This 49ers season, with the new coach, the new up-tempo offense and the new hopes, is really about a not-so-new quarterback.
Defense wins in football. That’s understood. But you’d better have a QB, someone experienced, quick on his feet, quicker in his thinking and most of all in the NFL these days quick getting the ball to a receiver.
The man who best fit that description, if not perfectly, was Blaine Gabbert, perhaps because for one reason or another, especially health, nobody else came close.
The Niners’ preseason game Sunday afternoon at a poorly attended Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara (were there 30,000 fans?) was supposed to give us, as well as the new head man, Chip Kelly, a chance to compare Gabbert, the starter at the end of 2015, with Colin Kaepernick, the starter at the beginning of 2015.
But while Gabbert did open and was in for the Niners’ first 19 offensive plays of a game the Houston Texans eventually would win, 24-13, Kaepernick didn’t even get into his uniform, sitting out because of tightness in his throwing shoulder that kept him out of practice Thursday and Friday.
So after Gabbert, whose performance (missed passes early on, nifty 43-yards pass-run touchdown to Vance McDonald) was described by Kelly as “up and down,” in came Thad Lewis, who has been with seven teams in six years. Then Lewis went out with an injury.
Kelly was brought in to give life to a Niner franchise that in the 2015 season under Jim Tomsula was boring if not completely lifeless. And, of course, in the process to find out who the quarterback would be.
“With Colin, it’s a day-to-day thing,” said Kelly of Kaepernick’s sore shoulder. “It wouldn’t have been fair to use him.”
While some, notably the media, have decided no matter Kaepernick’s health, the position is Gabbert’s, Kelly said, “If Colin does a good job when he gets in, we’ll see what happens.”
The Niners, after a couple of inaccurate throws, did move the ball. And two lost fumbles, the first by Carlos Hyde returned 41 yards for a score by Houston’s John Simon, cannot be charged to Gabbert.
One never knows what to make of statistics in an exhibition game, but San Francisco did have 409 yards in offense — that Kelly formula can be effective — and Gabbert was 4-of-10 for 63 yards and the TD. Mike Davis, at running back, gained 72 yards on five carries.
“There were some real positives,” said Gabbert.
Which is the way a team has to look at its first game in a new system. Is anyone going to say they wished Tomsula still were in charge?
Asked what he thought of Kelly’s rapid fire style, that critics says wears down the offense as much as the defense, Gabbert said, “It was great. You kind of saw what we can do when we get rolling as a unit. We can put pressure on the defense. ”
That won’t be for a while. But Kelly, who was successful at the University of Oregon and then not so successful with the Philadelphia Eagles, seemed pleasantly upbeat. He does understand the game and the players on his team.
“I thought the ball that Blaine threw to McDonald was outstanding,” said the coach. “I thought Mike Davis ran the ball real well.”
In a way it’s a shame so few were in house to see that. But preseason games in mid-August — when the temperature is high, even at a 4 p.m. start, people are on vacation and the Niners are coming off a 5-11 season — don’t bring in the fans, even when some tickets were available at resale for as cheaply as $12.
The Niners have to prove they’re on the way back. And to prove they have reliable quarterback. The task will not be easy.
Art Spander has been covering Bay Area sports since 1965 and also writes on www.artspander.com and www.realclearsports.com. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.