Ailene Voisin

49ers add QB, but coach Chip Kelly still waiting for Kaepernick

Colin Kaepernick mainly a practice observer

The San Francisco 49ers were down to two healthy quarterbacks in practice on Tuesday, Aug. 16, 2016.
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The San Francisco 49ers were down to two healthy quarterbacks in practice on Tuesday, Aug. 16, 2016.

The quarterback intrigue intensified almost immediately after Chip Kelly was hired by the 49ers to replace one-and-done coach Jim Tomsula.

The market-savvy 49ers must have been tempted to start branding one of those popular plastic bracelets with the question unique to their unstable situation: WWCD (What Will Chip Do?). Would he stick with incumbent Blaine Gabbert, a supremely confident if unproven veteran who started the last eight games last season, or take another chance with the high-risk, high-reward Colin Kaepernick?

With backup Thad Lewis out for the season after tearing his ACL in Sunday’s preseason opener, the 49ers signed journeyman Christian Ponder to a one-year deal in a move that hints very strongly at a few things: (1) Kelly and his front office are deeply concerned about the state of the most important position in professional sports; (2) Kaepernick’s sore right shoulder might be more problematic than originally thought; and (3) we still don’t know if Kaepernick can adjust – much less thrive – in a new up-tempo offense that requires passing accuracy, the ability to read defenses quickly and work through progressions, and fast, occasionally fancy footwork.

That the 49ers held onto Kaepernick and his $11.9 million salary strongly suggests Kelly wanted to take a long, hard look at a player whose NFL career soared and plummeted in a remarkably short period. In some respects, the 49ers are holding on for dear life, for their upcoming season, for his career.

For all of the former Nevada standout’s obvious flaws – including the long, laborious windup in his throwing motion and his lack of polish in the locker room and media sessions – the uber-athletic 6-foot-4 Kaepernick still took the 49ers within one ill-advised, errant pass of a Super Bowl victory.

Gabbert hasn’t done that. Neither has Ponder. While Gabbert, 6-4 and 235 pounds, commands a huddle and very noticeably instills confidence within his teammates, his performance Sunday against the Houston Texans was a summary of his five-year career.

He missed on five of his first six passes, including two short attempts to Carlos Hyde, one behind the running back, the other badly overthrown. Yet in his final possession, Gabbert hit Bruce Ellington for six yards, scrambled for 13 yards, then set up in a no-huddle, shotgun formation and threw a strike on the right side to tight end Vance McDonald for a nifty catch-and-run touchdown.

Though Gabbert displayed arm strength, poise and nimble feet, Kelly sounded underwhelmed Monday.

“It was up and down in both Blaine and our first-team offense,” the coach said.

Kelly’s muddled quarterback situation remains in desperate need of some Spic ’n Span. Clarity about the lingering “tightness” in Kaepernick’s right shoulder would be a tidy place to start. His long-awaited duel with Gabbert, put on hold in the spring because of three offseason surgeries, was interrupted again last week when the one-time whiz kid was sidelined with right shoulder issues. For a third consecutive practice, the sixth-year pro Tuesday failed to throw a pass and was limited to handoffs, taking snaps, high-fiving teammates and stretching.

That the 49ers held onto Kaepernick and his $11.9 million salary strongly suggests Kelly wanted to take a long, hard look at a player whose NFL career soared and plummeted in a remarkably short period. In some respects, the 49ers are holding on for dear life, for their upcoming season, for his career.

The extent of the problem remains a mystery, and typical of many NFL teams, the 49ers continue to duck tough questions. Or avoid the easy questions, such as, “Did Kaepernick undergo an MRI?”

Late last week, Kelly said an MRI was unnecessary. After Kaepernick skipped consecutive practices and was held out of Sunday’s game, Kelly adhered to the company line, that the ailment is not perceived as a long-term issue. Yet he hedged when asked if that determination was made by an MRI.

“You can talk to Colin about what he does,” Kelly said after Sunday’s loss. “It’s up to him to talk about his full medical disclosure. It’s not fair for me to do that.”

Seriously, how tough is it to acknowledge an MRI? He had an MRI, or he didn’t. Since Kelly’s comments, it’s been learned Kaepernick did have an MRI.

Perhaps even more significantly, though, was Kelly’s refusal to acknowledge Gabbert as the likely starter for the regular-season opener based on his training camp performances and/or Kaepernick’s uncertain health.

Kelly clearly wants a fight, or at the least is hoping for a fight.

“I don’t look at it as a leg up (for Gabbert) because we’re going to judge them on their opportunities to get in there and go,” Kelly said, “So if Colin gets in there and does a great job when he gets in there, I’m not going to say, ‘Well, he didn’t get as many snaps as Blaine.’ It’s still going to be judged on who moves our offensive football team the best, who protects the football the best and gives us an opportunity to win games.’ Again, we’re going to take Colin day-to-day.”

But Kaepernick, 28, needs to get in the ring soon. Remember, the 49ers dumped surging Alex Smith. They have an influential new coach, but the same owner and general manager. They won’t wait forever.

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