San Francisco 49ers quarterbacks Colin Kaepernick and Blaine Gabbert are currently battling it out for the team’s starting job in 2016. Niner Noise takes a detailed look beyond the stats and numbers in this highlighted competition.
In case you haven’t noticed, the San Francisco 49ers have quite a quarterback battle on their hands entering the 2016 season.
Niner quarterbacks Blaine Gabbert and Colin Kaepernick are both vying for the No. 1 spot on the depth chart in a competition which head coach Chip Kelly may not declare a winner until the tail end of the preseason.
And, according to the Sacramento Bee’s Matt Barrows, the battle is just about even.
On one day of training camp, Gabbert seems to be better. And another day of camp will go to Kaepernick.
We can speculate which QB wins the job all we want. But to do so, one must first look deeper than just what’s on the surface in camp. If the best way to predict future actions is to evaluate the past, we’ll have to go back and revisit the numbers and stats for both quarterbacks.
That’s what we’ll do. Niner Noise takes a statistical look at San Francisco’s signal-callers, and we will try to make the connection with what may happen in this competition and in 2016.
This won’t solve everything, of course. If it did, the 49ers will have already decided on a starting quarterback, and there would be no need for an in-camp competition between the two.
Both Kaepernick and Gabbert entered the NFL in 2011 — Gabbert in Round 1, No. 10 overall, and Kaepernick was the 36th overall pick and was drafted by the Niners in Round 2.
We all know of Kap’s breakout 2012 season — the year he took over for an injured quarterback Alex Smith and rode the momentum all the way to Super Bowl XLVII. He took the league by storm and, seemingly, replicated those efforts the following year.
Kaepernick registered a 98.3 and a 91.6 passer rating in those subsequent years, respectively, and he seemed poised to reach the next level in 2014.
In the meantime, Gabbert’s start with the Jacksonville Jaguars was pretty horrendous. His Jaguars passer rating peaked in 2012, with a 77.4 mark, and he never fell below a plus-.500 touchdown-to-interception ratio.
But Gabbert’s 2013 campaign resulted in his own demotion following three games to start the season in which he tossed just one touchdown against seven interceptions, leading to a lowly 36.0 passer rating.
Take a look at the following comparison:
Gabbert’s 2014 campaign (with the 49ers at this point) can’t exactly be counted, as he posted a 100.00 passer rating but on just one appearance — three passes completed on seven attempts.
Similarly, Kaepernick’s 2011 efforts were very limited.
It’s hard to judge the mean on Gabbert, since his 2013 passer rating skews the graph quite a bit, but Kaepernick shows a steady decline dating back to the same year. Based on this alone, Kap’s passer rating — if he starts a sizable portion or all of the regular season — should fall somewhere around 75.
There are, of course, reasons to suggest why Kaepernick has regressed. 49ers fans recall the 2014 season, where San Francisco started to fall apart under then-head coach Jim Harbaugh.
The same year, Bleacher Report’s Joey Akeley wrote an excellent assessment on Kaepernick, Why Colin Kaepernick Is the NFL’s Ultimate Enigma.
You’ll want to give it a read. The conundrum contained therein will show you how many of the questions surrounding Kap aren’t anything new.
And the demise of Harbaugh, Kaepernick’s biggest ally in San Francisco, didn’t help either.
The 2015 Season
One of the primary reasons a quarterback controversy exists with the 49ers this season is because of what happened in 2015.
This was, without doubt, Kaepernick’s worst season. And it was also Gabbert’s best.
Despite this, the numbers aren’t drastically different.
We know what happened. Kap was benched in Week 9 and gave way to Gabbert, who finished out the year.
Check out the numbers in succession:
Gabbert had the edge in almost everything but rushing yards. He had a 10-to-7 touchdown-to-interception ratio, compared to Kap’s 6-to-5 mark. Gabbert’s completion percentage was also higher — 63.1 to 59.0.
Side by side, it’s pretty clear Gabbert was the better option last year. But by a lot? Perhaps not. At least not statistically.
Let’s go a bit further.
