When we last checked in on Blaine Gabbert, the San Francisco 49ers were headed into the bye week and Gabbert was coming off a surprisingly effective debut against the Atlanta Falcons. In that game, we saw Gabbert show the type of pocket awareness under pressure that had been absent with Colin Kaepernick at the helm. We saw him shred the Falcons on third down, and more generally, make good decisions with the football. It wasn’t all rosy, but it would be tough to ask much more from a guy who was legitimately one of the worst starting quarterbacks in NFL history the last time he saw meaningful action.
After greatly exceeding expectations in that first start, the question with Gabbert became: How will he hold up against more formidable defenses? Kaepernick looked competent against below-average defenses as well, such as the Giants and Ravens, and one could assume he would have produced on a similar level had he taken the field against the Falcons. But when facing top-tier defenses, Kaepernick and the 49ers offense fell apart.
With back-to-back games against the Seahawks and Cardinals, both of which boast top-seven defenses by Football Outsiders’s opponent-adjusted metrics, we now have a much better idea of what we can expect from Gabbert going forward. One thing we can say pretty confidently at this point is the 49ers offense is better off with Gabbert running the show, at least in the short term.
It’s still an incredibly small sample and there’s no guarantee it will continue, but through three games Gabbert has outperformed Kaepernick in essentially every worthwhile measure of quarterback play. Gabbert has turned the ball over a bit more often, but is head-and-shoulders above Kaepernick in every other metric. One area not listed in the table above where you would have assumed Kaepernick added some extra value over the man who replaced him would be on the ground, but Gabbert has been more efficient there as well. Gabbert’s 35.5 percent rushing DVOA ranks fourth among quarterbacks on the season and is ahead of Kaepernick’s 26.8 percent mark (11th).
More importantly for the 49ers, the improved play at the quarterback position is leading to improved offensive performance overall.
Setting aside the massive outlier that was the season opener against the Vikings, the 49ers offense struggled to reach league-average performance (0.0 percent) with Kaepernick under center, according to DVOA, just barely crawling above that line against the Giants and Ravens. With consistently unreliable performance from the running game, it was the passing game most responsible for the wild fluctuations from week to week. But as you can see from the chart above, San Francisco’s passing attack has improved each week with Gabbert at quarterback, culminating last week against the Cardinals with the team’s best offensive performance since the last time they donned those alternate black uniforms.
What continues to impress me most about Gabbert’s play is how he handles pressure. He’s shown a willingness to stand in a muddied pocket and get the ball out when receivers are open downfield, but also seems to have a good feel for when he needs to escape the pocket and buy more time.
Here, we get an example of the former. Facing a third-and–7 with just over a minute to go in the first half, Gabbert took a shot from Seahawks defensive lineman Michael Bennett, who came free up the middle on a stunt, as he delivered the ball to Quinton Patton on the comeback route to keep the drive alive. A couple of short throws and a 10-yard scramble later, Gabbert would hit Vance McDonald up the seam for San Francisco’s first points of the day. None of it would’ve happened without a willingness from Gabbert to make a throw with contact imminent.
The following week against the Cardinals, Gabbert’s ability to handle pressure again stuck out in the two-minute drill at the end of the half. On back-to-back plays at the front end of the drive, Gabbert hit McDonald over the middle for 15 yards with center Marcus Martin being driven back into his lap…
…before escaping the pocket to avoid pressure and finding Anquan Boldin in the middle of the field for another 15 yards:
When he does leave the pocket, Gabbert’s run/pass decision making has been solid. If there is a play to be made downfield, like we saw in the pass to Boldin above, he’s typically able to find it and get the ball out. But if nothing is open, he’s been able to use his athleticism to pick up yardage with his legs, as was the case on this well defended shot play in the first quarter against Arizona:
Needless to say, this sort of effective decision making has served Gabbert well so far. He’s completed 72.4 percent of his attempts when facing pressure, per Jeff Deeney of Pro Football Focus, which is more than double the rate at which Kaepernick completed passes under duress before he was benched (35.2 percent).
On occasions when Gabbert actually gets solid protection from the 49ers’ porous offensive line, he’s been able to take advantage with some impressive throws downfield. The aforementioned touchdown throw to McDonald at the end of the first half in Seattle was an excellent example of the importance of ball location.
Gabbert’s throw leads McDonald back in toward the middle of the field, away from cornerback Cary Williams on the outside and in front of safety Earl Thomas. The adjustment to bend the route inside causes Thomas to overshoot the tackle attempt just enough for McDonald to skirt by and get into the end zone. If Gabbert’s throw had led McDonald upfield, Thomas likely has a chance to either break up the pass or deliver a hit on McDonald as the ball arrives. Having watched Vance McDonald play football before the past two weeks, I don’t think I’m ready to trust him to make that play just yet.
