Immediately after Chip Kelly was hired as the new head coach of the San Francisco 49ers, discussions sprang up throughout the media relating to the impact of this development on the career of Colin Kaepernick. National insiders claimed that Kaepernick's established status as a "dual threat" was a significant reason for Kelly to take the job. As analysts dug deeper into the X's and O's of Kelly's scheme and philosophy, the term, "repetitive accuracy," kept emerging stubbornly, and Kaepernick seemed like less of a slam dunk at QB for the 49ers.
Fast-forward to the start of training camp, where Blaine Gabbert is widely discussed as the front-runner to win the starting QB job. His locker room rapport, on-field leadership, better statistical accuracy (63% completions for Gabbert vs. 59% for Kaepernick in 2015), and underrated athleticism have many currently granting him an edge over Kaepernick in this competition. Is that opinion justified? Is Gabbert's apparently superior performance in 2015 indicative of a better fit for Kelly's offense in 2016? We will look at four significant aspects of Chip Kelly's offense that demand the most involvement from the quarterback position, and attempt to determine Gabbert's opportunities for success within this scheme. The format will be the same as the analysis for Colin Kaepernick, which can be seen HERE.
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When I mention that Blaine Gabbert has underrated athleticism, I mean the man can run. His 4.62 second 40-yard dash is less than a tenth of a second slower than Kaepernick's, and he actually outperformed Kaepernick on other lower body explosion tests, such as the broad jump and vertical leap. Combined with Gabbert's comparatively shorter stride length, he likely has less top end speed than Kaepernick, but better ability to change direction while maintaining his speed.
What exactly does this mean in relation to Gabbert's ability to run the zone read? Not much, actually—at least not by itself. Nick Foles was able to keep defenses off balance with the zone read, and he is not an impressive athlete in any way. The zone read does not require elite athleticism by a quarterback. It requires "contact courage" (a term that may have been coined by Jim Harbaugh, indicating that a player will patiently perform his task with proper technique and focus, knowing a hit is coming) and split-second decision making. As the NFL continues to preach the philosophy that defending the zone read requires the backside edge defender to hit the QB as he executes his play fake, contact courage becomes more important, as does split-second decision making.
The zone read requires the quarterback to place the ball into the loose grasp of the RB on a zone path across the formation, while watching a backside defender (usually the backside defensive end, but it can also be the backside defensive tackle or the backside outside linebacker), who is left unblocked. If the targeted defender pursues a course to intercept the running back, the quarterback keeps the ball and runs on a different, predetermined path through the defense. If the defender stays wide to play the quarterback, the quarterback gives the ball to the running back, who has a numerical advantage on the front side of the play, because the quarterback is holding the backside defender in place without having to devote a blocker to him. This moment where the quarterback can give the ball to the running back or pull the ball to keep it is referred to as the "mesh." The mesh lasts for less than a second, and the quarterback must choose correctly to give or keep, in order for the play to have a chance to succeed.
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With NFL defensive coordinators stressing the importance of hitting the quarterback on zone read plays, the decision at the mesh must come more quickly, and it is a much more difficult read. Athletic edge defenders like Clay Matthews, Jr. have shown the lateral agility to dramatically change course in an instant, effectively defending both the give and the keep at the same time by closing distance with the mesh itself, rather than choosing to defend either the quarterback or the running back.
It is a widely accepted tenet within biomechanics and kinesiology that one is generally unable to perform a complex movement without conscious thought and direction until that movement has been performed 10,000 times. That belief might apply here. The ability to conduct the zone read properly, at full NFL speed, likely depends upon exhaustive repetition, which Blaine Gabbert does not have. His speed, agility, and size should allow him to gash defenses when he chooses correctly to keep the ball, and that threat may keep defenses honest enough to open lanes for the running backs. At this point, his decision at the mesh may involve little more than guessing, as the speed of NFL edge defenders might push him to dictate the direction of the ball before he is certain the defender has declared intent, to avoid being tackled at the mesh. His lack of significant previous exposure to zone reads (a limitation Kaepernick does not share), could result in hesitation, or simply slower processing of visual evidence and delayed decision making. That delay may not matter in games if he occasionally guesses right, and gains enough yards when he does so to force defenses to honor the QB run threat.
It doesn't seem fair to judge a quarterback on contact courage when he has never played behind a competent offensive line, but we are forced to judge only what we have seen. Gabbert has been hit a LOT since he entered the league, and his resulting tendency to accelerate his body clock in a muddied pocket (see: contact courage) has caused him to occasionally fail to see open receivers further down the field, as he gets the ball out early to avoid the rush. This same tendency could be a liability in executing a zone read. "Riding," or extending, the mesh is an effective way of making the edge defender's choice of running back or quarterback even more wrong, as they will be one step further long the incorrect path once the ball declares, creating a larger opening for the eventual ball carrier. Quarterbacks seeking to avoid hits will not generally ride the mesh.
A lot of the same characteristics that can indicate success within the zone read can affect outcomes within the run/pass option. The quarterback still makes the initial zone read at the mesh, and if the read is to give the ball to the running back, the run/pass option will play out identically to the zone read. In the most basic run/pass option, the quarterback has no option to run the ball himself, but will throw the ball immediately to an open flat route or bubble screen if his read at the mesh indicates that he should not hand the ball off.
A more complicated run/pass option, which was made famous by Chip Kelly at Oregon, is for the quarterback to have a second read after deciding to keep the ball. As the quarterback begins to run, he finds a designated second-level defender to read, which will indicate whether the quarterback will continue to run or throw the ball to a receiver vacated by that defender's over-pursuit of run support. These throws tend to be further up the field than the flat routes or bubble screens typically associated with basic run/pass options, and they tend to be up the seams or sidelines in the direction the quarterback is running. As with the zone read, this second decision must be made quickly and correctly, and the receiver can come even more open if the quarterback is willing to risk a big hit by bringing the defense in further before throwing the ball.
