If Chip Kelly waited until after the fourth preseason game to tab Blaine Gabbert his starting quarterback, how long will he wait to pull the plug?
You can bet Gabbert’s future will enter Kelly’s mind on the five hour flight home from Charlotte after a 46-27 loss to the Panthers.
The 26-year-old quarterback was 17/36, for 243 yards passing, three total touchdowns and two interceptions on Sunday against the Panthers. With their rushing attack sputtering in neutral, it was Gabbert or bust in Week 2. And the 49ers busted.
The good: Two touchdown passes. One was a well-thrown 28-yard strike to Torrey Smith, the other Vance McDonald did the heavy lifting on a 75-yard gallop to the end zone. Gabbert now has thrown a touchdown in 11 straight games, the longest such streak in the NFL.
The bad: Mostly everything else. Touted for his accuracy by the staunch 49ers faithful on Twitter, Gabbert completed 48 percent of his passes, his lowest total since a 2013 game as a member of the Jaguars. Balls skipped by receivers feet or sailed over their heads on third downs. Two interceptions in the fourth quarter ended any slim chance of a 49ers comeback.
“He wasn’t helped with the drops, but there were some plays where he could have been more accurate with the ball,” Kelly said via 49ers.com when asked to evaluate Gabbert’s play. “You look at two (throws), he throws a 75-yard touchdown to Vance McDonald, and then we hit him again and we drop it.”
The question becomes how much will Kelly penalize Gabbert when the running game never came to fruition? Gabbert isn’t the type of quarterback who can unleash his arm on a defense. The fact that Carlos Hyde and the offensive line couldn’t muster any yards put the 49ers behind the sticks and the team went 4/14 on third-down. Whether it was Carolina’s defense or not, passes like this vine below happened too often in Week 2.
Blaine Gabbert on a key 3rd down https://t.co/PePeG0IQJ0
— Kevin Jones (@Mr_KevinJones) September 18, 2016
Forced to abandon the game plan, Gabbert slung the rock, and that’s not the type of style this offense can succeed with. Opponents will try and emulate this obvious strategy. Kelly knows his starting quarterback has a ceiling. Gabbert bumped his head on it in Charlotte.
If Kelly chalks up Gabbert’s subpar performance as a byproduct of the running game failures, it must be noted Gabbert was handed points on the scoreboard from Carolina’s turnovers. And two of those Panther miscues resulted in short Phil Dawson field goals instead of touchdowns. A drought on offense lasted between the second and third quarters, resulting in four separate three-and-out drives in the second and third quarter. And Gabbert put the football in harms way twice. Unlike the Rams last Monday, the Panthers picked off these passes.
So, how much better could Colin Kaepernick do?
Chip Kelly has Kap in a non-traditional backup role, taking three first-team snaps in practice to Gabbert’s nine. But expecting Kaepernick to enter this up-tempo offense and play significantly better than Gabbert would be putting the horse before the carriage. Kelly’s system requires a quick diagnosis of the defense, something Kaepernick did not have to do in a vanilla preseason game against the Chargers.
Regardless, Gabbert is supposed to be the more accurate of the two. If he’s missing passes, it’s hard not to wonder what the offense would like under Kaepernick’s direction. He’s already stunned the world once this season and helped bring the locker room closer together. At what point are the dice worth rolling?
Kelly won’t be surrendering on Gabbert just yet. With the Seahawks looming, points on offense aren’t going to get any easier. He’ll need his defense just as much as Hyde next week in Seattle. Actually, neither of these QB’s could succeed against the Seahawks next week.
The reason the 49ers left Kaepernick on this roster was to play him at some point in the 2016 season. If they thought he was washed-ip, they would’ve got rid of him and kept Jeff Driskel instead. What’s the point of wasting $12 million down the drain if your current quarterback isn’t living up to his own low expectations? Waiting to play Kaepernick by late October means the season could already be out of reach. If and when Gabbert struggles next week, transferring power over to Kaepernick is starting to make a lot of sense.
Time is of the essence, and the clock is officially ticking on Gabbert.