San Francisco 49ers: Should Blaine Gabbert or Josh Johnson Be the Backup QB?

Bryan Knowles@BryknoContributor IIIAugust 20, 2014

San Francisco 49ers quarterback Blaine Gabbert (2) passes against the Denver Broncos during the first half of an NFL preseason football game in Santa Clara, Calif., Sunday, Aug. 17, 2014. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)
Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

The San Francisco 49ers seem to have a backup-quarterback problem.

None of Blaine Gabbert, Josh Johnson or McLeod Bethel-Thompson have lit the world on fire during the first two preseason games.  In fact, their stat lines have been quite depressing:

Backup Quarterback Stats
PlayerAttCmpCmp%YdsTDINTSackDropsQBRPFF Grade
Pro Football Focus

Gabbert’s been the worst statistically, but he’s also suffered the most from receiver drops.  Some of the drops came from poorly thrown passes, but an NFL receiver needs to catch a ball that hits him in the hands.  Remove the drops from each quarterback’s stats, and Gabbert’s completion percentage rises to 57.9 percent—still in last place, but it's a far sight above his sub-50 rate.

The quality of the completions are also a bit concerning.  None of the three quarterbacks have completed a single pass 20-plus yards down the field; they’re a combined 0-of-6 at that distance.  Gabbert hasn’t even completed a pass more than 10 yards down the field yet.  That makes the low completion percentage even more worrisome.

Johnson's been the best of a bad lot
Johnson's been the best of a bad lotBen Margot/Associated Press

Football Outsiders has a stat called success rate, designed to determine whether a play was actually beneficial to a team or not.  For a play to be successful, it needs to pick up 45 percent of the needed yards on first down, 60 percent of the needed yards on second down and 100 percent of the needed yards on third or fourth down. 

The site uses a complex system to give partial credit for plays that fall short of those numbers, but we can use that basic cut-off point to see how many of each player’s completions are successfully moving the ball downfield and how many are dump-offs that stall drives.

Here’s each quarterback’s attempts, broken down into successes, complete passes that aren’t successes, dropped passes, passes that fell incomplete, passes that were tipped by defenders and passes that were intercepted.  That roughly ranks their passes from the best to the worst outcome.

Backup Quarterback Outcomes
PlayerSuccessful PassesComplete but ShortDroppedIncompleteTippedIntercepted

That’s even worse for Gabbert—you can see that even when he does complete a pass, it’s usually well short of the needed yardage.  Both Johnson and Bethel-Thompson do a good job of realizing the situation and at least attempting to push the ball downfield through the air. 

Gabbert’s completions are more often than not dump-offs.  Gabbert's pass plays are successful only 20 percent of the time, which is a horrific number.

The drops hurt him, yes, but even if all of those drops were successful pass plays instead, he’d still have a worse success ratio than either Johnson or Bethel-Thompson.  He is facing harder defenses than either of his challengers, but these numbers are just horrific.

Bethel-Thompson will probably hit the practice squad, not the 53-man roster.
Bethel-Thompson will probably hit the practice squad, not the 53-man roster.Nick Wass/Associated Press

Could Gabbert actually be bad enough to be cut?  That’s really hard to see.  Thanks to his fully guaranteed 2014 salary, Gabbert will cost the 49ers just over $2 million against the cap, per Spotrac, no matter what.  It doesn’t make too much sense from a salary-cap perspective to drop him at this point.

However, his poor performance might force the 49ers to keep Josh Johnson on the active roster.  It’s in vogue to keep only two quarterbacks on the final 53-man roster in the NFL these days, but Johnson might be a better answer if he had to come in than Gabbert would be.

There might be unexpected room for Johnson, too.  Most 53-man roster predictions had Marcus Lattimore making the active roster, but he’s still “not quite there yet”, according to Jim Harbaugh (via David Fucillo of Niners Nation).  If he’s not healthy enough for the beginning of the regular season, the 49ers could theoretically put him on the PUP list. 

If they are comfortable with just having Frank Gore, Carlos Hyde and LaMichael James as running backs, they could put Johnson on the roster with the spot Lattimore would have taken.  That at least kicks the decision on what to do at the backup-quarterback position down the road.

In the short term, I’d like to see more reps for Johnson against the second-team defenses.  He’s the only reserve quarterback to not throw an interception yet, though he has been responsible for several fumbles. 

Peter King of The MMQB has speculated that the 49ers have to be thinking about moving Johnson up on the depth chart.  With Harbaugh being coy as ever, we won’t know until we see the actual depth chart during a preseason game, but it would make sense to get at least one look at Johnson before the preseason ended.

Dragging Kyle Orton out of retirement would be too expensive.
Dragging Kyle Orton out of retirement would be too expensive.Uncredited/Associated Press

Harbaugh has said that the 49ers will not be looking for another backup quarterback, per Matt Maiocco of (via David Fucillo of Niners Nation), which is probably half bluster and half a realistic look at the situation.  The best quarterback currently unemployed is Kyle Orton, and he’s reportedly retiring, according to Brad Biggs of the Chicago Tribune.

Besides, another backup quarterback would be too expensive, because you’d also have to factor in the $2 million Gabbert’s getting.  No backup worth acquiring would be available for that little.

Neither does a trade for someone like Christian Ponder make much sense. 

The 49ers already lost a sixth-round pick trading for Gabbert; this would be an example of throwing good money after bad.  It’s probably the best course of action to recognize the Gabbert addition as a mistake and decide whether to gamble that Kaepernick can go a full season without being injured or to use an extra roster spot on someone like Josh Johnson.

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


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