Let me know when you can tell what year it is as I set the scene.
Midseason is approaching, and the San Francisco 49ers are struggling under a new head coach. Specifically, their offense has plunged to embarrassingly low and cavernous depths. They need a savior at quarterback, but none are available because diamonds in the rough rarely exist at that position.
So they settle for the next-best thing: a fresh arm that will hopefully rejuvenate the offense, pushing the current starter aside while keeping the whole operation from careening off the tracks.
It’s alright if the seasons of 49ers football and their quarterback disarrays are blending together. In fact, they should because, in 2015, Colin Kaepernick was the guy who received the trapdoor treatment.
In 2016, he’s the human life preserver coming to save a fanbase from watching San Francisco’s passing offense in its current deficient state.
Niners head coach Chip Kelly announced Tuesday that Kaepernick would mercifully take the starting-quarterback keys from Blaine Gabbert and make his first start in Week 6 against the Buffalo Bills.
Kelly served us all a tablespoon of intrigue about Kaepernick’s fit in his system. The main course, though, is just relief that Gabbert won’t spend as much time masquerading as a starter anymore.
We’ll never know if Gabbert would have won the job during a true camp competition. Kaepernick was still recovering from multiple offseason surgeries during part of August, and prior to that, he was limited in OTAs. He didn’t take a snap until Week 3 of the preseason. By that time, Gabbert was far ahead mentally in his grasp of a new offense, which made him the starter by default.
Now, an unsurprising truth has revealed itself: Gabbert is woefully inept and not a starting-caliber NFL quarterback.
The kindest statement that can be made about Gabbert’s present and future is to call him an adequate backup. You can feel somewhat comfortable giving him the ball for a spot start or two because of an injury.
Beyond that, Gabbert is the same quarterback who became the worst draft bust in recent memory and was responsible for plenty of people losing their jobs with the Jacksonville Jaguars.
Gabbert failing as a starter is the most yawn-inducing and predictable development of the young 2016 NFL season. Exactly how bad was he while being allowed to start over a quarter of the 49ers’ schedule? Try a league-worst bad in several categories that matter, as ESPN Stats & Information noted:
Gabbert took seven sacks during his Week 5 start against the Arizona Cardinals, and he sprayed a whole lot of footballs to every area of the field on his way to a passer rating of only 69.6 over five games.
It’s been established that Gabbert is still a bottom-barrel quarterback, and the bar for Kaepernick to clear couldn’t possibly be lower.
His best quality right now is not being Blaine Gabbert. That alone gives him the savior status a team and fanbase crave. But while Kaepernick can improve a 31st-ranked offense (averaging only 291.4 yards per game) purely through his athletic upside, it’s important not to let memories be too short.
Please recall where this story began—with Kaepernick getting benched in 2015—and remember the 49ers have been down this long, winding road before. That’s when the franchise discovered Kaepernick has something in common with Gabbert: He’s not a long-term solution, either.
The core problem Kaepernick has as a passer is that he can’t pass conventionally, a familiar issue for the mobile quarterback who’s in his natural surroundings when on the run.
Kaepernick can be himself and function as an unconventional pivot. He did that to great success early in his career while leading the 49ers to a Super Bowl appearance in 2013. He dazzled throughout that playoff run, most notably setting a single-game quarterback rushing record (his 181 yards against the Green Bay Packers).
But defensive coordinators are paid to adapt, adjust and eliminate threats, and Kaepernick was never able to tweak his approach. He struggled mightily when defenses confined him to the pocket, holding onto the ball far too long. His greatest flaw during a spiral beginning in 2014 was poor field vision, which led to a hesitancy to pull the trigger and inaccuracy when he did.
During the 2014 and 2015 seasons, Kaepernick made 24 starts. Throughout that time, he was responsible for 21 turnovers and took an astronomically high 80 sacks.
Offensive line issues didn’t help matters, but Kaepernick often either ran into pressure or stood too long scanning the field. As a result, he was among the league leaders in sacks taken during that time despite significantly fewer starts compared to most of the quarterbacks above him on the list below.
|Most sacks taken during 2014 and 2015 seasons|
Kaepernick will turn 29 years old in November. Quarterbacks who are that age and who have logged 47 regular-season NFL starts usually don’t have any new tricks left.
We know what Kaepernick is and, more importantly, what he isn’t. The chances of him suddenly morphing into another version of the Seattle Seahawks’ Russell Wilson while being both mobile and confident from the pocket are slim.
But there’s also a more-than-nothing chance that, in the right offense and with the right set of innovative eyes watching, Kaepernick can rediscover his old self. The right offense might be the one he’s set to lead now, and the right coach could be Kelly.
For a few fleeting moments in 2013, when Kelly was a rookie NFL head coach with the Philadelphia Eagles, he applied anti-aging cream to the similarly athletic Michael Vick. In Vick’s first two starts, he threw for 631 yards with six total touchdowns (two rushing). He also averaged an incredible 10.3 yards per pass attempt during that short span.
Inevitably, though, the wheels came tumbling off when Vick’s inaccuracy caught up to him. Which is also when the brakes were applied to a fast-paced, uptempo offense.
But dating back to college, Kelly has been successful with other Kaepernick-like quarterbacks, including Marcus Mariota. Kaepernick is younger than Vick was in 2013, too, and he’s had prolonged success before when placed in an offense that caters to his strengths.
Thus, the remainder of the 49ers’ season will be an experiment.
They won’t be mistaken for a contender in the NFC West, and they likely won’t be playing in January past Week 17. But that doesn’t mean nothing will be accomplished during the 2016 season in San Francisco.
The season will be a success if the 49ers get answers to these key questions: What do we still have in Colin Kaepernick? And are we dreaming to think Kelly can make him anything more than a short-term emergency option?
The answer to the latter question will be a sigh and a nod. But at least the 49ers will have a definitive quarterback direction heading into the offseason without having to watch Gabbert for another 11 games.
And for that gift, we should all be sending them thank-you letters.