This is my Sunday column.
It’s audition time for Blaine Gabbert.
While most of the 49ers have nothing left to play for but professional pride, Gabbert gets to play for the 49ers’ starting-quarterback job in 2016. For him the stakes are high, and yet the pressure is low. I’ll explain.
For the first time in his NFL career, Gabbert is playing relaxed. There’s no pressure on him to be great, no pressure on him to be the face of the franchise like there was in Jacksonville. He doesn’t have to force passes downfield anymore. He can make throws that are available to him.
On 3rd and 9, Gabbert can throw a check-down pass to a running back for a five- yard gain, the team can punt and no one will criticize him for not throwing downfield. The Niners are just happy their quarterback isn’t taking another sack, or throwing another pick, or hitting another equipment guy in the coconut with an errant throw.
Gabbert looks good by not being bad. He doesn’t have to play that well — he just has to be a quarterback. Because his predecessor, Colin Kaepernick, is NOT a quarterback. He is a good athlete posing as a quarterback. Gabbert is lucky to be compared to him.
Kaepernick struggles with the basics of the quarterback position, even though he’s been in the league five years. Gabbert also has been in the league five years, and he understands coverages, protections, hot routes, sight-adjust principles — things a five-year vet should understand. Things Kaepernick doesn’t quite understand.
Kaepernick is 28 years old, and like a junior varsity player he still waits for visual confirmation a receiver is open before throwing him the ball.
Gabbert is 26, and throws where the receiver will be, not where he already is. That’s called throwing with anticipation, and that’s what a real quarterback does. Thanks to Kaepernick, Gabbert gets points for doing things a quarterback is supposed to do. Looking at Gabbert after all these years looking at Kaepernick, you say to yourself, “Oh, that’s what a quarterback looks like.”
Kaepernick made Gabbert’s audition easy. Gabbert doesn’t have to score many points or even win many games this season — he just has to be competent and not make bonehead mistakes.
And it’s in the Niners’ interest for Gabbert to play reasonably well. If he’s competent, the Niners won’t have to draft a quarterback in the first round. They may end up with a top-five pick. There may not be a quarterback worthy of such a high selection this year. If Gabbert is competent, the Niners can draft a quarterback in the second round and let him develop on the bench for a season.
If Gabbert is competent, the Niners will have one of the cheapest starting quarterbacks in the NFL in 2016. His salary-cap hit will be just $2.25 million.
If Gabbert is competent, the Niners won’t have to sign someone else to play quarterback next season. Check out the names of some of the quarterbacks who will be free agents in 2016: Matt Cassel, Matt Schaub, Matt McGloin, Matt Moore, Matt Hasselbeck — a lot of bad Matts. The Niners may figure Gabbert is better than those Matts and some of the other quarterbacks masquerading as starters in a quarterback-starved NFL.
If Gabbert is competent, the Niners will say he played well in an “adverse environment” — he has no Carlos Hyde, no Reggie Bush, no Vernon Davis, plus a suspect offensive line. How could anyone expect Gabbert to win with such a bad offense?
Gabbert would have to fall on his face to fail this audition.
He probably won’t fall on his face. After two starts this season, he already has shown he’s competent. He actually was better than competent last week against the Seahawks in Seattle. Gabbert threw for 264 yards and posted a passer rating of 98.2 – better numbers than Kaepernick ever put up against the Seahawks.
Gabbert may be improving. He’s not that old. We don’t know what his top limit is — we already know Kaepernick’s, and it’s pretty limited.
Time to find out how good Gabbert can be. It’s one thing this season is about.
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.