Why is Chip Kelly so intent on having three quarterbacks, including Colin Kaepernick, on his roster this season?
The answer came in the second quarter Monday night when Blaine Gabbert scrambled out of the pocket for nine yards, dived to avoid a Rams defender, cornerback Trumaine Johnson, and went airborne and slammed into another, linebacker Mark Barron.
Gabbert isn’t exactly delicate. At 6-foot-4, 235 pounds, he’s as big as some tight ends, and he had a 20-pound advantage on Barron. While Gabbert was a bit slow to get up after the collision, Barron was even slower.
Gabbert didn’t miss a snap. He ran another five times after that big hit, finished the game with nine carries for 43 yards and underscored that in Kelly’s system, quarterbacks have a green light – a mega-watt, pulsating green light – to run the ball.
During the preseason, his quarterbacks combined for 37 carries and three rushing touchdowns. The only quarterback who ran more than Gabbert in Week 1 was Carolina’s Cam Newton, who had 11 carries for 54 yards and a touchdown.
At least one 49er thinks Gabbert should have run even more against Los Angeles.
In third quarter, the quarterback consistently fed the ball to running back Carlos Hyde on read-option plays. The Rams knew what was coming and limited Hyde to 7 yards on seven carries in the quarter.
“I’m like, ‘You can run it just as good as I can run it,’ ” Hyde said of Gabbert after the game. “ ‘So don’t be afraid to pull it and go make a play.’ Before the game, I told him, ‘If you feel like you can go beat the defensive end to the sideline, then go make a play. Don’t just rely on me all the time.’ It’s a two-man game with us when we run the read option.”
It’s an element Kelly had at Oregon but not with the Philadelphia Eagles.
Michael Vick, an excellent runner, was Kelly’s first Eagles quarterback in 2013. But Vick suffered a hamstring injury early that season, and Kelly used a series of not-as-mobile quarterbacks – Matt Barkley, Nick Foles, Mark Sanchez and Sam Bradford – from that point.
He seems determined not to run low on athletic passers in San Francisco.
While most NFL teams keep two quarterbacks on the 53-man roster, Kelly stocked his with three, all of whom can run. (All three preseason touchdowns scored by 49ers quarterbacks were by third-stringer Christian Ponder.) He would have kept a fourth, rookie Jeff Driskel, on the practice squad if not for the Bengals picking him up and placing him on their 53-man roster.
The risk, of course, is all that running increases the chances of injury. Which, in turn, raises the prospect of Kaepernick getting into the game and doing some running himself.
And that has to scare the 49ers. If Kaepernick were to enter a game and get seriously hurt – not exactly far-fetched, given the three injuries he sustained in half a season last year – the 49ers would be on the hook for $14.5 million next season.
Everyone seems to be looking for tension in the organization regarding Kaepernick’s stance on the national anthem. If there is tension, it revolves around green – not red, white and blue.
The 49ers’ front office, theoretically at least, doesn’t want to gamble on Kaepernick getting injured again; Kelly wants him as an option.
So far, Kelly gotten his way, with Kaepernick the top backup for the Rams game and Sunday against Carolina. Kelly, however, hasn’t committed to that arrangement for the season and has left the organization some wiggle room by keeping Ponder on the roster.
The real test will be if Gabbert takes another big hit and has to miss a contest or more. Does Kaepernick start the following game?
Jed York, the team’s CEO, said the decision on which 49ers play on Sundays belongs to Kelly.
“Chip’s the head coach,” he said Monday. “ … The guys that are going to play and help us win in this game – that’s who Chip is going to put up. We’re here to win football games.”