Chip Kelly Decoded: 49ers' QB Competition Is Over, and Blaine Gabbert Won

Mike Tanier@@miketanierNFL National Lead WriterJune 7, 2016

SANTA CLARA, CA - NOVEMBER 08:  Colin Kaepernick #7 watches Blaine Gabbert #2 of the San Francisco 49ers warm up before their game against the Atlanta Falcons at Levi's Stadium on November 8, 2015 in Santa Clara, California.  (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

The 49ers' quarterback controversy is over. Blaine Gabbert beat out Colin Kaepernick for the starting job. Largely by default. It's all over but the formalities. And Chip Kelly isn't disappointed. In fact, it has worked out almost as well as he wanted it to.       

Kaepernick, who is recovering from shoulder, thumb and knee surgeries, won't be cleared to participate in minicamp this week, according to Ian Rapoport of NFL.com (via NFL.com's Kevin Patra), the capstone of OTAs and his one chance to really make an on-field impression before training camp.

Kaepernick was supposed to be full-go by this point in the offseason. Just what is sidelining him—one of the three injuries, some combination of all of them, a mutual decision by Kaepernick and the 49ers to seek trade partners instead of going through this "competition" charade—has not been revealed.

Jeff Chiu/Associated Press

We won't get straight answers from Kelly's press conferences, because Kelly is allergic to straight answers. Like most NFL head coaches, Kelly is evasive with the media. But he adds an extra layer to the disinformation and miscommunication. Condescending to the level of mere homo sapiens just isn't his bag. Instead of boring us to sleep with cliches, Kelly presents his version of reality and dares us to make sense of it.

Luckily, I am in possession of a Kelly-to-mortals decoder ring, forged over three years of proximity to Kelly in Philadelphia.

The decoder ring first came in handy back when Kelly was hired in January and delivered this nugget of truthiness to CSN Bay Area (via Pro Football Talk):

I'm not allowed to comment about [Kaepernick] in terms of how he fits into any system because of the CBA rules of we're not allowed to discuss football, I'm not allowed to say who fits where and how they fit.

CBA rules have never said anything of the sort, and Kelly knew it. He fielded Michael Vick and Nick Foles questions from the day he entered the NFL. Kelly made up a silly, obvious and easy-to-debunk tall tale that was code for I don't want to talk about Colin Kaepernick as my starting quarterback because I would much rather trade him.

The 49ers did try to trade Kaepernick. Meanwhile, Kelly eventually broke his silence about the beleaguered quarterback at the league meetings in late March, telling reporters:

You really can't talk about anything from a football standpoint. ... His agents are handling everything for him, personnel is handling everything for us.

This is some dense KellySpeak. First, it reinforced the fiction that Kelly and Kaepernick were somehow forbidden to talk about football. Second, it was a subtle dig at Kaepernick, who can't talk football because others are "handling everything for him." Finally, it was classic Kelly accountability deflection: The poor, lowly coach has no input in this matter whatsoever, so don't blame him if things turn out badly. (Or grant him personnel control so he can trade everybody for everybody.)

By contrast, here are Kelly's thoughts on Gabbert, from that same set of interviews in March:

I'm impressed with Blaine. You watch him the last couple of games he started. He's another guy, you look at his skill set. He took off against the Bears and went [44] yards for a touchdown. He ran 4.61 in the combine when he was coming out. He's big. I'd never really dealt with Blaine because he came into the league before I came into the league, but just how big and physical and impressive he is. He's a 6-4, 245-pound guy that can really run. I thought the last part of the season he played really well.

Kelly is splattering a wide variety of facts and concepts at the wall to make Gabbert sound more impressive. He's big. He's faster than you think. Remember that touchdown run against the Bears, which looked like it took place on a high school field? How about that exciting win against Case Keenum and the 49ers in Week 17? Yeah, the other guy beat the Packers twice in the playoffs, but we can't talk football with him right now.

No trade ever happened, and Kaepernick reported to OTAs like a good citizen, leading Kelly to make this remark during a radio interview on KNBR in mid-May (via Taylor Price of the 49ers' official website):

On a football level and on a day-to-day basis and how we get along, it's been fantastic. We set that kind of parameter to begin with: When you're here, we're going to coach the heck out of you. He understands that, and he's been great with that. We haven't had any "elephants in the room" or anything to speak of from that standpoint. … I've had great interaction with Kap, and so has our quarterbacks coach, offensive coordinator and everybody in the building.

