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Dennis Wierzbicki-USA TODAY Sports

Should Gabbert be Favored to Win the Quarterback Competition?

Aug 3, 2016 at 7:12 AM14

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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.


Dennis Wierzbicki-USA TODAY Sports

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.

RELATED How Does Kaepernick REALLY Fit in Chip Kelly's Offense?

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.


Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

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.


Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

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.


Scott R. Galvin-USA TODAY Sports

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.


  • What do you think Blaine Gabbert's role will be with the 49ers this year?
  • Backup for all 16 games
  • Start all 16 games, establish status as the franchise QB
  • Start in week 1 and lose the starting job during the season
  • Lose QB competition to start week 1, take over starting QB role during the season
  • Start all 16 games as a placeholder, allowed to leave via Free Agency after the season
  • 269 votes
The opinions within this article are those of the writer and, while just as important, are not necessarily those of the site as a whole.


  • Scott
    Wow. This is a fantastic breakdown. Thank you for the great read. I remember reading that Kelly favors accuracy over mobility. Is Gabbert really more accurate or was 2015 an anomaly for Kap? If you throw 2015 out, how do they compare?
    Aug 3, 2016 at 10:40 PM
    Response: In 2012-2013, when Kaepernick played behind a competent OL, he was on if the better deep ball throwers in the NFL, but he struggled taking velocity off of short passes and hitting receivers in stride for YAC on short routes. Gabbert is more accurate in short passes, but he hasn't historically been a confident passer down the field. 2015 was a down year for Kap's completion %. Gabbert's 2015 completion % was higher than his career average.
  • Drew
    Basing the titles of your articles off of the biased media reports is smart. Good choice. I won't sink to giving you unwanted advice.
    Aug 3, 2016 at 3:46 PM
    Response: I feel you might be unclear in the meaning and function of the question marks in the titles (they look like this: ?) Read the article yet? No? Still commenting? Yup? Fascinating.
  • Drew
    So he tells me to read the Kap "companion" article. Haha. No. There's obvious bias in the two titles alone. Not reading either.
    Aug 3, 2016 at 2:56 PM
    Response: You haven't read either article, but you've commented twice on this one? The titles are based upon mass media reports out of camp that state Kap is a poor fit (I don't agree) & Blaine has the inside track (I don't agree). Brief summary: both have the tools to succeed in this scheme; both need to prove it. Brief advice: commenting on articles you don't read makes you look foolish.
  • Kendrick Wells
    Wow, writers actually exist! Great read, no hate. I think this article was informative and thought provoking. He allowed the reader to ask his own question without bias.
    Aug 3, 2016 at 2:31 PM
  • Levy
    Drew, you obviously didn't read his examination of Kaepernick, which was just as in-depth as this piece. I think Aaron is being fair to both parties in his analysis. Good analysis too.
    Aug 3, 2016 at 11:54 AM
    Response: Thank you Levy. There is a link to the Kap article in this article.
  • Drew
    Nothing to see here folks. Just another writer/press guy who's a Gabbert fanboy. ugh
    Aug 3, 2016 at 11:47 AM
    Response: Please read the Kaepernick article that was written as a companion to this one .
  • Nick
    Yes I mean a potential franchise QB in the early rounds. Agree that Goff went too early...
    Aug 3, 2016 at 11:13 AM
  • Joseph Pearlman
    Most voters think Gabbert will be a backup all season. Who are they going to bring in to be the starter?
    Aug 3, 2016 at 11:09 AM
    Response: Judging from the votes in the Kaepernick article, many of the fans who voted that Blaine would be the backup believe that Kap is likely to start all 16 games this year and re-establish himself as the franchise QB.
  • Nick
    l for one have seen enough of Kap and have zero confidence in him leading my beloved team. As a long time faithful damn right I can bash him all I want. I agree with this well written article even though we should have drafted QB at the draft.
    Aug 3, 2016 at 10:26 AM
    Response: Jeff Driskel? If you mean you wanted the position addressed earlier, that's fair. I thought Goff, Wentz, Prescott, and Driskel were the best fits for Chip, and two of those went WAAAAAAAAY too early.
  • mbniner
