SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- Blaine Gabbert already had the advantage in the San Francisco 49ers quarterback competition when it came to repetitions. You could also put a check next to Gabbert's name when it came to production. Now, with one meaningless preseason game and a couple weeks of practice before the season opener, time is also on Gabbert's side.
Niners quarterback Colin Kaepernick made his preseason debut in Friday night's 21-10 loss to the Green Bay Packers. In an exhibition season in which Kaepernick missed two preseason contests and nearly two weeks of practice, Kaepernick's body of work paled in comparison to Gabbert's. The prevailing outside sentiment entering Friday's game was that Kaepernick could still theoretically win the job, but he would need a big performance against the Packers to have a chance.
As you'd expect for someone playing in his first live NFL game since Nov. 8, Kaepernick couldn't muster the magic needed to get back in the mix. In just one quarter, Kaepernick was 2-of-6 for 14 yards passing with four carries for 18 yards. When Kaepernick was at the helm, the Niners managed just one first down.
Kaepernick said he didn't feel rusty getting back on the field but acknowledged that it had been a long time since he'd done so. Despite the lack of production and the fact that he doesn't have many opportunities left to make a statement, Kaepernick said he believes he can still take the spot atop the depth chart.
“Yeah, I think so," Kaepernick said. "That’s really up to (coach) Chip (Kelly) and the coaching staff, but in my mind I can go out and win it."
But the reality is, barring an injury or some other unforeseen circumstance, Kaepernick probably can't win it. Kelly wasn't in the mood to name a starting quarterback immediately after the game -- saying, “we’ll sit down as a staff and kind of see where we are" -- but it won't be long before he has to.
Gabbert has a clear advantage over Kaepernick in just about every imaginable category with less than a week left in the preseason. No, Gabbert hasn't been overwhelming in his time with the starters in the preseason games, but he has gotten better every time he's been on the field.
On Friday, Gabbert only played two series, going 2-of-3 for 14 yards and rushing twice for 15 yards. He led San Francisco's lone touchdown drive on the offense's second possession.
Through three preseason games, Gabbert is 12-of-22 for 146 yards and a touchdown for a passer rating of 90.3. Perhaps just as important, Gabbert hasn't thrown an interception or been sacked in any of those appearances. For an offense that emphasizes consistent accuracy and decision making, Gabbert has been OK in the first (he missed on a deep ball to receiver Quinton Patton for his lone incompletion Friday) and excellent on the second.
The 49ers offense has been up and down with Gabbert at the controls, but it has scored three touchdowns on eight series with him in the game. That's a ratio the Niners would gladly accept during the regular season.
“We’ve scored points when I’ve been in there," Gabbert said. "It’s just one of those deals. It’s the preseason. So, you’re not going to play the entire game and you just try to make the most of the opportunity and the plays when you’re in there. But, for the most part, the ball’s been delivered on time. We’ve been inconsistent at times, but we’ve kind of gotten a little picture of what we can do when we’re in a rhythm. Just trying to get better from here on out.”
It remains to be seen what here on out will mean for Gabbert. Starters generally don't play in the fourth preseason game, and the Niners might not want to risk Gabbert's health as they begin to look toward the Sept. 12 opener against the Rams.
Given the constraints of Kaepernick's recovery from injuries, Kelly has attempted to be as fair as possible with the quarterback competition. When Gabbert and Kaepernick have been healthy, Kelly has been true to his word and split the reps between them. He did so again Friday night and left his other starters in with Kaepernick when he entered.
Even if Kelly gives Kaepernick an extended look against the Chargers and Kaepernick posts big numbers, it's still unlikely to mean much since San Diego probably won't play its starters more just so the Niners can better assess their quarterbacks.
“I think next game we have to be more productive, put points on the board," Kaepernick said. "Ultimately, that’s what you want to do as an offense and as a quarterback. So, I think that will be a big thing for next week.”
Ultimately, the best thing for all parties might be to have Gabbert start anyway. He's had a lot more snaps than Kaepernick in Kelly's fast-break offense, and Kaepernick is still rounding back into shape. The chance to sit on the bench, continue to learn the offense and get back to 100 percent might not be the worst thing for Kaepernick. And naming Gabbert the starter sooner rather than later would give the Niners offense a chance to get some cohesion before the real games start.
After Friday's game, someone mentioned to Gabbert that he'd ended each of his three preseason appearances with a touchdown drive.
"You just want to get into the flow of the game," Gabbert said. "And all quarterbacks are competitive. You don’t want to have to come out, especially after scoring a touchdown. But that’s what the preseason’s for. Everybody gets reps and it’s nice to end on a touchdown, but being a competitor you want to stay out there as long as possible.”
Soon enough, that should no longer be an issue.