SANTA CLARA – Blaine Gabbert looked the part of a starting quarterback on Tuesday when the 49ers opened organized team activities.
He was decisive with his reads, and demonstrated a strong and accurate arm in distributing the ball to his group of mostly unknown targets.
All the while, just a few paces behind Gabbert, Colin Kaepernick was going through the same mechanics. Kaepernick has not been cleared to practice after surgeries on his left shoulder, right thumb and left knee, but he has been mimicking the movements of the quarterbacks in Chip Kelly’s offense during drills.
Gabbert and Kaepernick both started eight games for the 49ers last season. Competition in training camp will determine which quarterback takes the field when the 49ers open the regular season Sept. 12 against the Los Angeles Rams.
“I look at that challenge as one that I’m willing to accept,” Gabbert said Tuesday in his first public comments since the opening of the 49ers’ offseason program on April 4.
“Nothing is ever going to be given to you, especially in the National Football League. You’re not going to be given a job. You have to go out and take it. That’s my mindset. I’m never going to shy away from competition. You’re always competing, whether it’s against somebody or against yourself. I welcome that.”
Gabbert also said he welcomes the role he feels comes along with being the quarterback. He appears to embrace being a vocal leader more than Kaepernick. Gabbert said he does not have to measure his words while there’s still competition for the starting job.
“I don’t think I have to tread lightly at all,” Gabbert said. “For me, being a quarterback, you have to be a leader. You got to be the vocal guy on the football team, directing this offense, directing, really, offense, defense and special teams on game day. And that’s the thing I enjoy. I like being the guy that guys look to, whether to get them lined up or if they’re looking for advice and providing the offense (with) a little juice on the field.”
Kaepernick has not spoken publicly this offseason. Through a team spokesman, Kaepernick said he is focused on his rehab and will meet with the media once he receives medical clearance to return to practice.
Ultimately, Kelly will choose to start the quarterback he believes will run his offense more effectively. Kaepernick and Gabbert started eight games apiece last season in a Geep Chryst offense that was criticized for being too simplistic and not creating conflicts for the opposing defense.
Gabbert completed 63.1 percent of his passes while Kaepernick connected on 59 percent of his attempts. Gabbert averaged 7.2 yards per attempt, compared to Kaepernick’s 6.6. Gabbert threw 10 touchdowns and seven interceptions, while Kaepernick threw six touchdowns and five interceptions. Gabbert was sacked 25 times with 282 pass attempts, while Kaepernick was dropped 28 times with 244 attempts. Kaepernick rushed for 256 yards and one touchdown on 45 attempts, while Gabbert rushed 32 times for 185 yards and one touchdown.
Gabbert enters his sixth season in the league and his sixth different offensive system. Kaepernick is in his third system in the past three years.
“It’s quarterback-friendly,” Gabbert said of Kelly’s scheme. “The ball is in our hand. They ask us to distribute it, make the reads, and that’s all you can ask, playing quarterback. You want the ball in your hands and be responsible for it. That’s what coach Kelly entrusts in us, and we have to go out and perform.”
Kaepernick has been with the 49ers’ offseason program since the beginning after a trade with the Denver Broncos could not be executed after Kaepernick and the Broncos failed to reach an agreement on a new contract. Both quarterbacks are using the nine-week offseason program to get themselves best-prepared for the competition that will begin once training camp opens in late-July.
“His focus right now is rehab, and my focus right now is learning the offense, being in the weight room, being with the guys on the football field,” Gabbert said. “It’s been great. We’re in the meetings together. We’re in the locker room together. We’re out there working on getting out there together.”