As with the zone read, I am concerned with Blaine Gabbert's lack of exposure to this type of play, and the likely delay that experience will elicit in his decision making speed, at least for now. The safest bet would be for him to run unless he is certain the pass is open, but that could slow the offense and expose him to unnecessary hits. Gabbert certainly possesses the ability to throw accurately on the move and deliver a catchable ball over defenders on this play, so I don't doubt that he can execute the play if he chooses correctly to throw the ball. Contact courage comes into play here, as well, as he could greatly hinder the effectiveness of the pass by getting the ball out too quickly, before the defense's reaction to the run read provides ample room for the receiver to run after the catch.
DROP BACK PASSING
Gabbert is considered the prohibitive favorite in this aspect of the offense, which seems fair given that he had the higher completion percentage, he took less sacks, and he threw for more yards. While he didn't always throw accurately enough to allow the receiver to continue running in stride and pick up additional yards after the catch (YAC), he did complete the passes, often under duress, and he moved well within the pocket to avoid pass rushers. His YAC numbers weren't poor, and while they could have been better than they were, they were better than Kaepernick's, which is a big deal in Chip Kelly's offense. Gabbert's comparatively quick and compact release also allows him a better opportunity to beat coverage quickly and give his receivers an extra step on the defense. Even when Gabbert throws poorly, he does so the right way, as he tends to throw short. Balls in the dirt are much more difficult to intercept than balls that hang in the air, so the possession is inherently protected more by a quarterback who throws short than one who throws long. The bigger issue is WHY Gabbert throws short.
Quarterbacks often throw high as a result of over-striding (taking too long of a step) into their throw, which can lock out their knee and send some of the force of the throw upward, instead of forward. Conversely, throwing short is often a result of under-striding, which can be an indication of throwing tentatively. That assumption often holds true with Gabbert. When he misses short, he is usually under pressure (or about to be under pressure), and he fails to step with adequate force and stride into his throw. Under-striding can protect a quarterback from injury (Brett Favre under-strode his way through a Hall of Fame career, even stepping backward as he threw at times), but he must compensate by throwing with added upper body force, which Gabbert hasn't done to date.
Chip Kelly rarely leaves in extra protection for his quarterbacks, as he prefers to get five receivers out into routes. In this way, the quarterback is responsible for protecting himself, by getting the ball to an open receiver before the pass rush gets home. This realization could speed up Gabbert's already fast body clock (the quarterback's internal sense of when his time is up in the pocket). Having a fast body clock in the pocket doesn't kill Gabbert's ability to succeed in Kelly's offense, especially if the open crossing routes are hit in stride and his passing numbers are bolstered by easy YAC. There will be deep routes that never develop because the ball is out short before those deep receivers come open, which could limit splash plays (20+ yards) that can break a game open. While we have seen Gabbert stare down the gun barrel (stay in the pocket to complete a deep pass, while absorbing a hit), he didn't do it often. NFL defenses seek to challenge offenses to sustain long, arduous drives in order to score, and early splash plays can open up opportunities in short and intermediate zones to sustain drives, allowing the offense to run more clock later in games.
There are essentially two types of play-action pass: bootlegs and drop back. Bootlegs refer to plays where the quarterback fakes the ball to the running back in one direction, with the offensive line on a blocking path to sell the run action, then reversing course and running behind the line and away from the run action to receivers who should beat the delayed coverage that overreacted to the run fake. I really like Gabbert here. He is athletic enough to threaten the edge on a bootleg or rollout, which can force flat defenders to choose between defending him as a run threat or staying in their zone to defend the passing threat. He has quick enough eyes to spot receivers uncovering, and he has enough zip on his pass to throw into the tight windows that develop as his path to the edge changes coverage angles.
Drop back play-action involves the quarterback executing a run fake, then dropping directly backward into what most closely resembles a traditional pocket. Because the quarterback must turn his back to the defense to sell the run fake, these routes tend to get further down the field before the quarterback reads the defense, so most of the routes are intermediate or deeper. I like this for Gabbert. He has never shown that he cannot throw deep, only that he tends to get the ball out before his receivers get deep. If the running game is effective, linebackers must react to the run fake, which opens up ample room between the linebackers and safeties for intermediate routes. That places strain on safeties to over commit to the intermediate crossing routes, so they stop giving away free first downs. That can open up deep posts (a Chip Kelly favorite) behind the safeties for splash plays. Because these plays don't feature several short routes, Gabbert would be required to push the ball down the field, which would be good for him, as long as he is comfortable doing so.
Blaine Gabbert is not yet the ideal quarterback for a Chip Kelly offense, but he could be. The physical tools are there. He can throw with velocity, touch, and accuracy. He can run, and he's big enough to absorb a hit. He has friends and followers in the locker room, and he dotes on the offensive line. His physical gifts could be enough to hold backside defenders in place and open running lanes in the zone read, but his inexperience running the zone read could result in some tackles for loss and unnecessarily big hits on him and the running backs. He also has confidence issues that result from years of physical punishment behind terrible offensive lines, and he's developed some bad mechanical habits as a result. If he can get his confidence back, push the ball down the field with authority, and step into his short and intermediate throws, he could be the athletic pocket passer this offense calls for. If not, he could be an effective game manager who moves the sticks and scores some points, but who limits the offense from ever becoming elite. He has a high floor and a high ceiling in this offense, but there's no telling whether he'll reach that ceiling.