Later in the Seahawks game, we got to see Gabbert fit the ball into some tighter windows. With 2:38 to go in the third quarter, Gabbert made a throw to McDonald up the sideline that apparently no one in the Seahawks secondary thought he could make, as both Williams and Thomas initially move toward Celek up the seam when Gabbert releases the ball.
On the 49ers’ ensuing drive, Gabbert made an excellent throw to Boldin up the seam between Thomas and cornerback DeShawn Shead.
Surprisingly, Gabbert has also been the beneficiary of some good play designs to set him up with easier throws from time to time, ranging from some simple quick slant throws off play action that were sorely missing when Kaepernick was in the lineup…
…to some more creative route combinations to get targets open downfield for big plays:
This play design was identical to the one used by the Falcons offense against the 49ers in Week 9. It resulted in a 26-yard completion to Jacob Tamme for the Falcons, and the 49ers found similar success here.
After motioning tight end Blake Bell to the left of the formation, San Francisco runs two crossing routes from left to right, which combined with the boot action by Gabbert, pulls the Seahawks’ deep defenders with them. That opens up a void for Celek, who is initially aligned tight to the formation on the right side, on a delayed wheel route. It took them straight ripping off their previous opponent, but it was nice to see some semblance of creativity from this coaching staff.
Unfortunately, that creativity is still far from constant in the passing game, and there’s one area in particular where Tomsula and Chryst’s conservative nature has stood out: third-and-long.
Third-and-long (defined here as needing eight or more yards for a first down) has been the most notable area where Gabbert has undeniably failed to produced. Gabbert has attempted 15 third-and-long passes so far and he’s failed to convert a single one of them, per Scott Kacsmar of Football Outsiders, which makes him the only qualifying quarterback without a conversion in those situations. This is in stark contrast to Gabbert’s success in shorter distances, where he boasts an even 60 percent conversion rate on third-and-short (ranked 13th of 38 quarterbacks) and a 57.1 percent conversion rate on third-and-mid (fourth).
A closer look at those numbers, combined with the tape, shows those third-and-long struggles have more to do with the play calling than some deficiency with Gabbert, at least at this point.
This is a third-and–14 play, but you wouldn’t be able to tell it by the routes San Francisco’s receivers are running. Every one of them runs a route that would require at least half of the yards needed to come after the catch, and with a free rusher through the B-gap, Gabbert just quickly flips the ball out to his running back in the flat.
Here’s another example from later in the Cardinals game, again on third-and–14:
San Francisco needs to get to the 12-yard line to convert here, yet four of the five routes run are well short of that mark. The only route that goes beyond the sticks comes from Torrey Smith, who is running what ultimately amounts to a clear-out route; there’s little chance that ball is ever going his direction. There are at least another half-dozen examples of Gabbert not having an option to throw to beyond the marker on third-and-long from the past two games, but we’re already at GIF overload for this article.
In shorter third down situations, where Gabbert has a high conversion rate, the 49ers success in recent weeks has a lot to do with their willingness to push the ball downfield beyond the first-down marker. On third-and-short, Gabbert is throwing an average of 14.8 yards past the marker (compared to 4.3 for Kaepernick), which places him behind only Ben Roethlisberger. On third-and-mid, Gabbert’s average pass travels 6.7 yards beyond the sticks (2.4 for Kaepernick), which ranks fourth. But when third-and-long rolls around, play calls like the two shown above have led to Gabbert’s passes targeting receivers 6.7 yards short of the necessary yardage for conversion.
In short, the more aggressive this coaching staff allows Gabbert to be on third down, the more success he is having. Again, we’re still talking about a small sample here and all of this is subject to change, but considering the evidence we have so far, plus the fact that offenses convert more often when throwing at or beyond the sticks on third down across the league, you have to lay these third-and-long struggles at the feet of Geep Chryst and his staff.
Once you remove "third-and-long" from Gabbert’s list of cons, there’s been a lot to like about his play over these past three games. Accuracy has continued to be a problem at times, something I pointed out after the Falcons game, and he makes one or two throws per game that make you cringe. But even with those misses it’s hard not to come away impressed by his play.
Part of that likely has to do with Gabbert showing competency in a few specific areas where Kaepernick struggled, but there are plenty of tangible things you can point to, both on tape and in the numbers, that shows the 49ers offense has been markedly better with Gabbert at quarterback. The uptick in points you would expect to come with improved play hasn’t shown up yet, but that should change if San Francisco’s offense continues to play this way and this coaching staff can manage to get out of their own way.
There will be plenty of time to discuss Gabbert’s long-term prospects with the team and whether any of this is actually a good thing for franchise’s outlook after 2015. But with trips to Chicago and Cleveland coming up, both of which field bottom-eight defenses, I would expect this improved level of play from San Francisco’s offense to continue for at least a couple more weeks.