It’s no fun being a draft bust. Usually, you drift off into obscurity, with the curses of a thousand fans as your exit music.
Improbably, Blaine Gabbert is starting to flip the script.
In four games, he’s completed 62 of 95 passes for four touchdowns and three interceptions and was at his most impressive Sunday against the Bears in San Francisco’s 26–20 overtime win. The Bears came into this game at Soldier Field all kinds of hot, with three wins in their last four games, including Jay Cutler’s first win at Lambeau Field on Thanksgiving. Offensive coordinator Adam Gase, who interviewed for the 49ers’ head coaching position that went to Jim Tomsula, and defensive coordinator Vic Fangio, who held that same position in San Francisco with great success from 2011 through 2014, had reason to want to clown the 49ers, but Gabbert prevented that from happening.
A 49ers offense that had not converted a third down since before Thanksgiving started out slow in this contest, but at the end of the game, everything seemed to come together—just as it started to fall apart for Fangio’s defense. Gabbert tied the game at 20–20 with a 44-yard touchdown run with 1:42 left in regulation, showing all the mobility he once displayed in Missouri’s rolling-to-pass offense. Safety Adrian Amos took a horrible angle as the last line of defense, and Gabbert shook Amos out of his shoes on his way to the end zone.
And then, after Bears kicker Robbie Gould missed a 35-yard field goal at the end of regulation that would have kept Chicago’s hot streak going, Gabbert torched the Bears’ blown coverage with a 71-yard bomb to speed receiver Torrey Smith to win the game. The 49ers just barely remain in playoff contention at this point, but the postseason should not really be a concern. Everybody knew this would be a rebuilding year in the Bay Area, and San Francisco’s recent front-office upheavals prove this to be the case. Now, however, the 49ers have an interesting decision to make regarding the future of the quarterback position.
Selected 10th by the Jaguars in the 2011 draft, Gabbert spent a couple seasons as a pretty decent quarterback on a completely nondescript rebuilding team before everything fell apart. In 2013, he threw just one touchdown pass to seven interceptions in three games and was barely heard from again in Jacksonville. He was traded to the 49ers for a sixth-round pick before the 2014 season, when San Francisco was seen at that time as a Super Bowl contender with a long-term starter in Colin Kaepernick.
How quickly things turned. The 49ers, of course, went through perhaps the most drastic off-season player and coach purge ever in 2015. Kaepernick was grossly ineffective before he was benched and then placed on injured reserve in November, and now, the team is investigating the possibility of trading him. Gabbert, who completed three passes in seven attempts for San Francisco in 2014, was then put in the crosshairs for the remainder of the 2015 season. It was thought to be a desperation move for a team whose season was over before it began, but Gabbert has outperformed that desperation label.
Rebuilding teams need all the cap room they can get, and Kaepernick’s current contract is pretty onerous in that regard. According to overthecap.com, Kaepernick’s contract holds a 2016 cap hit of $15,890,753, by far the highest on the team. Gabbert’s 2016 cap hit, on the other hand, is $2.25 million. Watching Gabbert complete 18 of 32 passes for 196 yards and that game-winning touchdown, and adding in the sum total of his 2015 efforts, it’s difficult to look at Kaepernick as the more valuable player between them.
So, as the 49ers evaluate their future quarterback position, the question stands: What’s been the reason for Gabbert's resurgence?
“Blaine can play. I’ve been saying that since day one,” said Torrey Smith after Sunday’s upset. “I don’t think people believe in his athleticism. He can run too. Obviously, everyone saw that. Folks were probably shocked. I’m happy for him. He’s doing a great job of moving the chains. Making plays with his feet. We always feel like no matter what the score is whether we’re up or down, we’re able to make the play with him back there. He’s doing a great job.”
Nobody knows at this point whether Blaine Gabbert can beat the bust label for good. But it’s pretty impressive—and entirely unexpected—that he has it on the run.