Whoever said the most popular player on any football team is the backup quarterback obviously wasn’t paying attention to the 49ers’ last preseason.
Blaine Gabbert’s first outing in red and gold resulted in a 1.7 passer rating. He subsequently was booed during a public practice. He was booed during a home exhibition game. He was the player fans loved to loathe, and they spent last August worrying what would happen to their team’s Super Bowl aspirations if starting quarterback Colin Kaepernick got hurt.
Indeed, the typical rebuttal to speculation the 49ers would trade Kaepernick or otherwise part ways with him has been, “So who would be their starter? Blaine Gabbert?”
Despite that humble beginning, Gabbert not only is back this season but is more secure in his No. 2 role than he was a year ago. Last year’s preseason had Gabbert pitted against Josh Johnson and McLeod Bethel-Thompson for a backup spot, and some felt Johnson outplayed Gabbert.
This season, the only competition is Dylan Thompson, an undrafted rookie who will get mop-up snaps in the upcoming exhibition games. Even Gabbert’s $2 million salary is virtually the same as last year.
Why keep the status quo?
For one, experienced backups are rare, and Gabbert, selected 10th overall by Jacksonville in 2011, has started 27 games. He also has good chemistry with Kaepernick and – important to the design of the offense – has many of the same skills as the 49ers’ starter.
“This is something the average fan might not appreciate – Blaine Gabbert can run,” quarterbacks coach Steve Logan said. “He really can. He is a mobile quarterback. He is an explosive athlete. ... If need be, Blaine walks into the game, and (offensive coordinator) Geep (Chryst) doesn’t have to change his call sheet one whit. We just keep rolling. He’s a good fit. He’s a real good fit for what we’re putting together here.”
Gabbert’s coaches also say they’ve seen steady improvement throughout the offseason and training camp.
At one point, Logan wondered if the quarterback’s accuracy would be better if he took some heat off his passes. Gabbert has a career completion percentage of 53.2. The NFL’s best quarterbacks are well above 60 percent. Logan asked him to start throwing the ball at perhaps 85 percent maximum velocity, and his touch and accuracy have improved since.
“He’s embracing this idea,” Logan said. “The next big hurdle is, ‘Can you take this to the game?’ Because he’s doing it in practice.”
An example occurred Tuesday when Gabbert drifted to his left from the pocket and lofted an 18-yard pass that dropped just over the outstretched arm of linebacker Eli Harold – who stands 6-foot-3 and has a 33-inch reach – into the arms of tight end Vernon Davis. The pass had good velocity. But it also had excellent touch.
Logan called it a “five-star NFL throw” and said it was highlighted during the next team meeting.
Gabbert, meanwhile, said he appreciates that Chryst has sought feedback from him and Kaepernick while constructing the offense. One result: This year’s version has more rollouts that take advantage of the 49ers quarterbacks’ athleticism and ability to throw on the run. Those plays also take Gabbert out of the pocket, where he has struggled.
“He likes to see the game through the quarterback’s eyes,” Gabbert said. “And that’s the biggest thing with coach Logan and Geep – it’s fun to go into meetings with those guys. Because they value the input that we have on a specific play. Whether it be a run or a pass, they kind of want to know what we see and what our mindset is throughout that play.”
Taking snaps with the No. 2 offense in preseason is a thankless task. The quarterback typically throws to backup receivers and is protected by an offensive line that’s a hodgepodge of rookies, first-year players and undrafted free agents. Jim Tomsula on Thursday suggested that was largely to blame for Gabbert’s rough 2014 – “What was the cast around him?” he asked – and that Gabbert will be surrounded by more high-end parts this time through.
“Maybe not as much this weekend,” Tomsula said. “But Blaine Gabbert is going to be in a position with a cast around him that’ll look different.”
That is, those around Gabbert are anticipating a bounce-back – not boos – this preseason.
“I know we want to see Kap out there, but I think ... it’s going to be fun for (Gabbert) to play in these games,” Chryst said. “I’ll be really looking forward to him. Even though he’s been around, I think he wants to show the strides that he’s made.”