SANTA CLARA — In a matter of days, we’ll find out what’s more important to Chip Kelly and the 49ers: Trying to find a better solution at quarterback in 2016, or saving $14.5 million in cap space for 2017.
And it’s anybody’s best guess as to whether Blaine Gabbert or Colin Kaepernick will start next week against the Buffalo Bills.
As they say, the film doesn’t lie. Gabbert turned in another appalling performance. He missed more wide open receivers, tossed two interceptions and was booed from the first quarter to the fourth. Fans and 49ers players, especially Torrey Smith, are getting fed up.
For the first time, Kelly finally did put Gabbert’s starting quarterback position into question, saying the coaching staff will take time to evaluate the entire offense. The head coach has every right to bench Gabbert, something I’ve been writing for weeks. The 49ers do not owe him playing time. He is not a young draft pick who is going to play through the struggles. This is who Blaine Gabbert is.
But sadly, Kelly has reasons to stick with Gabbert. There are long and short term ramifications.
A) Kelly told the media that Gabbert has been outperforming Colin Kaepernick in practice — a frightening thought.
B) More importantly, the 49ers will owe Kaepernick $14.5 million if he’s not able to pass a physical next April. One freak sack and he could tear a ligament. This 49ers team is already such a wreck, especially on defense, and Kelly can argue privately that the financial backlash is just not worth the risk. On a night where the offensive line allowed seven sacks, those in Kelly’s coaching staff who support playing Gabbert can lean on that argument, too.
One thing to consider that would help Kaepernick get onto the field: the 49ers already have the second most cap space heading into the 2017 offseason, an estimated $49.5 million according to Spotrac. The 49ers don’t have any marquee free agents to re-sign, unless you count Vance McDonald and Ian Williams as integral pieces. A $14.5 million cap hit wouldn’t be devastating, but if you lose that amount of money sorting through quarterbacks who aren’t the long term answer, that’s the sign of a franchise who has no idea what they are doing.
That’s the tricky part here. Kelly could lose the team if he continues to let Gabbert see the field. But if Kaepernick gets injured, he’ll look like a fool. He’s really in a lose-lose situation, setup by none other than GM Trent Baalke. Do you think this problem would exist if Dak Prescott or some other young quarterback was on the roster? Absolutely not.
Obviously, we have no idea if Kaepernick can perform at a higher level than Gabbert — but that’s exactly the argument to play him. If Kaepernick does start against Buffalo, throws two interceptions and doesn’t move the offense, at least we’ll have seen it with our eyes. If Kaepernick miraculously plays well, Kelly looks like the genius.
When questioned two weeks ago, Kelly has said Kaepernick is not the same quarterback he was in 2013 — but 49ers fans and Kap himself probably recognize this. People are ready for any type of change to spark the offense, as long as it’s not Gabbert. If Kelly is treating the entire 2015 season under Jim Tomsula as a do-over, Kaepernick should be working with a cleaner slate than people realize.
Kelly did want to make one thing clear: the quarterback choice will be his, and not GM Trent Baalke’s.
“Any decision that’s made with the current roster is a coaching staff thing,” Kelly said. “Trent has never come in and said this guy has to play, or that guy has to play. Trent does a great job of acquiring talent and getting players on this football team. But he’s never once told me who has to play where. Or what the lineup is and all that.”
Grab your popcorn, 49ers fans. This team may be irrelevant on the field, but the drama off of it is just getting started.