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How the Colin Kaepernick era came to an end, setting expectations for Blaine Gabbert

Colin Kaepernick was benched on Monday. How on earth did we get to this point and what should we expect from Blaine Gabbert over the rest of the season?

By benching Colin Kaepernick on Monday — along with trading Vernon Davis — the San Francisco 49ers effectively admitted what they have been telling us for months with their play and coaching: Winning football games in 2015 does not rank high on the team’s priority list.

With the whisper campaign against Kaepernick kicking into full gear last week, the move to bench the quarterback who led them within 18 yards of back-to-back Super Bowl appearances hardly comes as a surprise. The timing might have arrived earlier than expected, as many believed the logical point to make the move would be during San Francisco’s Week 10 bye, but it became evident some time ago that this was the path we were going down if Kaepernick continued to struggle.

And make no mistake, by any reasonable measure, Kaepernick has struggled this season. He ranks 26th in QBR, 28th in passer rating, 30th in adjusted net yards per attempt, and 32nd in DYAR following last week’s 162-yard performance against the Rams. Kaepernick’s tape also reflects what the numbers are telling us; currently, he’s one of the worst starting quarterbacks in football. Early-season signs of improved pocket mechanics proved to be a mirage, and Kaepernick has since reverted back to the same bad habits that have plagued him throughout his career.

It’s that failure to improve upon his flaws that ultimately became Kaepernick’s undoing. The film shows a player who has changed very little in the 48 regular season games since taking over for Alex Smith as the Niners’ starting quarterback. Navigating a muddy pocket, throwing with anticipation and touch, and displaying accuracy under duress were never strengths of Kaepernick’s game even while at his peak. What’s changed is everything around him.

San Francisco’s supremely talented roster and an offense built around his limitations masked Kaepernick’s deficiencies during much of his first two seasons as a starter — except, of course, when facing a Seahawks team that could match the 49ers’ talent level. With one of the league’s best defenses and a bruising run game, Kaepernick benefitted immensely from favorable situations to throw the ball. San Francisco spent more time playing with a lead than just about any other team in football. Opposing defenses loaded the box to stop Frank Gore & Co., leaving ample space to throw the ball downfield. It was the perfect fit for a quarterback with considerable physical talent, but was still learning the subtleties of playing the position.

Following the team’s Super Bowl appearance, Jim Harbaugh’s staff believed that Kaepernick would continue to progress, per SoCaliSteph’s report last week. And at the time, there was little reason to expect otherwise.

After another championship game appearance, Harbaugh’s staff began to make adjustments to the offense in 2014, placing more responsibility on Kaepernick’s shoulders. We learned then that Kaepernick simply wasn’t going to be a quarterback who could operate primarily as a traditional pocket passer and find consistent success. Now, in 2015, with an inferior coaching staff and a decimated roster, Kaepernick’s flaws are more discernible than ever and his production has hit rock bottom.

Year ANY/A+ Rank
2012 121 2
2013 109 8
2014 94 28
2015 83 29

For those unfamiliar, adjusted net yards per attempt (ANY/A) takes your basic yards per attempt figure, subtracts sack yardage and applies a bonus for touchdown passes and a penalty for interceptions. It’s similar to passer rating, as it combines several basic measures of quarterback performance, but is more accurately weighted. Pro-Football-Reference calculates an indexed version of the metric (ANY/A+), which adjusts for era and puts it on a scale in which 100 is average. Kaepernick’s ANY/A+ during his first two seasons as a starter, when everything around him was great, was among the best in football. Once the situation surrounding him began to change last year, his production has been in the league’s basement.

In his current iteration, Kaepernick’s play, and therefore the play of the 49ers offense, is directly correlated to the quality of defense San Francisco is facing. The 49ers have faced three defenses currently ranked in the bottom half of Football Outsiders’s DVOA rankings: the Vikings, Giants, and Ravens. In those games, Kaepernick’s average QBR is 82.1, which would trail only Carson Palmer on the season. San Francisco’s other five games have come against defenses ranked in the top 11 by DVOA. Kaepernick has a 19.9 average QBR in those contests, which would rank as the league’s worst mark by nearly 10 full points.

Kaepernick’s lack of development and subpar production finally pushed the 49ers’ brass beyond their breaking point, culminating with his benching on Monday. As 2015’s designated scapegoat, Kaepernick’s days as the starting quarterback in San Francisco are likely over. San Francisco will inevitably look to take advantage of the team-friendly structure of Kaepernick’s contract in the coming offseason by either trading or releasing him. Much like the situation in Washington with Robert Griffin III, the one thing that would throw a wrench in that plan would be an injury to Kaepernick, which would trigger his massive injury guarantees and make it far more cost prohibitive to cut ties with him next spring.