Kelly never has negative interactions with anyone, at least not according to Kelly, who is forced to spend an awful lot of time and energy explaining all the non-negative interactions he has with quarterbacks, general managers, owners, players of color and others who somehow often come away from the parameters of his communicative interfaces with fellow humanoids feeling a little uncomfortable.

Anyway, Kaepernick was too injured to take the field for OTAs, meaning that the quarterback competition was largely theoretical. But Kelly is a largely theoretical kind of guy, and there's not much happening in early OTAs on the practice field, anyway.

Here's Kelly on Kaepernick, again in mid-May, via CSN Bay Area's Matt Maiocco:

He's great in the classroom. He's got a great grasp of what we're doing. I'm really impressed by both Blaine and him and their intelligence and being able to pick up what we're trying to do. So there's no 'fall behind' because there's no behind. There's not a race.

Jeff Chiu/Associated Press

Kelly is a master of semantics. It's fun to pretend that he doesn't understand figures of speech, like Drax from Guardians of the Galaxy, but he really uses semantics to deflect and derail questions he does not like. Here, he uses the "not a race" hair-splitting technique to suggest that there is no difference between being able to take the field and throw passes and being limited to classroom work while learning a new system from a new coaching staff, which is silly.

Just in case the "not a race" remark sounded too much like an endorsement of Kaepernick, Kelly made sure to include Gabbert in the discussion. In the same interview, Kelly said:

I don't have a timetable. You can't put a timetable on it. It has to express itself and let it happen organically. That's the only way it can happen. I've been involved in every level of quarterback battles. Just like battles at every other position, it's going to be won on the field. It can't be won because we have a timetable that has to be set by May 17th or May 18th.

Translation: It's just an organic competition between a guy I did not even want to talk about in January and a guy whose five-year-old combine results leap unbidden from my brain during interviews.

Weeks of KellySpeak culminated in a kind of "greatest hits" album when Kelly appeared on San Francisco's 95.7 The Game (via Niners Nation) last Thursday. It was on that show that he delivered the "Similar Players" soliloquy that got a lot of weekend attention and deserves some up-close parsing:

You know, obviously when you're looking at both those guys, I think they're similar.

Somewhere in the course of Kelly's efforts to talk Gabbert up while referring to Kaepernick as someone who is either unavailable to talk football or too injured to play, the two quarterbacks suddenly became nigh interchangeable. This is significant, because it is such an oversell that it is completely unreasonable. A fair competition between an expensive former superstar whose game regressed and a still-youngish second-chance prospect coming off a lukewarm streak last year is believable. When Kelly starts acting like he literally cannot tell them apart, he's trying just a little too hard.

They're both 6'4"-plus.

Yes, and Bucs running back Doug Martin and I are both 5'9" and around 225 pounds, but no one drafts me in their fantasy league.

They both can really run, which will help keep plays alive.

Kaepernick has rushed for 1,832 yards and 6.0 yards per carry in his NFL career. Gabbert has rushed for 376 yards and 3.5 yards per carry. Gabbert's 44-yard, game-tying scramble against the Bears in Week 13 last year—the one Kelly referenced in that March interview—represents over 11 percent of his career rushing production.

Gabbert averaged 2.1 yards per carry in a spread offense in college. Kaepernick averaged 6.9 yards per carry while rushing for over 4,000 yards in a pistol-option offense. This is not now, nor has it ever been, a point of similarity between these two individuals in this dimension of reality.

Obviously we're not a quarterback-run offense, but if the quarterback can run, you can use a little of that to your advantage.

When someone keeps saying the word "obviously," they are trying to either convince you or themselves that the opposite opinion is foolish. Kelly has been distancing himself from the read-option since he entered the NFL. He replaced Vick with Foles, removed even the option fake from the Eagles offense in an attempt to preserve Sam Bradford's health and watched the productivity of his running game decline every year as a result.

He doesn't need a running quarterback to make his system work. But even if he does, Gabbert and Kaepernick are both similar runners. George Orwell is face-palming somewhere in heaven.

