Colin Kaepernick is in and Blaine Gabbert is out as the 49ers’ starting quarterback, the reverse of the move the team made last year to jump-start its sluggish offense.
“I think offensively we need to be better and we need to just make a move,” coach Chip Kelly said Tuesday of his squad, which has lost four consecutive games and ranks 31st in passing yards per game. Only Sunday’s opponent, the Buffalo Bills, ranks lower.
“It’s really not … it’s not Blaine fault,” Kelly continued. “It’s really one of the only maneuvers we can make based on our depth, where we are and what we’re doing.”
The quarterback switch was made as Kaepernick is considering a contract restructuring that would remove his $14.5 million injury guarantee for next year and also allow him to opt out of the contract and to test free agency in March.
Kaepernick has not yet approved the new deal and, while acknowledging he is in discussions with the team, said he feels “no pressure” to sign it before Sunday’s game. Kelly, meanwhile, said the restructured deal was inconsequential to his choice. “It’s a football decision,” he said. “I don’t even know where his contract status is.”
Kaepernick, through his agents, asked to be traded in February and the 49ers nearly sent him to the Broncos before the deal fell apart in late March. Another group of agents have handled negotiations on the restructured deal.
Kaepernick’s 2015 season was the worst of his career. Just two seasons after leading the 49ers to the Super Bowl, Kaepernick completed only 59 percent of his passes, had a 78.5 passer rating and was relieved by Gabbert after a 2-6 start.
He was accused, by unnamed sources, of being detached and distant in the 49ers locker room. And after being pulled from the starting lineup, he had three surgeries – to his shoulder, knee and thumb.
Wide receiver Torrey Smith said Kaepernick seems more content and more engaged this year.
“I’d say he’s happier overall, so I think people tend to forget that’s a big part of it, just being happy and having fun and being loose,” Smith continued. “So I think he’s going to take advantage of his opportunities.”
Smith said the national anthem debate, which Kaepernick started in August and which has been controversial across the country, also has improved the communication in the 49ers locker room. Kaepernick and seven teammates have been protesting during the anthem ceremony to draw attention to racial injustice in this country.
Said Kaepernick when asked about his state of mind: “I think I’ve always been happy. But more than anything, I’m comfortable, I’m at peace with myself, with my relationships and with everything that’s going on with my life. So I think that reflects and I think that’s what (Smith is) referring to.”
Kaepernick missed a chunk of the summer session with arm fatigue, which allowed Gabbert to win the starting role without much of a battle. Kelly said that the arm issue hasn’t cropped up since August. “So knock on wood moving forward we won’t have any other issues with the arm,” he said.
Gabbert also has been the better quarterback in recent practices, Kelly has said, while Kaepernick still is regaining the physical ability he had before undergoing the recent surgeries.
Kaepernick said he’s concentrated more on regaining his strength than his weight, which was 225 pounds before the surgeries.
“Whether that means my weight’s higher or lower, I don’t think that’s a huge deal,” he said. “More so where my strength is at and I feel very comfortable with that.”
Gabbert’s practice-field performance hasn’t translated to games.
His passer rating (69.6), passing yards per game (178) and yards per pass attempt (5.93) all rank 30th or worse in the NFL. His completion percentage (58 percent) ranks 26th after five weeks.
“There’s always going to be throws you want back, always going to be decisions you want back,” Gabbert said. “I can honestly say I played hard, gave it my best shot. I wasn’t good enough. We didn’t win enough football games. We didn’t score enough points on the offensive side of the ball and that’s the way it goes. It’s a tough situation and coach Kelly had to make a call.”
Kaepernick, meanwhile, noted it’s been nearly a year since he’s thrown a pass in a regular-season game. He made an appearance at the end of the 49ers’ Week 1 win, but handed the ball off three times.
“I’m itching to get out there,” he said.