Almost three years to the day that he took over behind center, a 49ers quarterback not named Colin Kaepernick will start a regular season game this afternoon.
But if the offense doesn’t block and run the ball effectively against the Atlanta Falcons at Levi’s Stadium, it figures to be more of the same old. And it will attempt to do so with at least two other new starters.
Those are the long odds that await Blaine Gabbert, who will make his first regular-season start in more than two years. The promotion represents possibly his final chance to show that he can become more than a backup at this level.
“I think pressure is what you apply on yourself,” said Gabbert, whose role had been limited almost exclusively to the scout team this season. “You put it on yourself to succeed because you know you’re better than how you’re playing. You know you’re better than the way you’re performing. You put pressure on yourself to do better.”
Gabbert will take over a desperate offense that has scored more than one touchdown in only half of its eight games thus far.
Coordinator Geep Chryst traced the futility to an inability to run the ball consistently. In turn, that reduced the effectiveness of the play-action pass, especially in games in which the team fell behind early.
The 49ers haven’t totaled more 124 years on the ground since a 20-3 victory over the Minnesota Vikings in the regular-season opener, their most impressive performance to date.
“The vision that we had of what this offense would be and how we’d contribute to a victory was what we saw in the Minnesota game. And one by one, some of those elements — take Carlos Hyde, for example, which was a critical element — are no longer out there,” Chryst said.
If the run game is to take a step forward, it will do so without Hyde, whose 470 yards represents 58 percent of the team total. He will to sit out a second consecutive game because of a stress fracture in his right foot.
Early last week, free agents Shaun Draughn and Pierre Thomas were signed to fill the depleted backfield, but the veterans had only a few days to learn the system. Rookie Kendall Gaskins also was in the mix.
Either Garrett Celek or Vance McDonald was to start in place of Vernon Davis at tight end. Last week, Davis was sent to the Denver Broncos before the trade deadline.
“Obviously, Kendall has been here all the way through [the season], and we know who is he and what he’s about and the way he works and his intelligence and how good he is at those things,” coach Jim Tomsula said. “He’s a bigger, thicker guy, so he has done very well. And Thomas and Draughn, those guys [are] obviously vets. We’ve seen the play.”
Four years ago, the Jacksonville Jaguars targeted the quarterback position in a draft that lacked marquee names at the position. In a trade with the Washington Redskins, they moved up 10 spots to put themselves in position to select Gabbert at the 10th overall pick.
Gabbert and the Jaguars never did take the next step, however. He completed 53.3 percent of his passes with 22 touchdowns, 24 interceptions and a 66.4 rating before he was dealt to the 49ers last year.
Now 26, Gabbert likes to think that he has benefited from his time in Jacksonville despite the disappointments.
“It’s kind of a different situation here, being a veteran now,” Gabbert said. “But at the same time, pressure is on to prepare the right way, get all the looks in practice and just go out play well.
“Going into my fifth year, just the experiences I’ve had preparing for games, playing in games, starting in games, being a backup quarterback. It’s valuable over time to have those repetitions in practice and on the game field.”