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If 49ers can win despite Gabbert, it’s time to re-evaluate their ceiling


SANTA CLARA — Yes, it’s the Los Angeles Rams. Yes, it was Case Keenum at his absolute worst.

However much you want to minimize it, the San Francisco 49ers won 28-0 and looked every bit like a well-coached football team, armed with a running game and an aggressive defense.

Two penalties committed, 28 first downs, 10 forced punts, zero sacks given up, two turnovers turned into 14 points. That’s discipline. That’s memorizing and executing a game plan. Chip Kelly knocked a double off the wall in his first Bay Area at-bat.

What stands out about Kelly’s first win was how San Francisco had to overcome Blaine Gabbert. Teams don’t win 28-0 when their quarterback misses as many throws as Gabbert did on Monday Night Football (22/35, 170 yards, 1 TD, 0 INT). He and Keenum became punchlines on Twitter, swapping dropped interceptions in an often atrocious quarterbacking display.

Whether your reaction is mellow or downright giddy about the biggest blowout on opening weekend, here Kelly is again, winning another football game with a quarterback who’d be a backup on any other NFL roster. He’s now 27-21 all-time with an aging Mike Vick, Nick Foles, Sam Bradford, Mark Sanchez and now Gabbert. Like the Wet Bandits in Home Alone, winning with barebones quarterback talent is Kelly’s calling card four years into the NFL.

The tough part about Week 1: How much of this was the Rams playing their worst game of the year? How much of this was Kelly and defensive coordinator Jim O’Neil putting Jeff Fisher in a body bag with the headsets, something that won’t happen as often against other coaches?

Re-evaluating the 49ers’ ceiling doesn’t mean it’s time to say they’ll flirt with .500. But if you have strong offensive line play and a pass rush for 10 of the 16 games, Kelly’s first season with the 49ers could prove all of us wrong — me heavily included. Especially now that we’ve seen the Rams, a third-place finish in the NFC West doesn’t seem as unrealistic.

To Gabbert’s credit, he developed chemistry with Jeremy Kerley and Quinton Patton, plus he fired a touchdown in a tight window to Vance McDonald. He scrambled for 40 yards on nine carries, showing off his athleticism. Gabbert was not disastrous, but he was reckless and inaccurate. He had 81 yards heading into the fourth quarter and was intent on checking the ball down, even if it meant punting or turning the ball over on fourth down. He has to get better, and soon. He knows this.

Kelly still gave him a strong review afterwards, and made this point which explains why he chose Gabbert.

“He did not turn the ball over,” said the head coach. He did not, or the game would’ve been a completely different story.

Gabbert was aided by a 49ers’ defense who suffocated the Rams, turning in a throwback Vic Fangio outing. Todd Gurley did nothing. Tavon Austin did nothing. The Los Angeles offensive line was punctured by blitzes from every angle — possibly the real reason Fisher doesn’t want Jared Goff behind center. Keenum averaged a pathetic 3.7 yards per throw and threw interceptions to NaVorro Bowman and Ray-Ray Armstrong. Nobody was open and Keenum made Fisher look out of touch with reality by starting him.

The frustration was real, too. Gurley was penalized 15 yards for throwing the football at San Francisco’s defensive line. Aaron Donald was ejected in the third quarter for knocking Quinton Patton’s helmet off in a mixup and bumping into a ref. He promptly chucked his mouthpiece 30 yards down the field and was escorted to the locker room by security. Shutting down one of the NFL’s most hyped about players is a building block type of effort from Trent Baalke’s rejuvenated offensive line.

“They are not a better football team than us,” Austin said, trying to convince himself after the loss. “We shot ourselves in the foot.”

Time will tell, but the 49ers produced a ton of firsts on Monday, something not even the strongest optimist could’ve expected. It was the first 49ers defensive shutout since 2012. It was the first time an NFL team had been shutout in Week 1 since 2009 — a game the Rams had seven months to prepare for. The 28 first downs were the first time the 49ers touched that number since 2012.

And this is what will allow Kelly to sleep peacefully Monday night: Gabbert made Gabbert plays that frustrate the hell out of you, but the 49ers still moved the football at will and scored touchdowns. The offensive line didn’t allow a sack and punked one of the best front sevens in football. Torrey Smith was a non-factor (2 catches for 13 yards), but other receivers stepped up. Problems arose and solutions were found.

“For the first game against that front, I’m pleased,” Kelly said.

And how about the real story: The defense. O’Neil used a fifth-round rookie Ronald Blair and safety Eric Reid as blitzers paralyzing Keenum and routinely forcing Los Angeles off the field on third down. Bowman was everywhere leading the way with 9 tackles. The tackling was crisp. The game plan was to eliminate Gurley and put the game in Keenum’s hands. Mission accomplished.

“A lot of looks, we hadn’t seen before,” Keenum said.

Okay, toppling Cam Newton in Week 2 and Russell Wilson in Week 3 — both on the road — will still be as impossible as we thought it was two days ago. The more you think of the Rams, the more you see a 4-12 season in their horizon.

But it really is hard to ignore a 28-0 shutout. Those happen once in a blue moon, even for the best of defenses. There was a lot to like, especially the young defensive players stepping up.

Gabbert’s play remains the key here. You can’t expect the 49ers defense to put the clamps on Carolina and Seattle. The offense will likely need to score 24 points to beat both. He’ll need to be nearly flawless.


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