The biggest question of the 49ers off-season is “Who will start at quarterback?” But maybe we’ve been looking at the question from the wrong angle. When Chip Kelly entered the NFL, the conventional wisdom was that he would run a lot of zone-read plays, but that pro defenses would adjust and, frankly, injure his quarterbacks. And that is basically what happened.
There was foreshadowing from RGIII, who had ended his great run in 2012 with a series of knee injuries. Mike Vick — the fastest quarterback in NFL history — won Chip’s QB competition in Philadelphia, and bested RGIII in head-to-head competition during Kelly’s stunning pro debut. But he was out, injured by halftime of Week 5, and never really played again for the Eagles.
With Vick gone, Chip had a series of QBs who couldn’t run, so his offense increasingly substituted short, safe passes for QB keepers. It worked fairly well with Foles in 2013, less so with Foles and Sanchez in 2014, and not at all with Sam Bradford in 2015.
Defenses simply did not respect the threat of Bradford running, and he never made them pay for it. Terrell Suggs blatantly targeted Bradford’s knee in the pre-season and the league announced that was OK. The coach, fighting for his job, simply couldn’t risk losing the quarterback he had invested so much in.
Now Kelly is in an entirely new situation. He has three quarterbacks who are mediocre passers and athletic runners. It’s not simply that he has players who can run. He also has insurance against injury if one of them gets hurt, or even two.
In a perverse way, the very mediocrity of these quarterbacks is an advantage. If the starter was Aaron Rodgers, you wouldn’t expose him to risk. But with two flawed guys about the same level and an interesting rookie with a similar skill set, an injury wouldn’t necessarily be as disastrous. All three should be able to run the same plays interchangeably.
Meanwhile, the wide receivers and tight ends are, at best, unproven and will need some time to develop. A scheme that relies on Carlos Hyde and the threat of QB runs will buy the green pass catchers that time and some soft coverage to develop their skills.
Yes, someone has to be the Week 1 starter. Kaepernick’s injuries and delayed recovery given Kelly an easy out, though. He can just decide that Kap is not fully back and it’s “not fair” to risk him. So Gabbert starts, but Kap knows the odds are very good he’ll get a chance to show what he can do. Nick Foles didn’t really take over as QB until Week 9 in 2013, but had an incredible season when he did.
If both Gabbert and Kaepernick get injured, then Kelly would probably have to get more conservative with Driskel, for a number of reasons. But until then, there is reason to think that the Niners could have a freewheeling offense that, if nothing else, is very fun to watch.