This is my Friday column.
Don’t pretend you expected this.
No one expected Blaine Gabbert to outplay Colin Kaepernick this season. Or ever. The Niners would have started Gabbert Week 1 if they expected this. All of us, including the Niners, still are trying to comprehend a world in which Gabbert is better than Kaepernick.
Disclaimer: Gabbert may not be much better than Kaepernick. Gabbert has played only four games this season — Kaepernick played eight. Their stats could even out as Gabbert plays out the rest of San Francisco’s schedule.
As of now, Gabbert’s passer rating is 89.5 while Kaepernick’s is 78.5. A significant difference. How do we account for it? Why is Gabbert playing better than Kaepernick with the same group of players?
In certain ways, Gabbert and Kaepernick are similar. Both struggle on third down and in the red zone, both struggle throwing deep passes, and both depend big-time on fooling the opposing defense with run fakes and play-action passes.
The difference between Gabbert and Kaepernick is subtle, yet significant, and the Niners are trying to make sense of it.
Almost every 49ers player or coach has a theory about Gabbert. Even outside linebacker Ahmad Brooks has a theory, which he explained Wednesday in the 49ers’ locker room.
A reporter had asked Brooks about Gabbert’s leadership. “He seems to have won over a lot of guys in this locker room the way he has played the last few weeks,” the reporter said. “What do you see out of him as a leader that you would want at the quarterback position?”
Brooks had one foot on the seat of a chair as he leaned forward against his knee and pondered the question. The Thinker. “Just from what I see as his teammate and me not knowing anything about the quarterback position, I see that he makes good decisions,” Brooks said.
“When you have the ball in your hands every single play, you’ve got to be the best decision maker on the field because everyone else is relying on you. And, I think he puts other people in good positions to make a play.”
Here’s a possible translation: Gabbert is a ball distributor who looks to set up other players, and Kaepernick is a playmaker who looks to set up himself. Gabbert knows when to check the ball down to a running back to avoid a sack, and Kaepernick’s idea of checking down is to keep the ball and run.
In eight starts, Kaepernick completed 23 passes to running backs. Gabbert has completed 23 passes to running backs in just four starts, and 22 of those passes went to starting running back Shaun Draughn.
“During the games, I’m always reminding him and he’s always reminding me where to get to,” Draughn said at his locker Thursday afternoon. “That shows me that he’s actually thinking about the check down.”
Not only is he thinking about the check down, he’s mastering it. This season, Gabbert’s quarterback rating on easy passes, the ones that travel fewer than 10 yards downfield, is 97.7. Kaepernick’s rating on those throws is 81.1.
Gabbert’s willingness and skill to check down has helped him avoid pressure behind San Francisco’s sub-par offensive line. Gabbert has taken only eight sacks — Kaepernick took 28.
“I think (Gabbert’s) done a really nice job when the play has started to break down, using his feet or delivering the ball accurately when he’s under duress,” offensive coordinator Geep Chryst said Thursday in the Niners auditorium. “For example, the long 18-play drive in the Chicago game — that was really the only drive all game that (Chicago Bears defensive coordinator) Vic (Fangio) actually blitzed. Blaine had really good answers for the blitz, and Vic had to back off the blitz … (Gabbert’s) maturity, his weekly preparation — he’s a prepared quarterback when he goes out there and plays on Sunday.”
Translation: Gabbert is good under pressure, and more suited to play behind a patched-together offensive line than Kaepernick.
Further possible translation: Gabbert is better prepared than Kaepernick because he does more of whatever stuff quarterbacks do during the week.
Just look at these numbers: Against the blitz, Kaepernick’s passer rating is 59.1, and Gabbert’s is 94.6. Against pressure in general, Kaeperinck’s completion percentage is a league-low 35.2, while Gabbert’s is a league high 65.8.
Don’t pretend you knew check downs were so important. We’re all learning.
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. Stats courtesy of Pro Football Focus.