He’s not flashy, his jerseys don’t fly off the shelves, and he’s still considered a bust in a lot of living rooms in America.
Ask any 49ers player or coach about quarterback Blaine Gabbert, and you’re bound to hear the word “consistent,” which sounds as much like a mild insult as it does a compliment.
The admiration, however, is authentic. Gabbert has quietly – and yes, consistently – won over teammates and the 49ers’ front office since the team acquired him from the Jacksonville Jaguars for a pittance, a sixth-round pick, in 2014. On Monday, he’ll start his first season opener since the 2013 season.
“The one thing about Blaine is that I think he’s got an outstanding work ethic,” coach Chip Kelly said. “He obviously has the athleticism and the skill set to be a quarterback, but you continue to see him on a daily basis how much film he studies, how much time he’s in this building, how much work he does on his craft. So it’s a lot of fun to watch a guy that spends that much time trying to make himself better get the opportunity that he’s earned on Monday night.”
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Kelly’s primary assignment this season is resuscitating an offense that plunged to 31st in the NFL last year. Task No. 2 is figuring out the 49ers’ quarterback situation for 2017 and beyond.
Gabbert is scheduled to become a free agent in March. Colin Kaepernick is under contract for at least $14.5 million in 2017, too high for a backup, which is his role to open the season.
Gabbert took over the starting role from Kaepernick midway through 2015. The 49ers finished with a 19-16 overtime win over the Rams, a game in which Gabbert threw for a career-high 354 yards. Since then, Gabbert has conducted himself as if the starting job belongs to him, never mind that he competed with Kaepernick for the last month and a half.
“I viewed it as, ‘I was the quarterback of this football team,’ and that’s how you always have to approach it – day in and day out – walking into this building,” Gabbert said. “Because when you view it that way, you’re going to put your best foot forward and you’re not going to settle for anything less than that. And I just took it and ran with it, and here I am.”
One of the reasons for Gabbert’s locker room popularity is that he carries himself like a leader but still manages to be one of the guys. He’s understated and in control. When he took over for Kaepernick with eight games remaining last season, Gabbert didn’t win a lot of contests – three vs. two for Kaepernick – but he won over the team with his workmanlike demeanor.
“Well, Blaine’s been consistent,” offensive coordinator Curtis Modkins said. “He’s been consistent since the day we got here. Just kind of what he’s done since Day One makes you very excited about what he can do, and we look forward to him showing that.”
On a team that in recent weeks has received far more attention for anthem protests than football, saw one of its players arrested last week for allegedly striking a 70-year-old with a cane and that has a starting guard who, two days before the season opener, was mulling retirement, consistency and stability aren’t boring qualities. They’re coveted.
“I feel like, especially in offensive football, you don’t want to have highs that are too high, lows that are too low,” guard Zane Beadles said. “You want somebody that’s steady, especially at the quarterback position. It’s such an important position.”
From a national perspective, Gabbert still suffers from his experience in Jacksonville.
The Jaguars drafted him 10th overall in 2011, then won only four games with him at the helm that year. When he was traded three years later, he had thrown 22 touchdown passes and 24 interceptions and had been sacked so many times – 74 in 27 starts – he began reacting to phantom pass rushers. He was damaged goods, a bust.
Indeed, a well-used slam of Kaepernick in recent weeks has been: He couldn’t even beat out Blaine Gabbert – Blaine Gabbert! – for the starting role.
The 49ers, however, believe they found something salvageable on Jacksonville’s scrap heap. During the run-up to the draft, they did extra homework on only one or two quarterback prospects. The philosophy inside the building was that Gabbert was bigger, stronger, faster and, of course, more experienced than anyone they could draft. And he’s still only 26.
Former coach Jim Tomsula captured the sentiment late last season.
“He’s the kind of guy you want to go to work with every day,” he said of Gabbert. “Secondly, I will say he has still got a high ceiling. He’s not maxed out. So he’s a guy that can continue to improve.”
That’s where Kelly comes in.
He had some success with an array of quarterbacks – from Nick Foles to Mark Sanchez to Sam Bradford – in three seasons in Philadelphia. None, however, had Gabbert’s ability to gobble up yards with his feet, a threat Kelly had when he coached at Oregon and one Gabbert showed off in the preseason.
In the four summer tune-ups, 49ers quarterbacks ran the ball 37 times for 241 yards and three touchdowns.
Gabbert said he’s never been in a system that allows its quarterback to run like Kelly’s does.
“Every system I’ve been in has some type of zone-read, quarterback-run dynamic to it, but this is kind of a different system from that standpoint,” he said. “I like to consider myself a functional runner. When things break down, I can get yards, but whenever we have numbers in the run game and you can add a quarterback dimension to that, it really puts the defense in a bind.”