Before you ask: Coach Chip Kelly is not contemplating a quarterback change after the 49ers’ 24-17 loss Sunday to the Dallas Cowboys, their third consecutive defeat.
In fact, Kelly didn’t think starter Blaine Gabbert performed poorly at all.
“I thought Blaine played well today, to be honest with you,” Kelly said. “Besides that one throw.”
That one throw, however, was pivotal.
Trailing by four points in the fourth quarter, the 49ers (1-3) got a boost when Jeremy Kerley returned a punt 26 yards to the San Francisco 45-yard line. On the next play, wide receiver Torrey Smith was in his element -- running deep downfield and cruising past cornerback Morris Claiborne.
But instead of hitting Smith in stride for the touchdown, Gabbert’s pass was short and hung in the air, and Claiborne made an easy interception. The Cowboys then went on an 11-play, clock-grinding drive that ended with a field goal.
“That’s on me,” Gabbert said. “I’ve got to throw him to the middle of the field. I’ve got to throw him to the hash, and I just cut it a little too early and just missed him wide.”
Smith is by far the 49ers’ best and most experienced receiver. But for the second consecutive game, he was a non-factor. He and Gabbert connected only once, late in the fourth quarter, on a fourth-and-6 play. The reception gained just 3 yards, allowing the Cowboys (3-1) to take possession and run out the clock.
Gabbert, criticized for throwing short of the first-down marker last week against the Seattle Seahawks, didn’t seem to know just how far the 49ers were from a first down on the play.
“We came up a yard short,” he said. “That’s the way it goes. We’re 3 feet short and that’s a tough pill to swallow. We were driving there pretty good there on that last drive of the game and they just rallied to the ball.”
Those two plays doused what had been a hot start for Gabbert.
After going 0 for 10 on third-down conversions through three quarters against Seattle, Gabbert and his teammates began 7 for 7 in that category Sunday. One of those conversions was a 33-yard touchdown to Kerley. Another came on a 3-yard touchdown run by Carlos Hyde, who initially took a step forward, saw no openings in front of him, then scooted to his right and found a clear path to the end zone.
The 49ers were in control early, including on a third-down play late in the second quarter on which Cowboys rookie Dak Prescott seemed to be stopped for a sack.
Prescott didn’t go down easily, and when safety Jaquiski Tartt gave him a final shove, Tartt was flagged for unnecessary roughness. That gave the Cowboys a first down and marked a turning point.
Tartt said he didn’t hear a whistle blow the play dead.
“I just thought I’d finish the play off,” he said. “And they threw a flag and the rest is history.”
The Cowboys not only scored a touchdown on the drive, they scored all of their points after that play. Rookie Ezekiel Elliott had 23 rushing yards at that point. He finished with 138 yards, becoming the third consecutive running back to gain 100 yards or more against the 49ers.
After holding the Los Angeles Rams to 185 total yards in Week 1, San Francisco’s defense has given up more than 400 yards in the past three games, with Dallas producing 428. The unit also likely will be missing two stalwarts, linebacker NaVorro Bowman and lineman DeForest Buckner, who were injured in the second half.
Gabbert and the 49ers’ offense couldn’t muster much offense after the Cowboys seized momentum. He finished 16 of 23 for 196 yards with a respectable 91.9 passer rating. But he threw for only 87 yards in the final three quarters.
Smith was seen throwing his helmet on the sideline in frustration after the fourth-quarter interception. Similarly demonstrative scenes from Smith and from then-starting wide receiver Anquan Boldin last year preceded the 49ers replacing Colin Kaepernick with Gabbert.
“We were both frustrated,” Gabbert said. “I mean, that was a huge play in the game. Every game in the league comes down to one or two plays that change the outcome and that definitely had an impact on it, and that’s on me.”