San Francisco 49ers: Breaking Down Blaine Gabbert's Disastrous Debut

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San Francisco 49ers: Breaking Down Blaine Gabbert's Disastrous Debut
Nick Wass/Associated Press

Arguably the worst part of watching the San Francisco 49ers’ first preseason game against the Baltimore Ravens was watching the ongoing struggles of Blaine Gabbert.

Gabbert was brought in to San Francisco to be the backup quarterback.  Essentially, he’s costing San Francisco a little more than $2 million dollars (via spotrac.com) and a sixth-round draft pick this season, regardless of how well or poorly he performs.

The thinking was that Jim Harbaugh, being a so-called quarterback whisperer, could revitalize Gabbert’s career, much as he did for Alex Smith.  He would also serve as a veteran backup in case starter Colin Kaepernick went down with an injury.

Jeff Chiu/Associated Press
Gabbert was brought in to back up Kaepernick, but things haven't been going so well so far.

His first chance to shine in a San Francisco uniform, however, was a disaster.  Gabbert was 3-of-11 for 20 yards passing, with a sack and an interception.  His night was so bad, in fact, that an incompletion actually moved his quarterback rating up from 0.0 to 1.7, where it ended the night.

While neither of the QBs behind Gabbert, Josh Johnson and McLeod Bethel-Thompson, had great nights, both are not a lock to make the roster thanks to their contracts.  Gabbert played worse than either of them, and the 49ers are stuck with him in 2014.

With that in mind, I decided to go back and look at every single passing play Gabbert was involved in.  Are all of the incompletions and broken plays Gabbert’s fault, or were there extenuating circumstances—dropped passes, poor offensive line play and things of that nature.  This will allow us to get a better view of Gabbert’s issues, and see if there is any room for improvement.

Here’s Gabbert’s complete play log, complete with the reason why each play succeeded or failed:

 

First Drive

  • (first quarter, 5:54) 1st-and-10, SF 23: Incomplete short right to Stevie Johnson (defensive holding, ball slightly underthrown)
  • (4:40) 3rd-and-5, SF 33: Short left to Stevie Johnson, six yards (solid throw, good blitz pickup)
  • (3:56) 1st-and-10, SF 39: Incomplete short left to Stevie Johnson (off Johnson's hands, slightly too high)
  • (3:52) 2nd-and-10, SF 39: Short right to Vance McDonald, seven yards (pass was a fraction behind, but not enough to break up the play)
  • (3:12) 3rd-and-3, SF 46: Deep left to Quinton Patton, incomplete (thrown behind him—possible miscommunication, or just a poorly thrown ball)
  • 3 out of 5 plays successful

You know what?  I know Gabbert had a bad night, but when he had most of the first team in there, he didn’t look so horrible.

Jeff Chiu/Associated Press
Gabbert's pass to Johnson was his best on the night.

His first drive was by far his best.  Three of his five passes were successful, and one of the unsuccessful ones hit Stevie Johnson right in the hands.  Could the pass have been thrown better?  Yes, a bit—it looked like Johnson had to slow down to try to get the ball.  However, it still got there and the pass hit him in the hands.

That’s a catch an NFL receiver has to make.

None of the passes on this drive were perfect by any stretch of the imagination.  The deep ball to Quinton Patton was by far the worst; it looked like Gabbert was trying a back-shoulder throw while Patton was running a go route.  Still, it wasn’t a horrific throw on a deep ball, and Gabbert looked something like a competent NFL quarterback, albeit one you wouldn’t want starting for you.

His best play on the drive was the completion to Stevie Johnson.  Carlos Hyde made a nice blitz pickup, giving Gabbert time to hit a wide-open Johnson with a perfectly thrown ball.  It was the best he’d look all night long.  The seven-yard completion to Vance McDonald on 2nd-and-10 was the last successful play Gabbert would have all night long.

 

Second Drive

  • (secondnd quarter, 10:24) 1st-and-10, SF 20: Short right to Quinton Patton, incomplete (way too high, though there was a hand in Gabbert's face)
  • (10:20) 2nd-and-15, SF 15: Short middle to Jewel Hampton, incomplete (pass dropped by Hampton, ball was thrown well)
  • (10:17) 3rd-and-15, SF 15: Short right to Quinton Patton, incomplete (way too high again, with the left side of the offensive line collapsing)
  • 0 out of 3 plays successful

Gail Burton/Associated Press
If Patton were nine feet high, Gabbert would have thrown two great passes.

When Mike Iupati and Joe Staley left the game after Gabbert’s first drive, he started looking a lot less comfortable.  This may be a coincidence, but it did appear that Gabbert started wilting a bit under pressure.

We’ll give Gabbert a pass on the screen play dropped by Jewel Hampton, it bounced right off his hands.  The two passes to Qunton Patton, however, could have only been caught if Patton was about 9'0" tall.  On one of them, the left side of the line collapsed and Gabbert had to rush his throw, but the first-down play saw Gabbert with all the time in the world just airmailing the ball into the sidelines. 

That’s not acceptable for an NFL quarterback.

 

Third Drive

  • (8:49) 2nd-and-8, SF 45: Deep left to Derek Carrier, INTERCEPTED by Asa Jackson (well underthrown, three other targets open on the play)
  • 0 out of 1 play successful

This was the interception.  Gabbert threw late, underthrowing Derek Carrier, allowing Asa Jackson to make a fairly simple interception.