    I won't make to much of a statement on the article since at this point it's all conjecture. I will say that it is true that he became gun shy in Jacksonville behind that horrible OL (who wouldn't!). Kaep also was gun shy last year for the same reason, and went completely over the edge in the Arizona game. But Gabbert looked very courageous in his starts at the end of last season with a very bad OL. The things that he has in spades is quick decision making and an accurate arm. Both he and Kaep are fast and possess strong arms. Both have leadership qualities, although quite different in personalities. We are blessed with two NFL-starting quality QBs. The coaches will have a tough decision.
    Aug 3, 2016 at 10:03 AM
  • Ladale
    @AaronErickson, my apologies. I felt by the title (favored) that you meant Gabbert had somehow performed his way to start more so than how he fits a Chip Kelly offense that we've yet to see either perform. You mentioned prohibitive favorite, comp%, sacks, and yards thrown in 8 games last season. Just saying he has a much larger body of work and maybe he should've fared better with his quick release and athleticism.
    Aug 3, 2016 at 9:58 AM
    Response: I'm sorry if the title was misleading. I was attempting to at least address what appears to be the emerging attitude of a lot of national "experts" discussing the 49ers, that Gabbert is now the favorite. I have no idea who will, or even should, win this competition. I think both have the talent and license to do so, and their ability to learn this scheme and perform within the offense will make Chip's decision for him.
  • Pop
    Ladale hit the nail on the button. People must really hate Kap a whole lot that they are blind to the fact that we're talking about Blaine Freakin Gabbert.
    Aug 3, 2016 at 9:14 AM
    Response: Hate has nothing to do with it. Read the companion piece on Kaepernick. It's also pretty optimistic, based upon skillset. There are reasons why Gabbert was a 1st-round pick, just like there are reasons that Kap got a big contract. Kaepernick has seen more success in the NFL, for sure, but he did so with a lot of support. Every explanation for Kaepernick's struggles through the last 2 years could be transferred seamlessly to Gabbert's entire career. Both have played behind terrible offensive lines with no one special to throw to for rudderless franchises. Gabbert has had to do it his whole career. Kap had to do it the last 2 years. Both QBs have a wealth of talent, and they have skills that fit this offense, albeit in different ways. It will be interesting to watch the preseason games and see if the play calling differs fro one QB to the next, and if wither or both can find success. Every fan is entitled to have his or her favorite QB. Liking Kap doesn't make Gabbert stink, nor vice versa. It is foolish to deny that either of these QBs has impressive physical gifts and some NFL-caliber skills.
  • Ladale
    Wow, you read this synopsis of one Blaine Gabbert and you almost forget his body of work in an actual NFL uniform. This article reads almost like a pre-draft overview of a player entering the league or a high draft pick the organization sat for a season. Gabbert does have an extensive body of work and it ain't good. It does mention his under throws and his being timid under pressure but doesn't state the guy came out in the same draft as Kaepernick (Gabbert 35 games started 8 wins / 27 losses. Kaepernick 53 games started 31 wins / 22 losses). Most of Kaepernick losses have come recently and every blame for Gabbert's shortcomings in Jacksonville can also be attributed to Kaepernick's last seasons. Coaching change, poor coordinator, lack of receiving options, etc. I'm not an apologist for Kaepernick (he certainly has his faults) but damn??? Gabbert??? Every attribute to Gabbert's game mentioned in this article can be said of Geno Smith, EJ Mauel, Brandon Weeden, etc., with one glaring similarity being they don't win games. Heck, he really won the same # of games as Kaepernick (2) against lesser competition not counting the gift wrap closer against the 2nd team of the Rams.
    Aug 3, 2016 at 9:04 AM
    Response: This article has nothing to do with wins or losses. This is about looking at individual components of the offense and QB characteristics that may determine success in those types of plays. I never said Gabbert should start, only that he has the base of skills to do so if he performs. His quick release and eyes should allow him to move the chains with the short passing game, regardless of how well he performs in other areas. I also listed reasons why he might not succeed in those plays. Other than you feeling that I was not negative enough about his overall body of work, do you have an issue with any assesments of his skills, or how those skills fit in each part of the offense? positive: accuracy quick release gets the ball out on time athleticism locker room support negatives: contact courage misses short very limited experience w/zone read gets ball out too soon takes check downs frequently
  • GM
    Good article. Appreciate the work here.
    Aug 3, 2016 at 8:42 AM

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