Blaine Gabbert: first-round draft pick in 2011, NFL quarterback, 49ers starter ... preserver of jobs?
It wasn’t going to require much for Jim Tomsula to get a second year as coach and Trent Baalke to continue running the 49ers’ front office. The 49ers weren’t going to be quick to oust Baalke a year after he outlasted Jim Harbaugh. And the 49ers would be reluctant to boot Tomsula, the man they’d been daydreaming about since he was interim coach for one game in 2010, after just 16 games as Harbaugh’s replacement.
Still, the 49ers were so awful at the start of the season, it would have been hard to justify Tomsula and Baalke keeping their jobs. Now it seems the 49ers have become – what’s the best word to describe them – passable, decent, OK? And that probably will be enough.
They’re certainly not a winning ballclub, and they’re duking it out for third place in their division, not first. But they’re no longer getting annihilated, either. That may be paltry progress, but it is bound to be read as progress, nonetheless.
At least some of that is because Gabbert is making everyone around him look a little better.
An offensive line that allowed 3 1/2 sacks per game when Colin Kaepernick was quarterback has allowed two sacks per contest with Gabbert. He’s shown a knack for sidestepping the pass rush and is surprisingly averaging 7.4 yards per rushing attempt. Kaepernick averaged 5.7 yards when he took off out of the pocket.
7.4 Quarterback Blaine Gabbert’s average yards per rushing attempt
Tight end Vance McDonald, who seemed to be another offensive-player misfire for Baalke over the past 2 1/2 seasons, has been productive with Gabbert throwing to him. Running back Shaun Draughn has developed a rapport with Gabbert in the passing game and has made everyone forget how little production the 49ers received from free-agent acquisition Reggie Bush.
The defense has looked decidedly better, too, since it was hemorrhaging yards and touchdowns to the likes of Ben Roethlisberger and Carson Palmer early in the season. In the past two games, it held Palmer and Bears quarterback Jay Cutler to their lowest passer ratings of the season and allowed the 49ers to hang around at the end of each one.
Cutler and Gabbert had nearly identical stats in Sunday’s game. Gabbert was 18 of 32 for 196 yards, and Culter was 18 of 31 for 202 yards. The major difference: Gabbert threw one touchdown pass and no interceptions, while Culter threw no touchdown passes and had his one interception returned for a touchdown.
Of course, the job Gabbert has boosted the most is his own.
The 49ers quarterback is by no means setting the NFL ablaze. His 89.5 passer rating would rank 20th – tied with 40-year-old Indianapolis backup Matt Hasselbeck – if he had enough qualifying attempts. His 63.0 completion percentage also would rank 20th, and his 5-3 touchdown pass-to-interception ratio is mediocre.
89.5 Gabbert’s passer rating, which would rank 20th in the NFL if he had enough qualifying attempts
But he’s provided a level of consistency the 49ers lacked earlier this season, and – here’s the really important part – he’s due to make an ultra-affordable $2 million next season. If he continues his current level of play, he’ll unquestionably be around next season and likely will begin as the starter.
Some additional points, counterpoints:
▪ Baalke’s and Tomsula’s jobs seem safe, but offensive coordinator Geep Chryst’s still appears tenuous. Chryst wasn’t Tomsula’s first – or second or third – choice to run the offense, and the offense still is last in total yards and points. The 49ers nearly doubled their average with 26 points against the Bears on Sunday, but six of those points were scored by the defense and six more came in overtime.
▪ One intriguing figure is quarterbacks coach Steve Logan. If the 49ers overhaul their offense, will Logan be gone, too? Gabbert looked awful in the 2014 preseason but much improved the next year. Logan was added to the staff in that interim, and he’s also tight with Tomsula from their NFL Europe days.
▪ Every season has ups and downs. But in no season in recent memory has the mood swung as wildly as this one for the 49ers. Players were dancing and celebrating in the visiting locker room Sunday as if they’d won a playoff game. What will be the temperature in the room – and in CEO Jed York’s office – if they lose to a two-win Browns team this Sunday?