SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- In an ideal world, the San Francisco 49ers would already have their franchise quarterback with no need for any sort of training camp competition to declare a starter.
If only Colin Kaepernick's stock hadn't come back to Earth so quickly after a meteoric rise. Or perhaps if Blaine Gabbert had performed so well during the second half of last season that he'd firmly planted himself atop the team's depth chart.
Alas, neither of those things happened and this training camp will be defined by the competition between Gabbert and Kaepernick for the most important job on the roster.
While many coaches around the league would shy away from openly acknowledging a quarterback competition, the 49ers and coach Chip Kelly have had no problem embracing the reality of the situation.
Kelly said Sunday that Kaepernick and Gabbert will split reps evenly in camp, including the 24 first-team snaps in the first practice of camp. He also made it clear there's no rush to make a decision.
“I think sometimes if you put a preconceived date on it, it’s not fair," Kelly said. "I’ve been in them before. Obviously, you’d like to get it done sooner rather than later. But, you don’t want to get it done sooner and then make the wrong decision.”
Indeed, the only thing worse than having such uncertainty at the game's most important position would be to expedite the process to the point that the wrong guy lands the job. Under normal circumstance, it would be best to identify the starter as soon as possible but the Niners' situation is unique.
Kelly has only been on the job for about six months, which means all he has to go on at this point is game tape and some light work in the spring. He hasn't even had a chance to see his team practice in full pads yet.
Complicating matters further, Kaepernick hasn't been fully healthy as he recovers from shoulder, thumb and knee injuries. Those ailments prevented Kelly from seeing Kaepernick in any live team practice settings until Sunday afternoon. Obviously, it'd be unfair to judge any player in a competition who hasn't actually played football in front of the people making the decision.
“I haven’t seen him full physically, but mentally, the one thing that impressed me was how sharp he was in staying on top of everything," Kelly said. "As I said, he was in every single meeting asking really, really intelligent questions. He seems like he picked things up fairly quickly. If you watched him, and anybody that was here in the spring time, he stood directly behind the quarterback, whoever was in, and took snaps and was getting mental reps and there was a lot of times where I probably had more interaction with Kap than I did with the other quarterbacks, because I’m back there talking to him. He was getting the mental reps out of it. He’s back, from a physical standpoint, he’s been cleared. We’ll see where he is from that standpoint, but mentally, he was really sharp in the spring and really impressed with him from that standpoint.”
From the outside looking in, Gabbert entered this camp as the presumptive favorite. He finished the 2015 season as the starter, showed some signs of promise in those games and spent most of the spring taking the reps with the first-team offensive while Kaepernick recovered. But Gabbert isn't taking anything for granted, either.
“I just go out there and have fun," Gabbert said. "You can’t worry about it. The best man’s going to get the job regardless. So, dwelling on that’s not going to do you any good. You prepare like you’re the starter. Go out there and play like you’re the starter and let your play take care of itself.”
So with Gabbert and Kaepernick prepared for an even split for the foreseeable future, what are the factors that will ultimately lead to a choice? Well, accuracy, decision-making and ball security would be a good place to start, especially within the context of an overall ability to execute Kelly's offense.
“I think, first and foremost, is who can move the team the best," Kelly said. "That’s what you’re always looking for. Which quarterback can handle what they’re doing and get the team in the end zone. Obviously, you have to protect the ball in doing that. So, we’re excited to see it. I think Kap did a great job in the offseason when he was limited, but whatever he could do, he did."
While much has been made of Kaepernick's speed and athleticism and what those attributes could yield in Kelly's offense, it's important to note that Nick Foles was his most successful NFL quarterback and he's not exactly a great athlete.
Not that it'd be a bad thing to add that element as a wrinkle, but Gabbert is a better athlete than he gets credit for, too.
“Yeah, this offense gives, I think, the best opportunity to every offensive player to make plays," Kaepernick said. "I think the scheme is great and puts players in the position to go out and make plays and have big plays at that.”
For now, the 49ers are wise to take a patient approach, let things play out and make an educated decision later rather than a hurried one sooner.
"The great part about it is I think we’re confident in both those guys," Kelly said. "It’s good to have two. In my three years before, we’ve had to play two quarterbacks every year. So, it’s a good situation to be in.”