The 49ers are last place in the NFC West—something which hasn’t happened to the team since the 2005 season. While it might be observed by the fans as a meaningless game, quarterback Blaine Gabbert is looking to Sunday’s season finale against the St. Louis Rams at home as a chance to establish momentum to carry into next season.
Not entirely meaningless, some fans might be looking for San Francisco to tank the game—the only outcome at “stake” for both teams is draft position. With a St. Louis victory, the Rams would move to .500 — they will finish third, regardless — a 49ers loss would bring the team to a 4-12 final mark on the season, likely establishing themselves as contenders in the Jared Goff sweepstakes.
Currently, San Francisco is slated to pick fifth overall in the draft.
Gabbert isn’t thinking about draft position. After all, what’s a better way to kick off a new year then with a victory at the start of it?
“It’s huge to build momentum going into the offseason program, momentum into next season,” Gabbert said. “You want to end the season strong. You want to hang your hat on something positive. It’s a big game for a lot of people.”
Gabbert could be playing for his job. General manager Trent Baalke still has not ruled out the return of Colin Kaepernick, who would count for approximately $14 million against the cap next season, should the 49ers opt to keep him around. Still under contract, Gabbert would be a more affordable option for San Francisco—he’s scheduled to make a cool $1.75 million in base salary in 2016.
He’s made a go of the opportunity handed to him. Sunday will be Gabbert’s eighth start since taking over the starting role—before him, Kaepernick had posted a 2-6 record in the first eight games, until he was placed on season-ending injured reserve. The poise and command Gabbert has shown behind center could possibly be the reason he is the team’s statistical leader at quarterback: Gabbert currently ranks 27th in the NFL with a passer rating of 86.1, Kaepernick ranks 32nd with a passer rating of 78.5. Sunday will certainly be viewed by the 49ers’ coaching staff as a telling day moving forward.
Gabbert’s completion percentage is also higher — 63 percent to 59 percent — and he’s thrown more touchdown passes than Kaepernick —nine, versus the six Kaepernick has thrown. Despite these numbers, the 49ers offensive unit’s biggest issue has been stringing together 60 minutes of football this season. Last week against the Lions, they hit the field running in the first half, but failed to score any second half points in a 32-17 loss.
Regardless, Gabbert thinks the offense has done things they can use to build on for the future.
“We didn’t win a lot of games, but I feel like we’ve been playing pretty clean football and not making a lot of mental errors, not making a lot of critical errors,” he said. “At the end of the day, I have to do more to win games. I know that. We all know that. That’s what we’re looking to do this week.”
Despite the comparisons, Gabbert doesn’t believe there has been any competition between him and Kaepernick to determine who the teams quarterback should be. In fact, the two haven’t had much contact since Kaepernick departed the team for surgery on his left shoulder. Gabbert has focused on doing his job, and learning to get better.
“He’s [Kaepernick] rehabbing right now,” Gabbert said. “I’m going about my same routine with Dylan [Thompson] and [Bethel-Thompson] and coach [Steve] Logan and the offensive staff, and that’s the biggest thing I’m worried about. I’m worried about being accountable to my teammates and the guys who are out there on Sundays.”
While Gabbert might be focused on getting better for next season, his sentiments of being content with doing the best possible job, and using the final game to establish momentum, weren’t shared by all of his teammates. Specifically wideout Torrey Smith, who is in the first year of a five-year, $40 million contract he signed with San Francisco last season.
He isn’t the least bit satisfied with this season, he said on Wednesday. Smith has registered 28 catches for 602 yards and four touchdowns this season through 15 games.
“Terrible. I have high expectations for myself and I didn’t reach any of my goals. So it’s a horrible season.”
Before he arrived in Santa Clara, Smith was coached by another Harbaugh— Jim’s brother, John Harbaugh — played alongside men such as Ray Lewis and Anquan Boldin, and won a Super Bowl, over San Francisco, ironically. If you ask Smith, it’s all or nothing, Super Bowl or bust, win a championship, or your entire year was a waste of time.
“You ask me, every year, there’s 31 losers. It’s a big waste of a year for everyone if we don’t win it all. That’s how I feel, personally.”
Smith’s expectations could be elevated—his Super Bowl season came during just his second year in the league. He’s going to miss the playoffs this year.
“It sucks man, to know you’re not going to the playoffs, because at the end of the day, that’s why you do all that work in the offseason, to get to the playoffs and win the Super Bowl.”
David Barclay is a 49ers Insider for byteclay.com. E-mail: email@example.com Twitter: @DJamesIII