For obvious reasons, 49ers fans are fixated on the quarterback competition. The quarterback is the leader of the team, and Chip Kelly’s choice will go a long way to define what his team looks like.
But what if his choice is both? Colin Kaepernick has a rifle arm and blazing run speed. Blaine Gabbert is, well, steady and arguably better at reading defenses. An innovative coach might find a way to use each in the situations where their unique talents have the most impact.
Chip was asked directly about that idea Friday, and he was noncommittal.
Q: “Regardless of who starts Week 1 at quarterback, is it plausible that both guys could see significant snaps this year? Would you use someone situationally?”
A: “We haven’t talked about that at all. Hopefully, this thing will play itself out and organically you’ll come to a conclusion of who it should be. But, we haven’t ruled anything in or anything out.”
Situational quarterbacks are very rare in the NFL, but it makes a certain kind of sense, especially for an innovative head coach such as Kelly.
You could start Gabbert, hoping that your clearly superior defense rewards a cautious, steady offensive approach, and bring in Kaepernick when you’ve already fallen behind, a high-variance strategy where his arm strength and running prowess might offset his arguably lower accuracy.
Back in 2013, Chip’s first year in the NFL, I wrote a column arguing for a similar approach: use Michael Vick in the middle of the field, where his running ability and powerful arm had maximum value, then bring in 6’5” backup QB Nick Foles as a red zone specialist, like a closer in baseball. The Mariano Rivera of the NFL.
It seemed logical. Mike Vick was not only the 14th leading passer in the NFL, he was he 13th leading rusher — ahead of Reggie Bush in one of his best years. But the Eagles were 30th of the 32 teams in red zone conversion, probably due to Vick’s diminutive stature and compressed defenses which took away the run.
In any case, Chip did not go for it. He stuck with Vick, who won the training camp competition, until the starter got injured. Then Foles put himself in the Hall of Fame with a seven touchdown performance against Oakland in his first game after taking over. Chip never looked back.
As enticing as the situational quarterback idea is, Kelly never went for it. He has another principle that overrides it — the importance of muscle memory. If you’re thinking, you’re reacting too slowly to succeed in top level football. Winning quarterbacks need rhythm, which comes from endless repetition.
In 2009, Kelly told a coaching clinic that he only wants well-honed instinct to guide his players.
"If your players have not run that [game-deciding] play in a critical situation over a thousand times in practice, you will not have a chance to be successful."
That kind of repetition is simply not possible when you’re dividing snaps between multiple quarterbacks. While situational quarterbacks have an appealing logic, they undercut the more important value of repetition.
Blaine Gabbert confirmed this with his reaction to Friday’s joint practice, where he got all of the real snaps due to Colin Kaeperick’s “tight” throwing shoulder.
Q: Were you able to get into more of a rhythm taking all the first team reps as opposed to the first nine practices?
A: Yeah. The more reps you get, I think the more rhythm you're going to be in. ...The more reps you get, the more comfortable you're going to get and you're going to get into a flow. We did that today.
So Chip Kelly and Blaine Gabbert are on the same page. As clever as the strategy of situational quarterbacks sounds, that approach undercuts the more important value of establishing the team’s leader and letting them execute the scheme without having to think about how to do it.