him down behind the line of scrimmage instead of awarding him a touchdown when he spun out of the tackle and into the end zone. Chiefs coach Andy Reid has been adamant that West was not down and will remain the starter this week against the Steelers.

How injuries have affected contract talks

For those paying attention -- and players need to be -- there was a warning sign during the summer.

Players watched then, and realize now, that sometimes the best deal they will land is the one they are being offered before the season -- and the risk -- begin.

Starting the first week in August and culminating the second week in September, three players signed lucrative long-term contract extensions.

On Aug. 5, Lions linebacker DeAndre Levy landed a four-year, $35 million contract extension. On Aug. 24, Eagles linebacker Mychal Kendricks signed a four-year, $29 million contract extension. And on Sept. 9, Patriots offensive tackle Nate Solder got a two-year, $20 million extension.

Since then, each of those players has suffered either a season-ending or significant injury that, had they not signed the extension they did, might have decreased and certainly compromised their value on the open market.

Levy needs hip surgery that could end his season, Kendricks has been battling a nagging hamstring injury and Solder suffered a torn biceps that ended his season.

These players should serve as reminders to other players mulling whether to sign long-term extensions. They might not be quite as lucrative compared to when the players hit the open market, but they would provide the type of security that players who bypass deals of this type don't get.

Players such as Panthers cornerback Josh Norman, Eagles quarterback Sam Bradford, Bears wide receiver Alshon Jeffery, Bears running back Matt Forte, Buccaneers running back Doug Martin and Broncos defensive end Von Miller are now in the last year of their contracts. If they make it to the market, they can cash in. But there is risk involved. Once again, It has been proven. 

NFL general managers have used the fear of injury as leverage to help land new contract extensions, as they should.

But this season, GMs are being given even more ammunition for talks that occur in the future.

At 76, Tom Moore still an influence on NFL

When the Arizona Cardinals host the Baltimore Ravens on Monday night, one can take it to the bank there will be an acknowledgement of Tom Moore, the white-haired senior assistant coach on the Cardinals' sideline. Carson Palmer's resurgence will be one reason Moore is cited, but his sphere of influence reads like a football encyclopedia.

Moore was the offensive coordinator for the University of Minnesota when Baltimore Ravens offensive coordinator Marc Trestman was the backup quarterback to Tony Dungy. Both Dungy, the former Super Bowl-winning coach with the Colts, and Trestman, the former Bears coach who now is the Ravens' offensive coordinator, have long cited Moore's influence on their careers.

One of the unfortunate circumstances that plagues the Pro Football Hall of Fame is that while it has liberated its contributor category -- primarily owners, team executives and commissioners -- there remains no spot for those truly great assistant coaches who have left a clear, indelible influence on the game. The idea has been discussed, even if it's allowing for a wing of recognition for these coaches.

Moore is among those who come to mind. Moore turns 77 on Nov. 7, and he was one of the first coaches Bruce Arians hired when he got the Cardinals head job last year. Moore himself never had an ambition to be a head coach. Or if he did, he never campaigned for a job. When one asks Moore about the secret of his successes, he almost always replies with the same answer: "It's about the players."

The late, great coach Chuck Noll hired him from the college ranks to serve as his receivers coach on the last two Super Bowl teams as John Stallworth and Lynn Swann truly flourished during their Hall of Fame careers. He later was promoted to offensive coordinator.

Although everyone cites his influence on Peyton Manning and the Colts, think about what he did for the Detroit Lions in 1995 when he was named the offensive coordinator. He was hired because the Lions realized their investment in former Dolphins quarterback Scott Mitchell was being proven truly foolhardy. In '95, with Moore as the offensive coordinator, Mitchell threw for 4,338 yards, 32 touchdowns and 12 interceptions, and the Lions went to the playoffs with a 10-6 record. That was well before 4,000-yard and 5,000-yard passing seasons became commonplace in the NFL.

49ers have faced tough quarterbacks so far

After Thursday night's game against  Russell Wilson and the Seahawks, San Francisco can exhale -- slightly. Through the season's first seven weeks, no team has faced a tougher quarterback stretch than the 49ers.

From Weeks 2 through 7 -- including tonight -- the 49ers will have faced five Super-Bowl winning quarterbacks, three of whom were selected Super Bowl MVP.

In Week 2, San Francisco played Pittsburgh's  Ben Roethlisberger; Week 4 was Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers; Week 5 versus the Giants' Eli Manning; Week 6 against Baltimore's Joe Flacco., and then against Wilson. Rodgers, Manning and Flacco all have won Super Bowl MVP awards.

The only time the 49ers haven't faced a Super-Bowl winning quarterback the past five games came in Week 3, when they played Arizona's Palmer, who has been one of the top quarterbacks in the league this season.

After the 49ers get past tonight, the murderers' row schedule of quarterbacks lightens up some, but not entirely. San Francisco is scheduled to square off against  Nick Foles twice, Matt Ryan, Wilson again, Palmer again, Jay Cutler, Josh McCown, Andy Dalton and Matthew Stafford.

So if the 49ers can find a way to improve their record to 3-4 tonight, they could position themselves to at least compete for a wild-card spot in the second half of the season, when Super Bowl quarterbacks mostly will be off their schedule, replaced by productive but less illustrious ones.

Turf woes at Levi's Stadium shouldn't be a problem at Super Bowl

The NFL and the NFL Players Association continue to monitor the field, which has been re-sodded at least five times since the $1.3 billion stadium opened some 15 months ago. On Sunday, Ravens kicker Justin Tucker was the latest victim when his plant foot sank in the turf when he missed a field goal.

The current field was installed Aug. 15, when the turf was again deemed unacceptable. It has become a source of great embarrassment.

The NFL, however, does not sound alarmed about Super Bowl 50, which takes place Feb. 7. That's because the league always installs new turf for its Super Bowl games; it's being grown and groomed at a turf farm independent of the 49ers.