It was a career day Sunday for two members of the 49ers, both of whom had their careers revived while they helped put a tourniquet on a team whose season was bleeding away.
Quarterback Blaine Gabbert, a backup by recent trade, hadn’t started an NFL game in two years. He made the most of his start Sunday against the Atlanta Falcons. He showed guts and guile, and he ran and he threw and he led a desperate team to a win it had to have if only to preserve its self-respect.
Running back Shaun Draughn watched his lifespan as an NFL running back drone on and on through eight teams, destination nowhere. He also got a start Sunday, and in his 16 carries, he gained more yards than he had accumulated in three of his previous seasons.
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The quarterback and the running back had plenty of help from the 49ers’ defense, but nobody else on the squad had such an unlikely journey on the way to San Francisco’s 17-16 win over the Falcons at Levi’s Stadium as Gabbert and Draughn.
Drafted by the Jacksonville Jaguars out of Missouri, Gabbert had a sliver of success in his rookie year in 2011 but failed to build on it. His time on the field dwindled in 2012 and 2013 until the Jaguars gave up on him and traded him to the 49ers, where he’s been a two-year backup to Colin Kaepernick.
As soon as you lose that vision, not seeing yourself as a starting quarterback, you regress tremendously.
49ers quarterback Blaine Gabbert
On Sunday, it took him a couple of series before he finally got the hang of the game again. Once he got comfortable, he made the Atlanta defense uncomfortable, throwing for two touchdowns to tight end Garrett Celek. He set up one of those scores with a scramble to the goal line, and he daggered the Falcons in the final two minutes when he rolled right for five yards on a third-and-four play from his own 26.
“I’m so appreciative of this opportunity,” Gabbert said afterward. “I just wanted to go out there and compete, and lead these guys. … I just wanted to go out there and just have fun, play well and have fun.”
Gabbert took a vicious shot in the fourth quarter when the Falcons’ Philip Wheeler laid him out with a high, brutal, late hit. The officials on the field flagged the linebacker for 15 yards, and the NFL spotters upstairs in the booth, worried about the quarterback’s health, ordered Gabbert out of the game. The decision infuriated Gabbert, who was forced to give way to Kaepernick.
“I was a little fired up,” Gabbert said, but he got over his anger soon enough when he returned two plays later. “That’s the protocol we have installed now, and it’s all for the safety of the players, so you have to respect their decisions and go through the steps to get cleared. I felt fine.”
Gabbert finished with 15 completions in 25 attempts for 185 yards with two interceptions and 32 rushing yards on nine carries. Given his numbers, his effort and his performance under pressure, coach Jim Tomsula would be ill-advised to go back to Kaepernick when the 49ers play again in two weeks. Gabbert certainly sees himself as a starter.
“As soon as you lose that vision, not seeing yourself as a starting quarterback, you regress tremendously,” Gabbert said.
As for Draughn, he played only on special teams at his last stop, with the Cleveland Browns, who cut him Oct. 20. The 49ers signed him only last Monday, so it made perfect sense Sunday that he would be their leading runner with 58 yards to go with a team-high four catches for 38 yards.
“I’m humbled,” Draughn told a gaggle of reporters. “I’m grateful, just happy to be back working. I’m happy to be out here with guys that love the game.”
Draughn’s career year came with the Kansas City Chiefs in 2012, when he ran for 233 yards. Plenty of runners have gained that much in an afternoon. Small though they were, the numbers were huge in Draughn’s world. In 2013 with the Baltimore Ravens, he carried four times for two yards. Last year, the San Diego Chargers gave it to him 10 times and he rushed for 19 yards. This year with the Browns, it was two carries for 10 yards.
On Sunday, he nearly topped three seasons of work on one run, a 30-yard draw that put the ball on the Atlanta 15 in the second quarter. His run for the ages preceded an 11-yard touchdown pass from Gabbert to Celek.
Draughn gave the credit to the offensive line.
“They slammed it down,” he said.
With less than a week into the Santa Clara station on his whistle stop tour of American football cities, Draughn said he did not know he’d be starting for the 49ers until Tomsula informed him during pregame warmups.
I’m humbled. I’m grateful, just happy to be back working.
49ers running back Shaun Draughn
“Oh, you’re starting by the way,” is what Draughn said Tomsula told him. To which Draughn’s reply was, “OK, let’s go.”
Draughn, in his short time on the West Coast, wondered why it is that the 49ers had won only two games entering Sunday. He found it to be “a tightknit group” in a fashion he was not used to in his other job opportunities from paymasters in Washington, Indianapolis and Chicago as well as Kansas City, Baltimore, San Diego and Cleveland.
Now he is in Santa Clara, and Draughn said, “The morale of this team is a good feel.” He added, “I see the type of guys that are in here and the way they practiced this week. They were definitely hungry for a win and it showed up in the game.”
Maybe it helped that two guys played as if their careers were on the line.