You’d be a fool, of course, to just flip the narrative without more evidence. Blaine Gabbert forever may be buried as the definitive bust, best known for being taken one slot ahead of — wait for it — J.J. Watt in the 2011 NFL draft. But wouldn’t it be delightful if one of these times, a colossal career washout broke free of the stigmas, all those indelible stereotypes and pigeonholes, and finally realized at least some of his promise?
If for only one afternoon, in a half-empty stadium where a cool drizzle and gloomy skies finally made the imported Candlestick Park foghorn a sensible novelty, Gabbert reminded us why somebody somewhere once thought he’d be a successful pro. He produced the most efficient performance by a 49ers quarterback in a while, casting more aspersions upon Colin Kaepernick’s porous, skittish play with a suitable throwing-and-running-and-managing exhibition in a surprising 17-16 win over purportedly playoff-caliber Atlanta.
Hey, aren’t you the guy who was supposed to be the league’s worst QB, 5-22 as a starter and 0-10 since last winning in September 2012 for woeful Jacksonville?
“Hey, their opinions are their own. I know the way I play, my teammates know the way I play,” Gabbert said. “Everyone is entitled to their opinion. I don’t have to agree.”
The fact he doesn’t agree is what’s impressive. He refuses to let the noise define him, which also makes him rootable. “As soon as you lose that vision of not seeing yourself as a starting quarterback, you regress tremendously,” Gabbert said. “So throughout all the ups and downs and the early parts of my career, I just treated those as learning experiences, knowing that things will change and things will turn around as long as you put your best foot forward every day. Keep working, keep grinding through the tough times, and things will turn around.”
Now hear this: One good Gabbert game does not mean the 49ers have found a quarterback for the future. Nor does it mean general manager Trent Baalke and his scouts should abandon their through investigation of all future possibilities, including Cal’s Jared Goff. What it does mean is that Gabbert — in passing for 185 yards and two touchdowns, scrambling ably in critical junctures, avoiding sacks and throwing two interceptions that were neither embarrassing nor costly — bought himself some measure of future credibility in Santa Clara.
While making it even easier, in the offseason, to create a trade market for Kaepernick and possibly get more value for him than his deteriorating skill set warrants.
That is, assuming the 49ers don’t do something dumb after their bye week like reanointing Kaepernick as the starter. Although he simply may have been giddy and out of sorts after a victory that stops the torrential media and fan criticism directed at the franchise, coach Jim Tomsula refused to confirm Gabbert as the top dog on Nov. 22 in Seattle.
“Gabbert was our starter today. I don’t have a comment past that. OK?” Tomsula said. “We got a win today. I thought he did what he does in practice, I thought he did what he’s been doing and improving on since he got here.”
So if this is what Gabbert does behind the scenes — and now on the front lines — why not continue to use him and see if he progresses enough that he might compete for a starting job next season? What do the 49ers have to lose, right? When it’s clear that Kaepernick has regressed for two seasons, do Tomsula and offensive coordinator Geep Chryst — pardon me, Baalke and CEO Jed York — actually believe Kaepernick can reverse his performance level and help this team launch a winning streak? Are they in such denial that they think 2015 isn’t a lost cause? Why not stick with the hot hand and give Gabbert ample time to prove he really can make it in the league?
“I’m not gonna get into all of that,” Tomsula said. “Because I’m gonna go back and watch tape. Blaine had a great day today. I’ll talk about what a great job Blaine Gabbert did today and what a great job the team did today in getting a win.”
Today. But not necessarily the next game.
Oh. My. God.
Maybe Tomsula should consult with NaVorro Bowman, one of the team’s remaining respected leaders, about who should play in Seattle. Asked if the locker-room morale was helped by the change from Kaepernick to Gabbert, Bowman did not offer up the usual scripted public-relations blather. Rather, he threw himself into Gabbert’s corner. “We rallied around Blaine. He did a great job,” Bowman said. “It’s his confidence, just going out there and executing what the coaches ask him to do. His expectations came from his teammates more than the outside. He definitely led us. Hat’s off to him. I’m looking forward to what’s coming next. With Blaine coming in, we wanted to see if we could bring morale back into the bye week. The guys are excited now. We kind of set the bar, showed we can be a good team.”
Said receiver Bruce Ellington: “He was out there like, ‘Let’s do this, let’s get this, let’s keep moving the ball, let’s keep pounding.’ Just out there being a leader. It just shows he is ready to step in and be a leader and lead this team to win.”
After hearing those endorsements, the coaches actually would consider going back to Kaepernick? That would be cruel to everyone involved — players, fans, but mostly to Gabbert himself. Notice how upset he was when he was forced to the sideline for a quick concussion checkup, a requirement of NFL-enforced protocol? “Wow!” he said, incredulously, as Kaepernick grabbed his helmet and entered early in the fourth quarter. Oddly, some in the crowd cheered his return, but after two plays — one a pass that typically was a bit high for tight end Vance McDonald — Kap was back to the bench … where he belongs.
That gave Gabbert an appropriate chance to complete what he started. He did throw an interception that gave the sluggish Falcons a chance — again, Chryst targeted McDonald, who should not be summoned in big moments. But the 49ers were handed an early holiday gift by the Falcons’ rookie head coach, Dan Quinn, who, facing 4th-and-goal at the San Francisco 1 with 2:57 left, opted for a field goal that trimmed the lead to 17-16.
The opponents were challenging Gabbert to beat them. Quinn, in fact, had mouthed off at Gabbert earlier on the sideline, prompting 49ers receivers and linemen to fire back in a show of support. Gabbert got the last laugh, faking on 3rd-and-4 to one of the team’s neophyte running backs, Kendall Gaskins, and bootlegging around right end for a five-yard gain and a victory-clinching first down.
“It’s a great situation to be in,” Gabbert said. “Those pressure moments are why we play this game. Gets your adrenaline going a little bit. Our job as an offense is to go out there and secure the victory.”
It was apparent early, as some of us watched the end of the Raiders’ game on press-box TVs, that Gabbert wouldn’t be overwhelmed by the moment. While the demoted Kaepernick stood as close to the field as rules allowed, wearing his left glove and doing stretching exercises as if ready to enter, Gabbert rendered him unnecessary. There he was, rolling right and throwing a dart to Quinton Patton, who criss-crossed the field and danced for a 41-yard gain. There he was on the next play, bootlegging the other way for a 10-yard run. Then came a scramble toward the end zone, his knee landing inches short of the goal line. Undeterred, Gabbert executed a play-action fake and found Garrett Celek for the wide-open touchdown and a 7-3 lead 79 seconds into the second quarter.
The 49ers, somehow, did not relinquish the lead all day.
Turns out the league’s worst quarterback was anything but that.
“It was wonderful, I’m so appreciative of the opportunity,” Gabbert said. “I just wanted to have fun. You play well when you’re having fun.”
So we look forward to the team’s alleged braintrust, quite accomplished at spoiling fun, to not screw up this rare taste of joy. Give the fans Blaine Gabbert while, as it pertains to Kaepernick, the football world just gabs.
Jay Mariotti is sports director and lead sports columnist at the San Francisco Examiner. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read his website at jaymariotti.com.