One might argue Kaepernick faced a tougher portion of the Niners’ schedule that year. Perhaps. Kap faced a total of nine teams (including limited action in Week 9 against the Atlanta Falcons), and five of those teams went to the playoffs last year.
Out of Gabbert’s eight teams faced, three were in the postseason.
The entire story? Certainly not. And we can throw in the fact San Francisco lost its best offensive weapon, running back Carlos Hyde, to a foot injury after Week 7.
Oh, and we can’t ignore the whopping sack totals the 49ers gave up last year. San Francisco quarterbacks were sacked a combined 53 times — tied for second highest in the league — and Gabbert was taken down 25 times compared to Kap being sacked 28 times.
While the 49ers offensive line was terrible in 2015, Pro Football Focus (subscription required) attributed six of those sacks to Kaepernick, compared to only three against Gabbert.
Judging by these numbers, it’s clear Gabbert was the better answer. Although the separation wasn’t far.
There’s a great quote I heard years ago from a stats professor I had in college. She said, “Statistics are a lot like bikinis. They reveal a lot, but they don’t show everything.”
The aforementioned stats don’t cover which quarterback is the better fit in Kelly’s offense, which is possibly a reason why the competition remains open. And they don’t take into account a quarterback’s decision-making process, film study, confidence or a number of other variables in the convoluted equation.
Take, for example, both QB’s efforts on third down last year. Percentage wise and in terms of passer rating, Gabbert beat out Kap with numbers of 60.0 to 55.41 and 76.3 to 65.9, respectively.
This should tell us Gabbert is a better option on third downs, right?
Not so fast. According to Football Outsiders — who’ve compiled a stat called “failed completions” to account for passing for all the needed yardage for a first down– Gabbert’s fail rate on third and fourth downs stood at 58.5 percent, which was second to last out of qualifying quarterbacks.
Kaepernick’s ranking, while not much better, was 37.2 percent.
The play below shows a potential reason why Gabbert’s third-down success rate was so low.
Play-calling is a clear issue. Former offensive coordinator Geep Chryst wasn’t exactly imaginative on third downs, at least not in this case.
“I think one of the misconceptions is how people can evaluate tape and say ‘This guy made a wrong decision,’” Kelly said of Gabbert, via Eric Branch of SFGate.com. “You don’t know what the play call was. I’m enamored with … (grading Web site) Pro Football Focus. Well, they give a grade to a guy, but you don’t know what he was told to do. So how can you grade him on what he did?”
But, to his credit, Gabbert studied film much harder than Kaepernick, according to a November 2015 report from Bleacher Report:
There’s more to just film study too. There’s mechanics.
Take a look at this 2014 touchdown pass from Kaepernick to fullback Bruce Miller. While the Niners find the end zone, Kap’s body position at the moment the throw is made reveals poor footwork.
The line between Kaepernick’s feet points well over 45 degrees away from his intended target. While improvised throws are a part of being an NFL quarterback, this isn’t the first time we’ve heard about Kap’s poor footwork.
And then there’s confidence. How much does Kap have after a disastrous 2015 and the turmoil that followed this past offseason?
With Gabbert seemingly on the upward trajectory, is his own confidence higher entering 2016?
Neither QB may be the ideal fit under Kelly. And this could force the 49ers to reevaluate their quarterbacking needs in the 2017 NFL Draft.
For now, these are the guys San Francisco has.
Judging by the numbers and many of the intangibles, Gabbert seems to be the best option under Kelly in 2016. Kaepernick could make a strong push to reclaim the starting job since, well, no one can truly predict what happens tomorrow or at any point in the upcoming season.
Training camp and the preseason may reveal the answer too. But there’s a good chance the decision has already been made.
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Gabbert hasn’t done anything to suggest he’s, far and away, the better answer. But he has more backing to his game than just the prototypical camp report or two.
But, as we saw with Kap’s sudden decline after such a promising start, the roles may be reversed. Perhaps Kaepernick finds his own bounce-back story.
So, like so many stories with the 49ers, this tale is to be continued.