49ers looking for answers at backup quarterback

Colin Kaepernick only played one series in the San Francisco 49ers’ opening preseason game against the Baltimore Ravens. While he’s likely to see more time in Week 2, the team will still look to limit his snaps.

The reason for the lack of playing time is two-fold. First off, it’s imperative to the 49ers’ success this season that Kaepernick stay healthy (especially behind a bit of a makeshift offensive line at the moment). The second reason is because Jim Harbaugh and company need to find out what they have behind Kaepernick and who, if anyone, can step up to claim the backup quarterback role. 

San Francisco has two real candidates for the position, Blaine Gabbert and Josh Johnson. McLeod Bethel-Thompson is on the roster as well but is a long shot at this point.

Gabbert initially looked to have a lead in the competition after an impressive offseason that garnered him praise from his head coach.

“Very impressed with Blaine mentally, physically – all attributes that you’d like to see in a quarterback,” Harbaugh said during minicamp. “He’s been very good, very solid. (He’s) picked up everything very quickly. It’s going well. Everything is progressing well. I think you’ll watch it when you have a chance to see it today and look at it for yourself. In my eye, it looks very good.”

Despite the compliments and hope that being in a new environment would help jump-start the career of the former first round pick, Gabbert looked lost in his 49ers’ debut.

He completed only three of 11 passes (27 percent) for 20 yards and an interception. While it’s only one game, that performance is similar to what the Jacksonville Jaguars got from Gabbert in 2013 as he seemed to regress in his development. In three starts (all losses), Gabbert had a completion percentage of 49 percent and was picked off seven times. For his career, he is 5-22 as a starter.

Johnson, who Harbaugh coached at San Diego State, looked much better and more comfortable in the pocket than Gabbert did. He completed six of his eight throws for 63 yards but failed to put up any points.

While Johnson has experience with Harbaugh, he has also had very little success as a starter in the NFL. With the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Johnson was 0-5 when called upon to lead the first team. In his defense, four of those starts where in his rookie season on a team that ultimately went 3-13. For his career, Johnson’s thrown twice as many interceptions (10) as he has touchdowns (5).

Both Gabbert and Johnson will get the opportunity to make their case for the backup role in Week 2 of the exhibition season, as each will play at least a quarter. 

One area where Gabbert might have an advantage has nothing to do with what happens between the lines. His contract, which is fully guaranteed for 2014, will cost the 49ers about $2 million whether he is on the team or not. Johnson has nothing guaranteed to him.

In the end, the 49ers hope that the competition ends up being a moot point and Kaepernick stays healthy all season. Unfortunately, players staying on the field is never a given in the NFL, and it’s important to have someone to hold down the fort in the event that your starter goes down for any length of time. 

It would probably behoove San Francisco to invest a draft pick in a quarterback they would like to mold into a capable backup. Taking other teams’ scraps (i.e Gabbert, Colt McCoy) doesn’t seem to be working out the way they’d hoped. 

That’s for another day though. In the present, the 49ers have to hope one of Gabbert or Johnson step up and claim the position.  

Photo: Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press





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Al Sacco

Al Sacco is sports expert who knows football, baseball, basketball and hockey. He has spent his time as a sports journalist covering the San Francisco 49ers as a contributor to 49erswebzone.com and Ninerfans.com. He's been a guest on numerous podcasts and has had his work used on ESPN NFL Insiders and USA TODAY.


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