Once it became clear that Colin Kaepernick would indeed be a San Francisco 49er in the 2016-2017 season, a large contingent of personalities from both print and television media cast him in the role of long shot for the starting quarterback position, and some insisted that it would not really be a competition at all. Not yet medically cleared to practice during mini-camps, Blaine Gabbert was placing a considerable amount of distance between Kaepernick and himself in the race for the job, or so the narrative went.
49ers Head Coach Chip Kelly, on the other hand, went out of his way to deny that Kaepernick had lost ground in the competition whenever the topic came up. He maintained that the "mental reps" that Kaepernick received while the other quarterbacks practiced were valuable. He even explained that he spent more time speaking directly to Kaepernick than the other quarterbacks as a result of him being unable to practice.
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When Kaepernick was medically cleared in time for training camp, the battle began in earnest. During the first week, the daily reports from media members revealed that the competition was mostly even, but seemed to suggest that Kaepernick was looking better than Gabbert, even if only slightly. It wasn't until the last practice before the scrimmage against the Houston Texans that Kaepernick had what was described as a bad day by all of the reporters in attendance.
We all know what happened after that: Kaepernick was shut down due to soreness in his throwing shoulder. After that final practice on Wednesday, August 10th, Kaepernick did not practice again until Monday, August 22, roughly a week and a half later. During that time, there was once again a deafening chorus of onlookers declaring that the competition was over. By their logic, how could Kaepernick catch up when he was so far behind in the race?
That's perception. Here's reality. The quarterback competition is exactly that: a competition. It is not a race. For whatever reason, many interested observers are describing it as if it is a literal race. They're looking at it as if it were a 1600 meter race and Kaepernick was sitting down while Gabbert ran the first 800 meters, and is now trying to catch up before Gabbert finishes the final 800 meters. Since when do quarterback competitions work that way?
The reality of the situation is that if Chip Kelly had predetermined that he wanted Blaine Gabbert as his starter, and was not considering Colin Kaepernick at all, he had no reason not to name Gabbert as the starter at this point already. In fact, Kaepernick's sore shoulder gave him the perfect excuse if he wanted one. Nobody, even Kaepernick himself, would have had much of an argument if Kelly announced Gabbert as the starter and cited Kaepernick's inactivity as the reason. Most people would have accepted that logic. Apparently he didn't want to use that as an excuse.
The reality of the situation is that Chip Kelly wants to see how Colin Kaepernick performs on the field during the preseason, which is what he's stated all along. The error that many people are making in the way they are viewing this competition is assuming that Chip Kelly is basing his decision solely on what happens during this preseason. So by that logic, Gabbert has already played two games, and there's only one meaningful game left, so the competition must be over. Chip Kelly has watched every snap of both Kaepernick's and Gabbert's careers on film. He's been with both of them in the meeting room for an equal amount of time. Although he's seen more of Gabbert on the practice field, he has seen them both. It's illogical to believe that he's not taking both quarterbacks' entire bodies of work into consideration.
Blaine Gabbert could very well end up being named the starting quarterback of the 49ers, but if he does, it will be because Chip Kelly thinks he would put up more points than Kaepernick would, and give them the best chance to win games. It's not going to be because Gabbert jumped out to some fictional early lead like the hare vs. the tortoise. It's also not going to be because Gabbert is supposedly well-liked by his teammates.
Colin Kaepernick doesn't have to come from behind in some hypothetical race to become the 49ers starting quarterback. He merely has to step onto the field and play football at a higher level than Gabbert has, and in the process, confirm Chip Kelly's opinion of him. Because the reality is, Chip Kelly has had every opportunity in the world to name Blaine Gabbert the starting quarterback so everyone could just get on with their lives. The fact that he hasn't done that speaks volumes about what he must be thinking.