Since the 2011 NFL Draft, quarterbacks Blaine Gabbert and Colin Kaepernick have traded places more dramatically than Dan Aykroyd and Eddie Murphy in a certain 1980s silver screen classic.
Their reversal of fortunes is a testament to an adage older than Randolph and Mortimer Duke: The same people you pass on your way up may be the same people you pass on your way down.
Collegiate scouts used to be infatuated with Gabbert’s combination of 6-foot-5 size and 4.6 40 speed. It was enough to get over their apprehension about his inexperience making pro-style reads. In two years, Gabbert slithered from 10th overall pick to underwhelming rookie to deserved scapegoat for a Jacksonville Jaguars offense that ranked last in the league. Tim Tebow was offered his job by the owner before his replacement, Chad Henne, superglued him to the bench. Last July, NFL.com ranked him as the NFL’s worst backup passer.
Around that same time, Kaepernick rocketed from 2nd-round project to raw pro. He was sacked seven times, picked off twice and registered a sub-.500 completion percentage in his preseason debut before emerging as an effective wildcat QB and eventual Super Bowl runner-up.
Chip Kelly’s arrival in San Francisco framed Gabbert as the foil in his redemption story. After Gabbert performed surgery on the Los Angeles Rams defense in Week 1, Kaepernick and his pregame headline may have been the red herring all along.
Gabbert’s 170-yard, 1 touchdown, turnover-free performance was subtly Alex Smith-like. Unlike his 354 turnover yards against the former St. Louis Rams in Week 17 of last season, he committed three fewer turnovers.
The happy feet and skittishness that made him the target of mockery in Jacksonville was replaced by poise and equanimity. The pocket didn’t have time to collapse around him. In two ticks or fewer, he was progressing through his reads and rifling low-risk passes to receivers running shallow routes.
At the conclusion of Week 1, Gabbert ranked 31st out of 32 quarterbacks in yards per attempt. When he couldn’t find an open receiver, Gabbert galloped up the middle for a trio of first downs.
It was only five years ago that Jim Harbaugh was hired to repair Smith, the 49ers’ erratic ex-No.1 overall pick. Things were so gloomy for Smith that on his way out San Francisco, Harbaugh’s predecessor, Mike Singletary, was asked about the most valuable lesson from his tenure.
He snapped back, “You gotta have a quarterback.”
Harbaugh arrived after molding University of San Diego quarterback Josh Johnson into a poor man’s Air McNair and was integral to Andrew Luck’s maturation into the most-hyped collegiate signal caller since Peyton Manning.
In his first game of the 2011 campaign, Smith dink and dunked his way to 124 yards and a single rushing touchdown. He ultimately achieved career highs in touchdown-to-interception ratio, yardage, completion percentage, started 16 games for the second time in his six-year career and led the league in interceptions per pass attempt.
The floor is lower for Gabbert. In Jacksonville, his defining play was a humiliating backwards pass (#ThrowbackThursday?) made under duress.
The 49ers waited six years for Smith to evolve from caretaker to a dual threat post-Tampa Bay Steve Young facsimile before his breakout season. Believing they’d found in Kaepernick a flame-throwing Randall Cunningham clone to pilot their Wright Brothers passing attack offense off the tarmac, they traded Smith to Kansas City, even though he completed 24 out of his final 26 passes as a starter.
You never know what you got until it’s gone. If Gabbert morphs into 2011-level Alex Smith, fans would be ecstatic. Though the chasm between bust and reputable starter is much wider for Gabbert than it was for Smith, he’s well on his way stylistically.
Gabbert’s degree of difficulty is exacerbated by the inferior offensive firepower compared to 2011. Expecting an Alex 2.0 is akin to simulating a second commercial airliner landing on the Hudson.
What matters is that, for the time being, Gabbert embodies the positive attributes of a Chip Kelly-programmed signal caller.
“You look at the ball he threw to Vance [McDonald] for the touchdown. He ripped that one in there.” Kelly said. “He threw a couple to Quinton Patton on the out route where we had some big plays when we needed to get some things generated. Again, first game in our system, understanding what he’s doing. First real live game. There were some real positives that we can build upon with him.”
Meanwhile, Kelly wants no part of the debate over Gabbert’s past life with the Jaguars ahead of a Week 2 showdown with Cam Newton and the Carolina Panthers on Sunday.
“Three years ago we weren’t around him, so I don’t really know what went on. Nor do we even talk about that,” Kelly said. “We just talk about his growth and development in what we’re doing, and I see him getting better.”
Of course, one start doesn’t make a career. Sustaining this level of discipline and execution is the goal. Gabbert will rarely have the benefit of nursing comfortable leads against a comatose opponent. The 49ers opponents carried over the highest combined 2015 winning percentage. They also play a quarter of their divisional games against Seattle and Arizona.
In Philadelphia, Kelly’s offense was a performance enhancer for quarterbacks Mark Sanchez and Nick Foles. Sanchez actually looked like a viable starter. Foles was a world-beater, throwing 40 touchdowns and 12 interceptions in 18 starts.
Gabbert reaching Smith’s tier could be a drug-induced hallucination spurred on by the haze originating from San Francisco’s legalized dispensaries. Yet, until proven otherwise, the pipe dream lives on.