SANTA CLARA — As August turns into September in Northern California, the 49ers still can’t get on the same page about who they want to lead their football team at the quarterback position. A training camp competition and three preseason games have been utterly useless in determining whether Blaine Gabbert or Colin Kaepernick is the right fit for Chip Kelly’s offense.
But new clues to this puzzle emerged Tuesday at Kelly’s pre-practice press conference. None of it was pretty. A brief rundown:
A) Kelly said he and Trent Baalke haven’t even started discussing the quarterback position. If this is true, that’s an unhealthy relationship between a head coach and a GM. If it’s false, then Kelly is uncomfortable revealing any details of their conversation, meaning there is a disagreement on which QB should play.
B) When Kelly was asked if Kaepernick is one of the two best quarterbacks on the roster, he emphatically replied, “Yes.”
C) But Kelly can’t commit to Kaepernick even being a 49er this season. “I do not have control of the 53-man roster,” the head coach said. Fox Sports’ Jay Glazer, who has ties to owner Jed York, has reported it’s up in the air whether Kaepernick will make the team.
D) Gabbert, who has been slightly better than Kaepernick but has done very little to earn the starting job, will not dress Thursday in the preseason finale against the Chargers. But Kelly won’t name Gabbert the Week 1 starting quarterback.
Got all of that?
The fact that Kelly still won’t name Gabbert the starting quarterback is the biggest sticking point in this drawn out, chaotic mess. Although he’s been inaccurate and unimpressive, Gabbert’s been healthy and the starter in three preseason games. If you think Kaepernick can win the job in preseason game No. 4 against San Diego backups, wake up from fantasyland. The refusal to name Gabbert the starter is a karate chop directly in his face from Kelly, but it’s all about a corresponding chess move.
Here’s what makes more sense: Kelly is in a pissing match with Baalke over Kaepernick’s roster spot. By letting the quarterback competition bleed into September and by going on the record as saying Kap is one of the two best quarterbacks on the roster, Kelly has made his position clear: I still think Kaepernick can play, and as soon as Gabbert starts inevitably slumping, I’m sending in No. 7.
If Baalke does cut Kaepernick next week, hundreds of protesters will descend upon Levi’s Stadium, making sleepy Santa Clara a racially-charged political hotbed. But thinking bigger picture in our Bay Area sports bubble, Kaepernick’s release will be an utter defiance of what Kelly thinks is best for the San Francisco 49ers. It’ll be a line drawn in the sand between the GM and coach, a separation between the two that will likely be followed by divorce papers after a 5-11 season.
Welcome to Chip’s world, Trent. He may not submit the 53-man roster to the league office, but he’s still cunning and capable of manipulating his surroundings. Play by his rules and keep Kaepernick or risk being replaced by Tom Gamble.
Why is this starting to add up? It’s unheard of to wait this long to name a starter in the NFL. It’s damaging to the offense as a whole. It’s a hovering dark cloud over the entire football team, an ongoing distraction only trumped by Kaepernick’s political sideshow.
“Whenever they name the starter, I wish it was sooner than later,” Torrey Smith said earlier this month on KNBR 680.
Folks, this is what happens when you blatantly ignore the quarterback position in the offseason. But you understand this. What every fan of the NFL recognizes somehow escaped Kelly and Baalke from January to April. You can’t fake not having a quarterback in this league and expect to win games.
Would Kelly rather have Denver’s Trevor Siemian or Dallas’ Dak Prescott? Fresh blood is better than recycled garbage. Hell, Kelly really might have to push for Mark Sanchez, Zach Mettenberger, Aaron Murray and other journeymen quarterbacks hitting the waiver wire.
Again, Baalke is playing with fire and putting his career on the line if he cuts Kaepernick. Kelly is obviously in much better standing with the York family. If the 49ers are choosing between one or the other come January 2017, they’ll have no qualms cutting ties with a GM who has steered the franchise into a ditch.
Baalke could have completely avoided this mess and caved to Denver’s trade demands, freeing his man Gabbert from a true competition. Sometimes people in the scouting world get way too wrapped up in the difference between third, fourth and fifth round picks. Guess what? Few of them turn into impact football players.
Baalke underestimated Kelly’s soft spot for Kaepernick and underestimated the power player the first-year 49ers head coach really is.