From Kaepernick’s perspective, going to the bench obviously has to be disheartening. He bet on himself by signing the deal he did, and needless to say, that gamble didn’t pay off. But he can take some level of comfort knowing that in no way does this mark the end of his career as an NFL starting quarterback. This is a league in which Josh McCown, Kirk Cousins, and Sam Bradford have all started seven games in 2015, and the likes of Matt Cassel continues to trick teams into thinking he’s a competent option at quarterback.

Kaepernick is more physically gifted than every one of those players, and there will undoubtedly be a subset of decision makers who believe their coaches and their system can "fix" Kaepernick (alternatively spun as "letting him loose" or "playing to his strengths") and maximize his talent. Whether that can actually happen is irrelevant, NFL teams simply can’t help themselves when it comes to reclamation-project quarterbacks.

On the field, the move to bench Kaepernick is unlikely to produce the positive effect the 49ers will claim they are looking for. Kaepernick has undoubtedly played a significant role in the struggles San Francisco has had offensively this season, but he’s far from the only problem. Inept doesn’t begin to describe the play of the offensive line. The running back position has been bulldozed with injuries, and the top of the depth chart currently features three players who weren’t even on the active roster one week ago. Geep Chryst’s scheme has been comically conservative and predictable. And with the defense playing nearly as awful, the 49ers are constantly playing from behind. This is not an environment conducive to effective quarterback play.

Oh, and there’s one more small matter: San Francisco’s backup-turned-starting quarterback is Blaine Gabbert.

Expectations for Gabbert

During his 27 career starts, Gabbert hasn’t been just bad, he’s been one of the worst starting quarterbacks in NFL history. Using the same ANY/A+ metric we referenced with Kaepernick earlier, Gabbert is the second-worst quarterback since the merger in 1970, besting only Ryan Leaf. More advanced metrics aren’t fans either:

None of this should come as a surprise if you’ve heard literally anything about Blaine Gabbert prior to this week. The small subset of pro-Gabbert people out there will claim that there’s no way we could properly evaluate Gabbert on those abominable Jaguars teams and it’s reasonable to believe he has developed since then. There are a few problems with that argument.

First, there’s a good chance Gabbert had a lot to do with those Jaguars offenses being so terrible when he’s doing things like this:

You also just don’t see quarterbacks who performed as poorly as Gabbert did during his time in Jacksonville turn things around and become passable starting quarterbacks. Scroll through the list of worst passers by ANY/A+ in their first three seasons. Among those in Gabbert’s neighborhood, there are few who went on to display some level of competence later in their careers. Trent Dilfer and Alex Smith are the most notable names, but as Danny Tuccitto mentioned during Football Outsiders’s look at the worst quarterbacks in DVOA history, guys like Dilfer and Smith are massive historical outliers. It’s unreasonable to expect Gabbert to be capable of doing the same, especially in the context of the 2015 49ers.

Those hoping Gabbert might simply be a different kind of terrible than Kaepernick has been this season are also likely to be disappointed. Part of the problem with the passing game has been that Kaepernick has stopped pushing the ball downfield as frequently as he did early in his career, and has been less effective in the rare instances in which he has. Looking back at Gabbert’s performance in Jacksonville paints a similar picture. From 2011-12, when the bulk of Gabbert’s starts came, he ranked near the bottom of the league in air yards per attempt and completion.

Year Air Yards per Attempt Rank Air Yards per Completion Rank
2011 7.79 27 5.14 33
2012 7.89 28 5.99 26

When he did throw downfield, the results weren’t pretty. During the same timeframe, Gabbert completed just 33.3 percent of his 117 attempts that traveled 15 or more yards in the air, which ranked 39th out of 42 quarterbacks with at least 50 such throws; only Brandon Weeden, Tarvaris Jackson, and Tim Tebow were worse.

The one thing that might end up working in Gabbert’s favor is the schedule. Kaepernick has faced the fourth-toughest slate of opposing defenses so far this season, according to Football Outsiders. Gabbert will get the second game in each of San Francisco’s divisional matchups — all three of those defenses currently rank in the top seven in defensive DVOA — but things will generally lighten up the rest of the way.

Gabbert starts off against a 19th-ranked Falcons’ defense that has been among the worst in football at getting after the quarterback — Atlanta currently ranks 30th in adjusted sack rate. Unsurprisingly, this was part of the 49ers’ plan to make Gabbert look passable in his first start. If Gabbert sticks around, he’ll also get games against the Bears, Browns, and Lions, all of whom currently rank among the league’s six-worst defenses. Much like Kaepernick over the first half of the season, anything resembling competence from Gabbert is likely to be a result of the defense on the field more than anything Gabbert is doing.