Blaine Gabbert is not a very good quarterback. Blaine Gabbert hardly qualifies as a below-average quarterback. But the San Francisco 49ers, based on the tiniest shred of improvement Gabbert showed over his days with the Jacksonville Jaguars — the franchise that was hilariously hoodwinked into spending a first-round draft pick on him in 2011 — are allowing him to start real, meaningful football games.
On Sunday, Gabbert looked pitiful as the 49ers were steamrolled by the NFC West rival Seattle Seahawks. Actually, it wasn’t really a steamrolling ... that implies some modicum of effort required from the Seahawks.
No, the Seahawks basically gave out a long, drawn-out yawn in the form of hanging 37 points on a 49ers team whose only achievement this season was shutting out the passing game of Case Keenum and the Los Angeles Rams in Week 1.
When asked after the game what the challenge was of preparing for Gabbert, Seahawks defensive end Michael Bennett said that there IS NONE. An NFL player said that!
"There is no challenge," Bennett said. "He threw for 100 yards."
WHAT. Come on, Bennett — this is a clear misrepresentation of Gabbert’s production on Sunday. Gabbert completed 14 of 25 passes for 119 yards with no touchdowns and an interception.
Gabbert has proven to be completely incapable of throwing deep balls. But let’s get away from the stats and instead look at some of Gabbert’s actual passes. I’m sure they can’t be that bad, ri—
Well, that looks like it could have just been a timing thing. Maybe the running back, Shaun Draughn, was supposed to turn around sooner. Maybe Gabbert’s inaccurate pass was actually dead on and it’s the journeyman running back we have to blame here.
Let’s take a look at another play from Sunday’s game.
So that’s Gabbert throwing a pass that was:
1. Well short of the first down (a theme we’ll touch on shortly) and
2. Behind his open receiver, who also has to leave his feet to get it, exposing him to a brutal (legal) hit that knocked him out of the game.
Throwing behind his receivers is also a Gabbertism, and it’s not surprising that it finally gotten someone hurt. But let’s focus on the throw well short of the first-down marker. See, Gabbert is consistently faced with third-and-short situations, and he consistently throws well short of the marker.
He makes decisions quickly, but they’re bad decisions. Chip Kelly wants his receivers to develop routes, except Gabbert locks in on one guy, particularly the closest guy to him, and throws to him. Observe a third-down situation:
It’s a third-and-7, not quite as short as Gabbert usually screws up, but he’s up to the challenge. Gabbert has good protection and he has four receivers running promising routes — and then he locks onto the first one who breaks and is well short of the marker, with almost no chance of escaping his man to secure the first down.
This was early in the game and it set the tone. The 49ers let the Seahawks march down the field for a score, and Gabbert had a chance to allow the 49ers to answer back. But rather than roar back in defiance, he whimpered and noodle-armed a short pass to cap an even shorter drive.
But when I said earlier that Gabbert only ever attempts short passes, it was hyperbole. He is capable of throwing a bit farther. Let’s see what happens:
That’s Gabbert again with good protection (well, good enough), throwing deep to Jeremy Kerley. Or rather, that’s him throwing to the side of the field where Kerley kind of is, but also where he can’t catch the ball. It was a trash throw that came at a time when the 49ers desperately needed him to make a good throw.
* * *
"I think Kaepernick gives them a better chance of winning," Bennett said after Sunday’s game. "But that’s just my opinion."
Bennett was right. Kaepernick may have experienced a staggering decline after appearing in the Super Bowl under Jim Harbaugh, but he’s still got a better arm, he still has better legs and he still has a higher ceiling. Gabbert is a known commodity. He was before he ever signed with the 49ers. Kelly knew what Gabbert was when he named him the starter.
The 49ers are starting Gabbert over Colin Kaepernick, a quarterback who not only is a better fit for the prototypical Chip Kelly offense but is someone who also has shown much more positive play over the years. He’s also a player whom the franchise committed to as its starting quarterback just a year ago, giving him an incentive-loaded, big-money contract.
But Kelly can make the switch to Kaepernick and at least give the 49ers a tiny, brief, improbable shot at being competitive this season. The small chance that Kaepernick can actually become the player that the 49ers once thought he was far outweighs any chance of Gabbert ever being even a halfway-decent quarterback.
Forget that Kaepernick struggled last year and was benched for Gabbert. Jim Tomsula was the head coach then, and for all the flak Kelly got over his ill-conceived roster decisions with the Philadelphia Eagles, he should be able to guide a competent quarterback toward relative success. It’s not happening with Gabbert.
After he was asked about Bennett’s comments, Kelly said that Kaepernick is the backup because he’s "not 100 percent." Not only is this something that hasn’t been mentioned until now (and Kaepernick himself has said he’s healthy for weeks), it seems to fly in the face of the commitment Kelly has continually made to Gabbert, calling him the team’s starter and expressing confidence in him.
But that’s good! If Kelly is backpedaling on Gabbert being the unquestioned starter and using the excuse that Kaepernick isn’t 100 percent, it means he may make the switch soon and he will even have an out if it goes south. Switching to Kaepernick, even a "not 100 percent" Kaepernick, is the 49ers’ best option.