Two weeks into Kaepernick's latest tenure as the team's starting quarterback, he has mostly performed as expected. Which is to say he has been productive with his legs but mostly ineffective with his arm. Compared to Gabbert, the numbers show that Kaepernick has been better running the ball, while Gabbert was better throwing it.
In Sunday's 34-17 loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Kaepernick was 16-of-34 for 143 yards with a touchdown and an interception. On throws traveling 5 yards or more downfield, Kaepernick was just 5-of-15. He now has completed only 38.2 percent of those throws this season. According to ESPN Stats & Information research, if Kaepernick qualified, that would be the worst completion percentage on such passes of any quarterback in the league this season. Gabbert would be second-worst. The qualifier used for QBs is those who are on pace for 250 action plays in a season. Kaepernick has 88 action plays through seven team games.
“I have to be better," Kaepernick said. "Throwing, I think we threw for about 100 yards. That’s not going to win in the NFL. We have to be able to do better on that, and ultimately, we have to string this together as a team and play well as a team for 60 minutes to get wins.”
In reality, the 49ers' offense might have a new starting quarterback, but so far, not much has changed.
Through the first five games with Gabbert as the starter, the Niners averaged 291.4 yards per game, 4.5 yards per play, 19 first downs per game and 22.2 points per game. In two weeks with Kaepernick behind center, the 49ers have posted 286.5 yards per game, 4.6 yards per play, 18 first downs per game and 16.5 points per game.
Those numbers speak to the fact that not only do the 49ers not have much of a supporting cast for whomever is at quarterback, but they also don't have the quarterback they need to elevate the players around him. Most notably, Kaepernick so far hasn't proved accurate enough to operate coach Chip Kelly's offense.
While Gabbert had an off-target throw percentage of 20.9, Kaepernick's is 22 percent.
“It’s been up and down," Kelly said. "I think some of it is our protection issues -- are we able to get to our spot, get to the proper drop and then get the ball off at the proper time? Again, and I know I’ve said this before, but it’s not one set thing where it’s, if Colin is a little bit more accurate, we’re OK. I think it’s a combination of the routes we’re running, the protection that we’re giving him and then giving him the time that he has to throw it. I thought he’s been OK so far."
To Kelly's point, both Kaepernick and Gabbert have been victims of receivers dropping passes. Kaepernick's pass-catchers have a drop percentage of 7.9 percent. Gabbert's was 6.7 percent.
Asked Monday if Kaepernick would continue as his quarterback when the Niners return from their bye week to play the New Orleans Saints, Kelly said, "We’ll go through everything, but I don’t envision making any changes at the quarterback spot.”
After all, Gabbert got five starts before Kaepernick got his opportunity, and since Kaepernick has performed in similar fashion and is coming off injuries, it's only fair to give him a chance to improve. Although the numbers don't show it (other than in the rushing column), Kelly said he saw improvement in Kaepernick from his start on Oct. 16 at Buffalo.
Kelly pointed specifically to the amount of third downs the Niners converted and Kaepernick's ability to make things happen on the run as a way to draw Tampa Bay out of man-coverage concepts to try to slow him down as areas where he saw steps forward.
"I saw an improvement from the Bills game to this game," Kelly said. "We hope he can continue to grow and build upon that. That’s part of what we have to do with him as a player, is see if we can get incrementally better as the weeks go on. But I think there was improvement from the Bills game to this game.”
That rushing ability is the one area that Kaepernick has clearly been an upgrade over Gabbert. Gabbert averaged 4.41 yards per carry on 39 attempts, which wasn't bad. But Kaepernick has actually doubled that average, with 8.82 yards per attempt on 17 runs. But that production was to be expected, as running has always been Kaepernick's greatest strength.
Throwing from the pocket, however, remains an issue. Because of Kaepernick's accuracy issues, teams haven't blitzed much in hopes of forcing him to beat them by throwing. He has been blitzed just 11 times while coming under pressure on a whopping 30 percent of his dropbacks. Some of that is a result of Kaepernick's tendency to stay in the pocket longer than Gabbert, as Kaepernick has averaged 2.38 seconds in the pocket and 2.97 seconds before releasing the ball.
By comparison, Gabbert's average time in the pocket was 2.22 seconds with an average of 2.35 seconds before a pass. Defenses blitzed Gabbert an average of nine times per game, and he was under pressure on 23.3 percent of his dropbacks, but Gabbert's ability to get the ball out quickly meant that he was sacked just twice per game on average.
Since Kaepernick missed so much valuable time in the offseason, it's to be expected that he would need time to readjust to the athleticism of opposing defenses. It's one thing to take practice reps and something entirely different to do it live.
“Colin has a lot to recall, because he’s got extensive playing experience in this league," Kelly said. "There is a change from the speed of the game as you get into games, and I think the more experience he gets -- understanding who his receivers are, understanding who’s protecting him, understanding where he can escape in protection -- the little teeny things that, it’s not going to be something that you just pick up like that and jump back on the bike and just start riding again. It’s something that the experience is -- hopefully you’re better from the experiences that you’re getting of taking those valuable snaps that he’s getting right now.”