ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — This is not what any 49er fan had in mind a year ago: San Francisco head coach Chip Kelly sidling up to presumptive starting quarterback Blaine Gabbert at a combined practice between the Niners and the Broncos, with Colin Kaepernick watching from the back.
Man, things change fast in the NFL. Kelly, back out west. Gabbert, on the verge of winning the starting job. Kaepernick, with a sore arm (temporarily) unable to compete for it till this point in camp. “I’m fine,” Kaepernick told me. “Just following doctor’s orders.”
This is another story for another day, but an NFC West veteran asked me at one camp this summer: “God, whatever happened to Kaepernick? That’s a book right there.”
This was a strange scene here this week, for several reasons. Kaepernick basically watching the throwing portions of practices for one. Then, after practice on Wednesday, signing autographs for Denver fans and hearing from them about not being the Broncos’ quarterback. He, of course, would have been dealt to Denver had he been willing to take a pay cut. He wasn’t, so the deal died. “Kaepernick!” one kid said, as reported by Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee. “Why couldn’t you come to Denver?”
Kelly isn’t going to have Kaepernick throwing, essentially, till a few days before the third preseason game. That’s hardly enough time for him to beat out Gabbert, at least to start the season. I’m not sure Kaepernick would have much chance to succeed early on anyway. No offense in the league will have as tough a September as the 49ers’. San Francisco opens against the Rams and their outstanding front, then play two straight on the road—at Carolina, for the defending NFC champs’ home opener, and at Seattle. Two roadies against the defenses that finished third and second, respectively, in yards per play allowed last season, and sixth and first in scoring defense.
All Kelly can do is go by what he sees. And what he’s seen for three weeks is Gabbert adapting to his offense fairly well—he’s not the athlete Kaepernick is, but he’s still able to do the mobile things that Kelly wants. Much of the offense was installed in offseason OTAs and classroom sessions, so Kaepernick participated fully there.
“We have to evaluate them on what you have,” Kelly said after the Thursday practice. “We anticipate getting Kaep back early on next week, and we’ll see how it plays itself out. But he’s been great in everything that he did up until he got hurt and everything he has done since then. He’s on top of things, he’s sharp, he makes good decisions, and mirrors the [other] quarterbacks in every play he is not in. He is totally invested in the playbook and the team. Just unfortunately, his arm is a little sore. So we’ll get him back next week and see how this thing goes.”
It’s no secret where Gabbert has struggled. He simply wasn’t accurate enough in Jacksonville (27 starts, 53.3% completion rate) or in San Francisco—though he did make some progress last year, completing 63% of throws in eight starts with the Niners. Now, in Kelly’s fast-paced offense, it’ll be a lot of processing on the go.
Walking to the bus after practice on Thursday, Gabbert stopped and effervesced on being Kelly’s triggerman. You can sense that he thinks he’s in the perfect place after five extremely bumpy years of prep for this moment.
“I think the ups and downs that I had early on in my career as a young quarterback—nothing really ever went smoothly—have taught me to just keep my eyes on the process,” Gabbert says. “Think of the next throw. Don’t think about the stuff that can’t help you. What happened in Jacksonville helped me grow as a player and a person, and I wouldn’t change any of it.
“Chip puts a lot on a quarterback’s plate and he expects us to distribute the ball and be accurate with the football and efficient with the football, and that is all you really want from a head coach. He puts all the trust in you to go out there and make plays, play fun football. And this is such a fun system to be in because of all the things that we have going on. Throwing the ball, running the ball, making reads, making checks. It’s fun and he brings that mindset to work every day. It is conveyed in his messages in the team. They just want you to go out and have fun. It’s sports; it should be fun. The music that we have at practice and the tempo that we play at, the level of execution that they expect from the players, it’s been a true fun experience.”
Watching Gabbert for a couple of series against Denver, he seemed confident in what he’s doing. I saw no tentative plays. But that’s just from a snapshot in one practice. There are few players with negative touchdown-to-interception ratios in the league in recent years, but Gabbert has one (minus-two) in limited play over the last three years. He won’t last long in Kelly’s system making errors. But from the looks of it now, he’s the favorite to get the first shot out of the box on opening night in Santa Clara.
Five Things I Thought About the Niners
1. The Niners’ offensive line looked good against Denver’s defensive front, but except for Shane Ray, most of the Broncos rushing were lesser lights. Left tackle Joe Staley’s been the leader of the offense all around, and Kelly can’t say enough good things about him.
2. Two years off his devastating knee injury, NaVorro Bowman looks good running around, running side to side particularly. He was a 4.49-in-the-40 guy at his peak coming out of Penn State, and I asked him what he’d run today. “A 4.5,” he said. “I can’t believe how good I feel.”
3. What a young team overall. Joe Staley, Antoine Bethea, Torrey Smith, Bowman … and then potentially 11 starters drafted in the last three years.
4. Major injuries at receiver, and an ankle sprain to slot receiver Bruce Ellington last weekend, might open a spot for a star from last year’s camp, Alabama undrafted free-agent DeAndrew White, to make an impact.
5. Kelly seems happier here. Not that I found him miserable in Philadelphia, but you can tell he trusts Trent Baalke more than he did Howie Roseman and his Eagles’ personnel staff. He raves about the support staff, too. I’ll always think the Eagles pulled the plug too soon, and Kelly has an extremely difficult job making a good offense out of the elements he has here. But I think given his druthers, he’d rather be in San Francisco than Philly.
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