With the exception of a wacky late-game comeback (that never really had a chance of happening) and a surprising four-turnover performance from the San Francisco defense, the 49ers game against the Panthers on Sunday went exactly how it was supposed to. Whenever you give up 46 points, the defense is going to take a sizable chunk of the blame. But, remember, this was a 17-10 game at halftime, and the unit gave the 49ers offense several opportunities to put points on the board.
So who's most to blame for yesterday's rout?
Blaine Gabbert, please raise your hand.
And if you asked Blaine to raise his hand again, it would be lower and further to the right than the first time he did it...more on that later.
It's easy, and at times unfair, to point to the quarterback as the major problem, but watching Blaine Gabbert's throwing the past two weeks gives you a pretty accurate diagnosis.
Some like to call Gabbert's accuracy erratic. Erratic would imply that there's a fairly decent split—sometimes it's there; sometimes it isn't. About 85 percent of the time, Gabbert is insanely inaccurate. And maybe it's just because it's been a long time since last season, or maybe it's because the rest of the team was in such disarray by comparison, but with a much improved offensive line, Gabbert looks worse throwing the ball than he did last year. Hell, even most of his completions are off target. If you look closely at his TD strike to Vance McDonald yesterday, you'll see that it's a millisecond away from being behind him.
This is the 49ers' biggest problem—one that Grant Cohn detailed and cautioned back in August. In the piece, he discusses the inconsistency of Gabbert's "arm slot," meaning the path the arm travels from launch point to release of the ball. As Cohn notes, sometimes Gabbert side arms it; sometimes his lower body is misaligned with where he's throwing the ball. As a result, you get some very wild inaccuracy—even on gimme plays like the wide open crossing route to Jeremy Kerley that Gabbert missed in the opener against the
St. Louis Los Angeles Rams. What's telling of the "arm slot" issue is that Gabbert's misses are inconsistent. Yes, a lot of times, the ball is behind the receiver, but sometimes it's 10 yards in front of him. On the next play, he'll skip it like a stone along the turf; other times it's too far to the left or right; then, it's too high.
Well what about his receivers? Are they helping any?
It's true, the 49ers have one of the least—if not the least—threatening wide-receiving corps in the league. Still, Jeremy Kerley is a veteran who has shown that he can get open in Chip Kelly's intermediate, quick-hitting passing game, and while he may be labeled by some as a one-trick pony, Torrey Smith's speed and ability to stretch the field should keep defenses honest as a result.
But it doesn't...because no one is worried that Gabbert will hit his target or make them pay for loading the box and staying aggressive. Then, you get what San Francisco had for years with Frank Gore:
A one-dimensional offense that becomes a zero-dimensional offense because opposing defenses only have to worry about stopping the run.
Furthermore, Gabbert's mechanics and accuracy issues have zero to do with who he's throwing to. I'm not saying havingJulio Jones or Antonio Brown split outside wouldn't help this offense, but you can be sure he'd miss them on more than several occasions.
For many, this will lead to clamoring for Colin Kaepernick, but make no mistake, Kaepernick won't be any better. Firstly, he has his own accuracy issues (remember that guy he hit on the sideline against Seattle last year?) More than that, he has an extremely slow delivery (which is a big issue in an offense like Kelly's, where quick release is key), and his inability to go through reads—let alone at a fast pace—further sinks him.
Gabbert has command of the offense's quick release and reads, he just can't execute it because the ball comes out different every time.
Does this leave the 49ers to consider Christian Ponder if Gabbert continues to struggle in the coming weeks? Or does the athletic potential of Kaepernick entice Kelly enough to give him a go. Given the depth chart, you'd be inclined to bank on the latter, but knowing Kaepernick's flaws, the fact that the league seemingly figured him out in 2014, and the front office's (or at least Trent Baalke's) alleged dislike for him, you have to wonder if the 49ers end up going straight to Ponder.
It's a shame to wonder what could be if the 49ers have a different player under center this season. The offensive line is playing extremely well and the defense has been better than advertised, despite the lack of a pass rush and occasional coverage gaffe. But when a guy with engrained crucial flaws is playing the most important position, it's going to eradicate the more promising things this team has going for it—except when playing bottom feeders like the Rams.