The NFL pits division opponents against each other in Week 17 in the hope that riveting TV – teams jockeying for playoff spots, a clash of bitter rivals – comes with the regular-season crescendo.
When the 49ers and Rams play Sunday, nothing will be at stake other than draft position. The 49ers are locked into last place in the NFC West. The Rams will finish third. Still, quarterback Blaine Gabbert insisted Wednesday that it’s a “big game” for both teams.
“It’s huge – to build momentum going into the offseason program, into next season, you want to end the year strong,” he said. “You want to end the season with momentum, something positive. And it’s a big game for a lot of people.”
It’s huge – to build momentum going into the offseason program, into next season, you want to end the year strong. You want to end the season with momentum, something positive. And it’s a big game for a lot of people.
49ers quarterback Blaine Gabbert on Sunday’s season-finale against the Rams
One of those people is Gabbert, who gets a final audition before the team heads into the offseason with decisions to make at quarterback.
Gabbert, under contract for 2016 with an affordable $1.75 million base salary, is almost certain to be on the roster. But he’s not signed beyond next season and the 49ers, currently slated to pick fifth in the draft, will at least consider using a high selection at the position. They also must decide what to do with Colin Kaepernick, who will count approximately $14 million against the salary cap if he is still on the roster after April 1.
Gabbert will make his eighth start Sunday, which will offer a nice, side-by-side comparison with Kaepernick, who started the 49ers’ first eight games, including the final one also against the Rams.
Their numbers are similar. Both have won two games. Gabbert’s completion percentage is higher – 63 percent to 59 percent – and he’s thrown more touchdown passes, nine vs. six. But Gabbert also has more interceptions, six to Kaepernick’s five. He’s been sacked 24 times in seven starts; Kaepernick went down 28 times.
Asked what he’s most proud of this season, Gabbert said he’s minimized mistakes. In his last season as the Jacksonville Jaguars’ quarterback, he had seven interceptions and just one touchdown pass in his first three starts. He was injured in Week 3, then benched.
“We haven’t won a lot of games, but I feel like we’ve been playing pretty clean football, not making a lot of mental errors, not making a lot of critical errors,” Gabbert said. “So from that standpoint, it’s been pretty clean.”
29.2 The 49ers’ third-down conversion rate, second-to-worst in the league behind only the Rams
But the 49ers have converted just 29.2 percent of their third downs – only the Rams are worse – and Gabbert often has thrown passes that land well short of first-down markers.
“I think it just depends on definitely the situation in the game,” he said. “Early on in the game, you’re less prone to force throws down the field. It just depends on the coverage. You know in certain looks, you can throw into some windows. But at the end of the day, I’ve got to trust my eyes, trust what I see and trust my guys if I do throw it short below the sticks, that they’re going to make a guy miss and get the first down.”
Wide receiver Torrey Smith agrees.
Smith, on pace for career lows in receiving yards and catches, would welcome more opportunities. But he said “there’s a time and place for everything. When I play Madden (video game), I’m very aggressive, but there’s no punishment for that. For a quarterback, it’s a lot different.”
Gabbert’s biggest challenge has been getting the offense to play consistently well for four quarters. The 49ers mostly have started games slow. On Sunday in Detroit, a fast start was followed by an ineffective and scoreless second half.
“We’ve seen starting the game fast, we’ve seen finishing the game strong,” Gabbert said. “We just need to put four quarters of good football together, and we have an opportunity to do that this week.”