Preseason games offer teams a dilemma. You want players to be as well rehearsed as possible before playing a game that counts, and as new coach Chip Kelly has noted, you can’t really evaluate a QB unless they run the risk of getting hit. Some guys do great with the red jersey on but lose it when someone like Von Miller is racing in to hit them.
That doesn’t even consider the special requirements of a team installing a new offense, and adapting to a new coach and tempo.
On the other hand, every moment played increases the risk of serious injury, which can be disastrous. As Chip noted last week, it’s not usually the hard hits that get you; players falling over each other can easily twist an ankle (or tear an ACL) just from bum luck.
Like many coaches, Chip Kelly doesn’t like to appear afraid of injury, or prone to change his game plan to avoid it. But if you read between the lines of his press conference comments Thursday, the balancing act is apparent.
For one thing, Chip always avoids predicting who will start or even play, because an injury the day before your game can change everything. This comes up almost every press conference. For example, on August 14th he was asked whether he wanted Colin Kaepernick to start a preseason game. Kelly replied:
I’m not an ‘if’ guy, in terms of hypotheticals. So, I don’t really know and for me to talk about it and then to find out that Blaine rolls his ankle on Thursday, [QB] Jeff Driskel is starting and then we’re having a whole different conversation. So, we’ll just take it day-to-day as we go with those guys.
He also just doesn’t like to put out information that might help teams game plan against him. As recently as Monday, he refused to acknowledge that the team was looking at Anthony Davis at guard.
While reporters all want to get the scoop, most fans would probably be happy trading that for a competitive advantage in regular season games. And there’s a real advantage to keeping the Rams guessing which quarterback they’ll face in game 1.
So we really have no idea if Kaepernick is having setbacks in his recovery, if the team is holding him out to avoid injury, or if Kaepernick is (as some have argued) slow-rolling his return to action — perhaps to avoid that brutal four-game stretch at the start of the season.
When asked about newly-signed QB Christian Ponder, Chip was non-committal about the Broncos game.
“...he’s got to knock the rust off a little bit. But, for the first time out there, he did a good job. Obviously, if we get him in on Saturday in the game, it will be limited in terms of what do you feel real comfortable throwing, what do you feel real comfortable running. But, for the first day, I was kind of impressed how much he picked up.”
You can count on rookie Jeff Driskel to get a lot of playing time. What about Gabbert? In the middle of a long answer, Kelly said:
“...we don’t do any decision in terms of what our reps are for the games until after this last practice so we know what’s available. Not only for Blaine, but who’s with him in that group. So, all of a sudden if you lose two offensive linemen and you’re going to have to play two rookies in a game, how long would we keep Blaine in there in those situations.”
There’s the bottom line. As valuable as in-game reps are for putting this offense together, Gabbert is the quarterback the team is counting on. And if the coaching staff isn’t sure they’ve got a solid front line protecting him, Denver will see a lot of Christian Ponder, whether he’s up to speed on the Niners terminology or not.