If it wasn’t for monetary concerns, the backup quarterback slot for the San Francisco 49ers would be a no-brainer.
Josh Johnson has outplayed Blaine Gabbert this preseason, no ifs, ands or buts. After four preseason games, Gabbert is 22-for-47 for 186 yards, with two touchdowns and two interceptions. Johnson is 28-for-37 for 261 yards, with three touchdowns and one interception.
It’s not just the stats, however. Johnson’s better numbers are, in some degree, thanks to playing mostly against third-stringers, while Gabbert’s played mostly against second-stringers and starters. If the only difference between them was a few extra completions against players likely to be cut before the regular season, that wouldn’t be reason to worry.
However, the eye test has shown the difference in class between Gabbert and Johnson as well. Gabbert’s passes have been fairly consistently off target, generally overthrown. Against the Houston Texans, he overthrew Stevie Johnson at least twice, and threw one so high over the head of Vance McDonald that it was nearly picked off.
Johnson, on the other hand, looked brilliant against Houston. The one interception was an unlucky bounce; it could have been a more accurate throw, true, but the fact that it ricocheted right into a defender’s hand was more poor luck than poor play.
Before the San Diego game, it was even more obvious that Gabbert was losing the battle. I looked at all the passes from the first two games, and found that even when Gabbert did complete passes, they were usually short dump-offs that failed to move the sticks. That pattern did not continue against Houston however; three of his four completions in the game were successful. Four completions in a half of work, however, is pretty terrible.
Gabbert was uncomfortable and slow in his reads, and ended his night getting X-rays on his injured shoulder. It’s not exactly the end-of-preseason performance needed to cement him as the backup. The fact that, in terms of his quarterback rating, this 4-for-11 night was his second-best performance tells you how bad the first two were.
What to make of the San Diego game? Against the Chargers, Gabbert looked confident and in control; one could argue he actually outplayed starter Colin Kaepernick in that game, though the actual size of the asterisk needed to justify that statement is too large to appear on any normal computer screen. Still, against mostly second-stringers, Gabbert completed more than 60 percent of his passes, was comfortable going deep and looked like the talent that made him the No. 10 overall pick in the 2011 draft.
Faced with the evidence of the other three preseason games, not to mention the seasons in Jacksonville, and you have to consider the San Diego game an outlier. It’s the kind of tantalizing tease that kept Jacksonville trotting him out week after week—every now and then, he’d have a very good performance, but he never showed showed the chops consistently enough to be a difference-maker.
No, in a world without a salary cap, the choice of Johnson over Gabbert seems clear. Johnson’s decision-making is cleaner, he appears more comfortable in Greg Roman’s system and his throws have been crisper than Gabbert’s. Johnson’s not only more physically talented than Gabbert—though the latter has a top-notch arm—it also feels like he’s better able to translate those gifts onto the field.
Neither Johnson nor Gabbert is a great backup option; if I could take any backup in the league, I’d rather have Matt Hasselbeck, Michael Vick or Tarvaris Jackson. However, given the limited options available, I feel Johnson would give the 49ers the best chance at coping with a short-term Kaepernick injury.
Of course, we don’t live in a world without a salary cap. Gabbert will cost the team $2 million whether he’s on the final roster or not. It’s a waste to let him go—a waste of the sixth-round pick used to trade for him and a waste of the money used to take a look at him.
Better to keep him on the roster and try to get some return on investment, right?
Well, maybe not. That $2 million is gone whether or not Gabbert stays with the team. The sixth-round pick isn’t conditional; they lost that no matter what happens to Gabbert. That’s a sunk cost—and no matter what happens, that’s the cost of kicking the tires on Gabbert. While it’s bad business, in general, to waste resources like that, that decision has already been made, and it shouldn’t impact the front office’s decision on whether to keep Gabbert around or release him.
Of course, it’s not just a sunk-cost problem: Josh Johnson demands a salary, as well. Yes, it’s only the veteran’s minimum of $570,000, but that’s $570,000 that might be better served going to Chris Cook or Kassim Osgood. Unlike a third-string, or even a backup, quarterback, fourth corners and special teams aces are players you hope to see out on the field. A roster spot, and the salary-cap room, is better used on a player of that caliber.
The best argument I can think of for keeping Gabbert and cutting Johnson is this: neither backup quarterback is going to propel the 49ers to their sixth Super Bowl. The 49ers’ hole at backup quarterback was not adequately addressed in the offseason. If Kaepernick misses more than a handful of games, neither Gabbert nor Johnson would likely be enough to paper that gap and keep the 49ers in the running.
If you believe that to be true—and after watching Johnson against Houston, you may not—then there’s no logical reason to keep Johnson over Gabbert. If you’re going to get the same results with either player, Gabbert’s actually the cheaper option—he costs the 49ers $0 extra if they keep him over Johnson, while Johnson adds $570,000 to the salary cap.
The 49ers are essentially all-in on keeping Kaepernick upright and healthy. That’s a risky gamble with a mobile quarterback, but it may be the best option they have now.
Bryan Knowles is a featured columnist for Bleacher Report, covering the San Francisco 49ers. Follow him @BryKno on twitter.