And they both have extremely strong arms. So, from a skill-set standpoint, the two of them are kind of cut out of the same mold.

In the broad sense that they are tall, strong-armed and athletic, about 95 percent of NFL quarterbacks are cut from that same mold.

I thought Blaine when he played, played well.

As seen earlier, "Gabbert played well" is a common refrain.

Gabbert, in by far the best season of his career last year, finished 18th in the NFL in completion percentage, 19th in yards per attempt, 25th in interception rate and 30th in sack rate, according to Pro Football Reference. Pro Football Focus ranked him 28th among NFL quarterbacks, and Football Outsiders ranked him 31st. He also finished second in the NFL in "failed completions," according to Football Outsiders' internal database; 35.4 percent of his completions were essentially useless, such as a three-yard completion on 3rd-and-24 Gabbert threw to Bruce Ellington against the Lions.

Of course, Kaepernick was even worse than Gabbert in most of those categories last year:

2015 rank among qualifying QBsGabbertKaepernick
Completion percentage18th (63.1)30th (59.0)
Yards per attempt19th (7.2)32nd (6.6)
Interception rate25th (2.5)17th (2.0)
Sack rate30th (8.1)36th (10.3)
Pro Football Focus ranking28th (-4.7)37th (-15.6)
Football Outsiders ranking31st (-85)34th (-182)
Source: Pro Football Reference, Pro Football Focus and Football Outsiders

The 49ers were terrible in every facet of football, so neither quarterback had much of a chance to shine. And a coach can't go on the radio and say "my quarterbacks stink," though most can talk about a quarterback competition in May without shoveling this much malarkey.

When Kelly was asked on The Game whether he ever thought of Kaepernick as an ideal system fit when he watched or prepared for the 49ers, he managed to choke out some praise between clarifications and qualifiers:

Ah, nah, I'm not a guy that looks at other people and thinks, because you never know who you're gonna have. I don't speculate, and what if this happens or that happens. But we did play, when I was in Philly, we did play San Francisco and we had a very difficult time corralling Kap. And some of the big plays that occurred in that game was Kap keeping plays alive with his feet. And then obviously, you see him in person throw the ball, and how strong his arm is. So I never thought a) I'd like to have him on my team some day because in this league you never, trades, you don't really speculate, you deal with the reality of it. But I was always very impressed with him in terms of his skill set as a quarterback. 

Kelly wasn't asked if he thought Kaepernick was a system fit; he was asked if he thought of Kaepernick as a system fit when he was coaching the Eagles. So that is the precise question Kelly answered, devoting 46 percent of a 141-word response to an explanation on a side topic he was well aware no one cared about. In between, he drizzled in some acknowledgments of Kaepernick's athletic ability that sounded so grudging and halfhearted that they could have come from the bottom of a Seahawks fan message board in 2013.

The radio interview set the stage for Monday's announcement that Kaepernick would not be on the field for minicamp. Gabbert will be getting all of the meaningful reps. But don't worry. This isn't a race. No one is ahead or behind. There's just one guy on the field whose every virtue has been extolled for weeks, and another guy with all of the injuries that the team couldn't quite manage to trade.

Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

Gabbert wins, folks. Don't bother tracking completion percentages during training camp.

None of this will likely mean anything in the end this season, because the 49ers don't have the talent to reach .500, and neither Gabbert nor Kaepernick looks like a long-term solution for the organization.

But this foregone conclusion of a quarterback competition becomes a problem if it's a sign of business as usual for Kelly. He's already mixing signals, mincing words, deflecting accountability and (if his opinion of Kaepernick is different from the organization's) making decisions unilaterally. Because his system is obviously designed to feature at least the constant threat of a running quarterback, he's also behaving counterproductively if he dismissed Kaepernick out of hand.

Kelly's 49ers haven't even tackled to the ground yet, and there's already an atmosphere of suspicion, secrecy and double-talk around one of the most important players in the organization. That's not the "Kelly culture" the coach wants, but it's the one he got in Philly.

Of course, maybe Kaepernick is just a few days behind on his recovery and will be ready to impress his 100 percent open-minded head coach at the end of July.

It just has never sounded that way, even when Kelly has tried to make it sound that way.

Mike Tanier covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter at @MikeTanier.

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