By Sam McPherson
The San Francisco 49ers have a long history of quarterbacking brilliance, stemming from the arrival of Joe Montana at Candlestick Park more than 35 seasons ago. From 1981-1998, the 49ers made the postseason 16 times and won five Super Bowls with MVP-level performances almost every season from Montana or Steve Young.
Obviously, Hall of Fame QBs don’t grow on trees, and since 1999 when Young went down with a concussion that ended his career, the San Francisco organization has made the playoffs just five times in 17 seasons. Who has it better than us? A lot of NFL cities, actually, because they have better QBs.
Current 49ers starting QB Blaine Gabbert probably will not make the Hall of Fame, barring a career resurgence along the lines of former S.F. quarterback Jim Plunkett. However, the organization has to decide now if Gabbert is good enough to helm the 2016 49ers based on his performance this year since being named the starter after a 2-6 start to the season.
Gabbert Has Done More With Less
Former starting QB Colin Kaepernick was 2-6 this year before being replaced. He had running back Carlos Hyde and tight end Vernon Davis to work with most of the time, and Kaep still struggled to get the offense rolling. Meanwhile, Gabbert has had to play QB without those two players in the last four games, and he’s played better than Kaepernick—as reflected on the stat sheet and in the win column.
Kaep led the team to a mere 13.6 points per game, while Gabbert has upped that number to 17.3 points per game with less of a supporting cast. Also, Gabbert’s QB rating is 11 points higher, and he’s thrown for 61 more yards per game. That’s more first downs, more possession time and more points for the 49ers offense. Just think how much the offense could improve for Gabbert in 2016 when Hyde is healthy and the offensive line is improved.
Salary Cap Concerns
Gabbert counts against the salary cap this year for only $1.75 million, while Kaepernick is counting for over $15 million. That’s an easy financial decision to make going forward for next year, based on performance and results. While it remains to be seen what will be done with Kaep in the offseason, the 49ers should be able to keep Gabbert at a reasonable rate next season.
His cap hit for 2016 is projected at just $2.25 million, and maybe the S.F. organization would renegotiate in good faith if Gabbert is going to start. However, think about how much extra money that would leave the team to spend on its other needs (offensive and defensive lines, for example). Gabbert is a cheap and effective option for 2016 if the 49ers want to go that way.
Draft QBs Anyway
Even if the S.F. brass decides to keep Gabbert as the starter for next season, the team should still pick some QBs anyway in the draft. Maybe they can trade down from the Top-10 pick the team will have in April, acquiring more picks in the process. There are always QB gems in the rough, every draft. Remember, Montana was a third-round pick, and Tom Brady was a sixth-round pick.
The 49ers can trade down, fix other areas of the roster and still grab a few potential QBs of the future to back up Gabbert for the next season and beyond. It’s a foolproof strategy, in truth, when you also consider the salary-cap ramifications. In truth, every NFL team should be picking multiple QBs each year of the draft to prepare for the future.
Rebuild The Defense
In the end, it may not matter who the 49ers QB is next year as long as the defense improves to something resembling the 2011-13 units. Remember, those teams made an NFC Championship Game appearance with Alex Smith at quarterback (2011) and with rookie Kaepernick at quarterback (2012). The defense enabled the offense to do what it needed to do in order to win.
Imagine a 2016 with Gabbert playing the Smith role, with a defense on par with that 2011-13 group. Looking through that lens, Gabbert should be more than enough to lead the 49ers back to the postseason. Defenses win championships, still, as we saw the last two years with the Seattle Seahawks and the New England Patriots. Brady may have won the Super Bowl MVP award last year, but he threw two interceptions in the process—and the Patriots defense actually won the game in the end on its own.
Sam McPherson is a freelance writer covering baseball, football, basketball, golf, hockey and fantasy sports for CBS, AXS and Examiner. He also is an Ironman triathlete and certified triathlon coach.