Gail Burton/Associated Press
Asa Jackson victimized Gabbert's poor throw on a poor decision.

There is no excuse for this play, either.  Gabbert wasn’t under very much pressure, and had three options open to him underneath: Quinton Patton, Jewel Hampton and Kassim Osgood.  Instead, Gabbert stared Carrier down the entire way and threw into coverage—badly.

"I've got to get to the checkdown on that,” Gabbert said after the game.  “I can't turn the ball over like that. It's just a drive killer."

He’s right!  That was as ugly an interception you’ll see in the NFL.

 

Fourth Drive

  • (5:03) 2nd-and-8, SF 14: Short right to Chuck Jacobs, incomplete (Jacobs dropped a perfect pass)
  • (4:59) 3rd-and-8, SF 14: Short right to Chuck Jacobs for seven yards (ball thrown behind Jacobs, costing the 49ers a first down)
  • 0 out of 2 plays successful

Gabbert was 1-of-2 on this drive, but the play that was incomplete wasn’t his fault, and the completed pass failed because of his throw.

GAIL BURTON/Associated Press
A better-thrown ball gives Jacobs the first down.

The second-down throw hit Chuck Jacobs right in this hands—it was a perfectly thrown ball, just dropped.  That’s not on Gabbert.  The completion, however, is Gabbert’s fault.  On the stat sheet, a seven-yard completion looks just fine, but when it comes on 3rd-and-8, it’s meaningless.  Worse, it could easily have been a first down, but Gabbert threw it significantly behind Jacobs, forcing him to slow down and turn around to make the catch.  A perfect throw keeps Jacobs moving and ensures that he picks up the first.

If they make that first down, maybe Gabbert gets a bit of momentum going and turns in a solid drive here—it would probably be described as more of an “up and down” preseason debut for Gabbert than the current scathing he’s receiving. 

But no, a bad throw ends the drive, completion or no.

 

Fifth Drive

  • (0:31) 1st-and-10, SF 20: Incomplete (ball slips out of Gabbert's hands, and he spikes it into the ground)
  • (0:27) 2nd-and-10, SF 20: Sacked by C.J. Mosley for minus-seven yards (RB Jewel Hampton overpowered in pass protection)
  • 0 out of 2 plays successful

Gail Burton/Associated Press
C.J. Mosley had a great day, with a sack and another hit on the QB.

Don’t blame Gabbert too much for the sack.  C.J. Mosley absolutely destroyed Jewel Hampton in pass protection, and Gabbert didn’t really have a chance to get rid of the ball.  It’s a fitting cap on the night for him from a narrative perspective, but it’s really not his fault.

The other throw, however, saw the ball just slip right out of his hand and spike into the ground.  The aborted pass thudded to the ground about a yard in front of him; all that was missing was a sad trombone playing in the background.

 

Final Summary

  • 1 Defensive Holding
  • 1 perfectly thrown pass for a completion (the first Stevie Johnson catch)
  • 2 passes thrown behind receivers for completions (one successful, one not)
  • 2 solid throws dropped by receivers
  • 1 catchable ball dropped by a receiver
  • 1 thrown behind intended receiver incomplete
  • 2 thrown too high for intended receiver incomplete
  • 1 underthown for intended receiver intercepted
  • 1 accidentally spiked into the ground incomplete
  • 1 sack

When you total it up, only three of Gabbert’s 13 pass plays were successful, and only one of them can be credited to a great throw from Gabbert.  Of the 10 unsuccessful pass plays, five of them were definitely Gabbert’s fault, and two more were poor throws that may have been influenced by pressure.

It’s not quite the complete disaster that Gabbert’s taking blame for in most of the media.  The first drive was actually decently solid, and showed a little bit of Gabbert’s potential.  However, when you end your night with more than a quarter of poor play, with no successful passes in four drives and a horrific interception, you didn't have a very good day.

Will Blaine Gabbert be the No. 2 quarterback when the season begins?

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I don’t actually think Gabbert had the worst day for the 49ers.  I’d give that credit to Jewel Hampton, who dropped passes, was stuffed in the run game and allowed Gabbert’s sack.  He was, however, the worst quarterback of the night on either team.

Does Gabbert have the second quarterback slot locked up?  Don’t count him out after one bad preseason game, but he’s not a lock either.  In his post-game press conference, Jim Harbaugh acknowledged in his press conference that the role might still be up for grabs:

I think all the quarterback—Blaine and Josh and Mac—are coming out of this thinking there are a few [throws] they want back.  I think they all did about the same. A couple of good throws and runs and extending the play, and a few they'd like to have back, too…

I think there are spots up for grabs in the depth area.  Whoever comes along the fastest will win those jobs. I think you can say that about quite a few of our positions on the back end.”

 

It would be hard for the 49ers to keep three quarterbacks on their opening day roster or eat Gabbert’s salary, but it’s worth at least checking out.  I expect Josh Johnson to get about 60 percent of the snaps against the Denver Broncos on Aug. 17, as a full audition for the second quarterback slot.

Don’t write Gabbert off yet, but if anyone could take a roster spot as apparently sealed up as his was and blow it, it would be Blaine Gabbert.

 

Bryan Knowles is a featured columnist for Bleacher Report, covering the San Francisco 49ers.  Follow him @BryKno on twitter.

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