The San Francisco 49ers have a quarterback conundrum, and the relatively strong play of current starter Blaine Gabbert has done nothing but complicate things.
Coming into 2015, the 49ers were a a whirlwind of controversy, retirements and questionable offseason moves, including the firing of Jim Harbaugh and the hiring of a new coaching staff steeped in inexperience and past failures. Throughout all of this, they at least had their franchise quarterback, Colin Kaepernick, even if he was facing the tall task of trying to overcome the chaos and lead the 49ers to some wins.
Alongside Russell Wilson and Cam Newton, Kaepernick was consistently labeled one of the best and brightest up-and-coming "new breed" of quarterbacks, despite him making fundamental mistakes during the 2014 season. Then the team promoted inexperienced defensive line coach Jim Tomsula to head coach over defensive coordinator Vic Fangio, and hired Kaepernick's quarterback coach, Geep Chryst, as its offensive coordinator.
The results were a disaster. Kaepernick completed just 59 percent of his passes for 1,615 yards with six touchdowns and five interceptions before he was benched for Gabbert. On top of that, Kaepernick looked lost on the field. He was uncomfortable dropping back, he missed wide open receivers, he didn't go through his progressions and he rarely had the 49ers in scoring position either.
After Kaepernick's benching, he was placed on injured reserve with a shoulder injury.
Enter Blaine Gabbert
The 49ers traded a sixth-round pick for Gabbert in 2014 because they needed a reliable backup to Kaepernick and the quarterback market wasn't appealing. He threw just seven passes in 2014 after three years with the Jacksonville Jaguars. His last year with Jacksonville saw him complete just 42 of 86 passes for 481 yards with a touchdown and seven interceptions.
Gabbert came into the starting job with zero expectations for success. Kaepernick was hurt, the 49ers had no other quarterbacks and the coaching staff was constantly facing criticism for its mistakes. The ownership was getting plenty of blame as well for the team looking like a trainwreck on the field.
But Gabbert hasn't played poorly, especially in comparison to Kaepernick. The biggest difference is that he looks confident and comfortable -- more comfortable than he ever looked in Jacksonville. He's also viewed as a team player while Kaepernick was considered a "loner." Gabbert goes through his progressions and he has a decent arm, even if his decision-making can be questionable at times. In four games, Gabbert has completed 63.0 percent of his passes for 963 yards, five touchdowns and three interceptions.
Since Gabbert took over, the 49ers have gone 2-2, doubling their win total on the season. They bested the Atlanta Falcons in Week 9, and most recently they downed the Chicago Bears when Gabbert hit free agent pickup Torrey Smith for a 71-yard touchdown in overtime.
Why that's a problem
The main reason Gabbert's decent play is a big problem is simple: the 49ers are desperate. Tomsula is a favorite of 49ers CEO Jed York, but ownership is under fire more than its ever been just two years removed from three consecutive NFC Championship appearances. Any positive from this season counts, and while Gabbert isn't really a silver lining in the grand scheme of things, he can easily trick the 49ers into thinking he's one.
Gabbert is 26 years old and in his fifth season, but he still does a lot of things he did as a rookie. It's not that Gabbert can't be good, it's that there may not be any long-term upside to him. With Kaepernick's play taking such a nosedive the past two seasons, any slight improvement at quarterback could be enough to excite a beleaguered and desperate coaching staff. But Gabbert seems to be a temporary fix to the position.
What's to be done
Gabbert shouldn't be tossed aside by any means. He deserves his chance to show the 49ers he's the real deal, but the organization cannot overreact. They have a lot of holes to fill, but quarterback is a special position and they can't be lulled into any false sense of security if Gabbert goes on to win them a couple of more games this year.
It would be even worse if they held on to Kaepernick, though. After he was benched, his time in San Francisco is likely done, just three season removed from leading the team to a Super Bowl appearance. Fortunately for the 49ers, the six-year, $126 million contract extension they signed him to in 2014 has several outs. They will hit the 2016-17 offseason with plenty of cash, some solid weapons on offense and what should be a high draft pick.
They will need to do the homework on the rookies and free agent or trade options, but more than anything, the 49ers need to consider the position one of great need, not one that is "good enough" with Gabbert at the helm.
* * *
SB Nation presents: Ranking the best NFL teams from Week 13