How Will Blaine Gabbert Fare as the 49ers' Starting Quarterback?

Blaine Gabbert's first chance as an NFL starter was miserable. Can he turn it around in San Francisco?

We all have recurring nightmares, I’m sure. Many people’s involve falling off of a cliff as a sense of dread, some involve not wearing pants as symbolism for awkwardness. Still others wake up in a cold sweat, horrified that former Jacksonville Jaguars quarterback Blaine Gabbert might be starting somewhere in the National Football League.

Reality is harsher than dreams, folks: Gabbert is now the starting quarterback for your San Francisco 49ers.

That’s right, late Monday night the news was broken that incumbent Niners’ starter Colin Kaepernick was being benched for the Jaguars’ former first-round washout. Yes, this is the Blaine Gabbert who has a 53.2% completion rate to go along with a 5-22 record as a starter. This is the same player who had a 1-to-7 touchdown-to-interception ratio in his last three starts in Jacksonville, and for some reason the 49ers have decided to give him the keys to their franchise.

Is there any chance for hope with this lineup change? How will Blaine Gabbert fare as the 49ers’ starting quarterback?

Don’t Look Now

Things have gone from bad to worse for San Francisco in the 2015 season. Former head coach Jim Harbaugh was essentially escorted to the NFL door by management, and in his wake followed a score of players, including wide receivers Michael Crabtree and Steve Johnson, running back Frank Gore, and offensive guard Mike Iupati.

One of the final centerpieces of that Super Bowl XLVII-appearing team will also go by the wayside as Kaepernick hits the bench in the Bay Area. It’s not as though the demotion isn’t deserved: prior to being benched, he was posting career lows in passing yards per attempt (6.65), touchdown rate (2.47%), rushing yards per attempt (5.7), and a near-low in completion percentage (59.3%). His interception rate has also sustained from his career-worst in 2014, and he would have been on pace to fumble the ball a career-high 10 times.

To help illuminate how dire the quarterback situation has gotten in San Francisco, we’ll use an even more incisive analytic, numberFire’s signature metric: Net Expected Points (NEP). NEP helps us take the numbers we get from the box score and assign them contextual value so they relate even closer to the game on the field. By adding down-and-distance value, we can see just how much each play and each team as a whole influence the outcome of games. For more info on NEP, check out our glossary.

The table below shows Kaepernick’s performance in 2015 in terms of the value added to his 49ers in Passing NEP and Rushing NEP, as well as his rankings among the 40 quarterbacks this season with at least 50 opportunities (drop backs plus rushes). I also included his Success Rates -- the percentage of plays that go for positive NEP gains -- in both passing and rushing. How bad is it?

Player Pass NEP Per Play Pass Success Rush NEP Per Play Rush Success
Colin Kaepernick -8.86 (35th) -0.03 (33rd) 39.1% (36th) 11.33 (7th) 0.28 (24th) 65.9% (18th)

These numbers are certainly a far cry from his 2012 value production, when his 0.17 Passing NEP per play tied him for seventh among 39 quarterbacks who had at least 100 opportunities in that season. Even still, they’re well below his production last year, when his 0.04 Passing NEP per play still ranked just 26th among the 43 quarterbacks fitting these criteria. Kaepernick has spent essentially every year regressing as a passer, and his poor play in 2015 was the final straw.

But why make a move right now? Do the Niners really believe Blaine Gabbert has a shot to be their future starter?

Let the Right One In

Let’s flash back to the 2011 NFL Draft. The Jaguars are on the clock at 10th Overall, having traded up to address a decades-long quarterback problem. At their selection, Christian Ponder from Florida State, Andy Dalton from TCU, Kaepernick from Nevada, and Gabbert from Missouri are the top options. In another universe, perhaps they would have selected a different quarterback, or even one of the three incredible defensive linemen who went right after him (J.J. Watt, Nick Fairley, and Robert Quinn), but Gabbert was the choice.

People forget that many reputable draft analysts touted Gabbert as the best passer prospect in the draft once Andrew Luck returned to Stanford for his senior year and Cam Newton's personality concerns arose, and he was a certain first round selection due to his tremendous physical upside. We know in hindsight that concerns about the simplicity of Missouri’s spread offense were much bigger than first thought, and this hid even deeper flaws than expected in Gabbert’s field vision and ability to read a defense. But just how poorly did this developmental project play once he reached the NFL?

The table below shows Gabbert’s career in the NFL thus far in terms of Passing NEP and Rushing NEP, along with his ranks in each category among quarterbacks with at least 100 opportunities that year.

Year Pass NEP Per Play Pass Success Rush NEP Per Play Rush Success
2011 -86.44 (47th) -0.19 (43rd) 35.5% (45th) -3.34 (41st) -0.08 (40th) 27.9% (41st)
2012 -36.90 (35th) -0.12 (35th) 40.7% (35th) -0.64 (28th) -0.04 (30th) 61.1% (1st)
2013 -51.31 (45th) -0.52 (46th) 32.7% (45th) -1.42 (34th) -0.16 (35th) 55.6% (25th)

To put this atrocious performance in context, not just for each year, but for all of NEP history, Gabbert produced the seventh-worst rookie quarterback season by Total NEP since 2000. Only two quarterbacks since 2000 who had at least three years of NFL production have had worse average annual Total NEP scores over the course of a career, Joey Harrington and Jamarcus Russell.

Despite some development his second year in the league, he had a catastrophic first three starts in 2013 and was benched for Chad Henne. Only Craig Krenzel's 2004 rookie campaign was able to sustain a worse Passing NEP per play (-0.53) over at least 100 opportunities than Gabbert’s third season as a pro. Even as a supposedly mobile quarterback, Gabbert was dreadful in Rushing NEP annually as well.

And now the 49ers want him to start.

It Follows

Perhaps Alex Smith, one of the players who made an exodus out of San Francisco in the past few years, can serve as an example for Gabbert. Smith’s Passing NEP totals in his first three seasons (2005 to 2007) were -88.64, -15.21, -70.24. His Passing NEP per play over those years was -0.46, -0.03, and -0.33.

From 2011 onward, though, Smith has not finished with a negative Passing NEP, and his 0.09 Passing NEP per play in 2015 ranks him a solid 19th among the 40 quarterbacks with at least 50 drop backs on the year.

The difference in what allowed Smith to develop, however, is that he was able to hone his craft for years under the tutelage of an offensive guru in Jim Harbaugh, had an incredible offensive line around him, and the faith of an organization to keep letting him play through mistakes. Now, too, he’s a Kansas City Chief with an offensive mastermind in Andy Reid, and real receiving threats and a cast of talent to support him.

Gabbert instead inherits an offensive line allowing the third-highest sack percentage in the league to opposing defenses, a backfield decimated by injury, and perhaps one reliable receiver left in Anquan Boldin, as Vernon Davis was traded to the Denver Broncos this week. He has a coaching staff not made up of offensive wizards but Jim Tomsula and Geep Chryst.

I don’t believe the 49ers have any designs on testing Gabbert for the future, nor do they truly believe this will help in 2015. They instead are simply passing off the helm to him while this franchise sinks to a potential 1st Overall selection in the 2016 NFL Draft. Fortunately for them, this nightmare experiment will only last for another nine weeks.