Not only has it been hard to tell who’s winning the 49ers’ backup quarterback competition, it’s difficult to nail down whether there’s ever been a competition in the first place.
Here’s coach Jim Harbaugh on Aug. 7 when, moments after No. 2 passer Blaine Gabbert finished with a 1.7 passer rating against the Ravens, he was asked if the backup quarterback job was “up for grabs.”
“I think there are spots up for grabs in the depth area,” he said. “Whoever comes along the fastest will win those jobs.”
A few days later, he said his comments were misinterpreted. He “was speaking globally as a team” not specifically about the quarterbacks.
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“Very pleased with the job Blaine Gabbert’s doing,” he added.
Then after last week’s loss to Denver, another bad outing for Gabbert, Harbaugh said, “Whoever doesn’t turn the ball over will be the backup quarterback,” which seemed to suggest the competition was wide open.
On Friday, however, he was back to backing Gabbert for the job. “I think Blaine is that guy right now,” he said.
The back-and-forth answers from a normally resolute head coach underscore the fuzziest position on the team. “Who will lead the 49ers’ offense if Colin Kaepernick is forced to exit?” was the biggest story line coming out of the Ravens game 21/2 weeks ago, and it remains the team’s prominent question mark going into today’s third and most important warm-up, which comes against the San Diego Chargers.
The situation is similar to a year ago when Harbaugh pumped up backup Colt McCoy at the same time McCoy’s salary was adjusted and the team brought in another veteran, Seneca Wallace, as last-minute competition.
It turned out to be a non-issue in 2013.
McCoy took a few meaningless snaps at the end of games, and Kaepernick started all 19 contests. The 49ers did not try to re-sign McCoy when he became a free agent, and he is now on Washington’s roster.
Still, Kaepernick said last week that he suffered a fairly significant foot injury in Week 2 last year. He didn’t miss any games or practices because of it, but the revelation underscored that the 49ers are one chance play away from turning over the offense to his understudy.
McCoy was named the No. 2 quarterback in San Francisco at the same time he agreed to reduce his base salary.
This year, the quarterback has the leverage. Gabbert’s $2 million is fully guaranteed, which may win him the backup role whether he’s tied or even slightly behind the other competitors.
He’s certainly getting every chance to take the job.
Gabbert has taken more snaps than any other quarterback on the team and has attempted nearly as many passes (25) than his two competitors, Josh Johnson and McLeod Bethel-Thompson, combined (26).
That, however, is the only category in which he leads the 49ers.
Gabbert’s completion percentage (44 percent), yards per attempts (2.4) and passer rating (17.9) are by far the lowest on the team. That passer rating, in fact, is the lowest of any NFL quarterback that has at least 15 throws this preseason.
Still, Harbaugh said there will be no change in the quarterback pecking order for today’s game.
“I don’t judge it off of just those,” he said of the statistics. “I’ve been pretty clear what I thought we needed to get better as, as a unit – a team-oriented offense that has precision and plays well together, all 11. And that’s what we’ve been striving for. We’ve had a good week, feel like we’ve made progress and hopefully that progress shows up (today).”