This is my Thursday column.
Take away the game planning, the choreography, the schemes, the brilliance — all the Bill-Walsh stuff — and football comes down to man on man. One player hitting another.
At a basic level, football is a game of manhood.
Even quarterbacks have to demonstrate manhood. They don’t give hits, but they have to be willing to take them, have to hang in the pocket and complete the pass play with mean-spirited linemen, linebackers and safeties trying to hit them hard. Football people call that “staring down the gun barrel” — seeing the hit coming, and delivering the ball anyway without flinching, and then taking the hit.
When a quarterback stares down the gun barrel, he takes a shot for his entire team. Shows his teammates he has courage and is there to win, not protect himself.
Offensive linemen don’t like blocking for a quarterback who plays to protect himself. A quarterback has to make it worth their while to block for him.
A quarterback also has to show his defense he’s tough. We often think of a football team as two teams — offense and defense. But it’s one team. The defense feeds off of the offense and vice versa. The defense rises up to protect the offense. The offense plays well and keeps the defense off the field.
Defensive players play harder for a tough quarterback. They may not mean to player harder, but they do. Just look at the 1980s Chicago Bears. Great defense, great running back, and Jim McMahon, a quarterback teammates admired. Not because he was great — he wasn’t. He was tough. A man’s man who took the hit for the team.
Joe Montana would take the hit — he once spent the night in a Manhattan hospital after he got knocked out by New York Giants’ nose tackle, Jim Burt. Steve Young would take the hit, too. How many times did he get knocked out?
Brett Favre definitely would take the hit — he was nuts. Philip Rivers takes the hit right now. So does Tom Brady, Carson Palmer, Ben Roethlisberger, Aaron Rodgers, Eli Manning and Joe Flacco.
Taking the hit sends a message to the opposing defense: “You do what you do, I’ll do what I do, and screw you — I made the play.”
On Sunday, Blaine Gabbert took the hit. Stared down the gun barrel. Got blasted. Was forced to leave the game for two plays against his will. And then, he returned.
Gabbert demonstrated his manhood to his teammates and the world.
This is the big takeaway from his first 49ers win. He took the hit. This is a quarterback whose reputation, when he played for the Jacksonville Jagues, was NOT taking the hit. Had a reputation for being a pretty-boy, safety-first quarterback. A timid quarterback. A soft quarterback. The Jaguars ran him out of town.
Gabbert was their first-round pick in 2011. Colin Kaepernick was the 49ers’ second-round pick that same year. Gabbert was supposed to be better than Kaepernick. Gabbert was one of the biggest busts ever. He had to endure more humiliation than just about any other quarterback, other than maybe JaMarcus Russell.
In 2014, the Jaguars traded Gabbert to the 49ers, and he had to endure a year and a half of being a backup. He did his duty silently, like a man.
And when he got his chance to start, he seized it, like a man.
He took the hit in the fourth quarter, when he was facing second-and-10 from his 20-yard line. He dropped straight back to pass, and Falcons’ inside linebacker, Philip Wheeler, blitzed up the middle. No one blocked Wheeler.
Gabbert could have run away, or lay down in the fetal position and taken the sack. He didn’t. He planted his back foot, stepped into the throw, made the throw — it was incomplete — and got crushed helmet to helmet.
By staring down the gun barrel, Gabbert drew two penalties — defensive holding on the intended receiver, and roughing the passer. And he won over the team.
Kaepernick wouldn’t have hung in. When faced with pressure, Kaepernick tends to drop his eyes and looks for places to run. He deconstructs the play. If Kaepernick had been the quarterback when Wheeler blitzed up the middle, Kaepernick probably would have tried to run and gotten sacked.
NaVorro Bowman, a player who hits and appreciates pain, was giggling at his press conference after the game. He hadn’t been this happy all season.
“Did changing the quarterback give the locker room a different sense of energy?” a reporter asked.
“I think so,” Bowman gushed. “I think Blaine had to approach it free-minded so he could give it his best shot.”
“What were some of the things you were impressed with?” another reporter asked.
“(Gabbert’s) confidence,” Bowman answered. “He went out there and executed what the coaches asked him to do throughout the week. Expectations came from the teammates more than the outsiders, and I definitely think he led us and played for us.”
In other words, Gabbert didn’t play to make himself look good — he played for his teammates. He stood and delivered. And he won.
Grant Cohn writes sports columns and the “Inside the 49ers” blog for The Press Democrat’s website. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.