Grant Cohn: The real reasons why Colin Kaepernick isn’t starting for 49ers

SANTA CLARA — Chip Kelly can't say the real reasons he won't play Colin Kaepernick just yet.

So Kelly gives the media phony reasons. Uses Kaepernick's offseason surgeries and lack of body weight as justification to keep him on the bench. As if body weight is the issue here. As if Kaepernick can't throw or hand off a 12.5-ounce football unless he weighs no less than 225 pounds. As if he's some sumo wrestler or Olympic-weight lifter competing against the Pocket Hercules.

'(Kaepernick) is the first one to tell you that he's not where he was when he was in 2013 when he was 225 pounds,' Kelly insisted Wednesday morning. 'That's the only point I'm trying to make up. It's not a knock on Colin. What his state is now is not his fault. He was injured.

'Has he been cleared to play medically? Yeah, he can go in a game right now. But is he the same Colin Kaepernick that he was in 2013? I think he said yesterday that he's not that right now. So that's the only point I'm making.'

Let's see if we can get this straight. Kelly said Kaepernick is healthy, but can't be the starter until he gains weight, reverses the aging process, goes back in time and becomes 25 years old again?

A reporter tried get Kelly to clarify what he meant. 'So, you feel like in order for Colin to compete with Blaine Gabbert … '

'No, I'm not saying that,' Kelly blurted out before he even heard the question.

The reporter tried again. 'Colin has to be 100 percent healthy?'

'No,' Kelly answered. 'I'm not saying that either.'

'Are you saying he has to weigh 225 pounds to be a starting quarterback?' I asked.

'No, that's not what I said either.'

Well, that clears that up. Thanks, Coach.

Why was Kelly being so evasive? I have a theory. We, the media, were asking questions which took his statements at face value. Asking him to explain the reasons he gave us for not starting Kaepernick, reasons which really were non-reasons.

He couldn't have said the real reasons. Like despite how bad Gabbert is, Kaepernick is even worse. I'm guessing that's the case every single day during practice. Call that Reason No. 1.

Here are more reasons. See if they make sense to you.

Reason No. 2. Niners general manager Trent Baalke wants to trade Kaepernick to a team whose starting quarterback suffers a season-ending injury before the trade deadline, and Baalke wants to maintain Kaepernick's trade value, which really is a phantom value based on another team's desperation. If Kelly plays Kaepernick now and he flops, his phantom value no longer will exist and Baalke won't be able to trade him.

Reason No. 3. If Kelly were to bench Gabbert after just three games, Kelly would make himself look foolish for picking the wrong quarterback to begin with. He also would look foolish for wasting the entire offseason training program — April to August — preparing Gabbert to be the starter.

Reason No. 4. If and when Kelly benches Gabbert, the move will crush Gabbert's confidence, the Niners will lose him for the rest of the season and Kelly will have just two quarterbacks left — Kaepernick and Christian Ponder. And if Kaepernick plays even worse than Gabbert, and Kelly has to bench him, too, Kelly would have just one quarterback left. I think he still wants three viable quarterbacks.

Reason No. 5. Benching Gabbert won't suddenly make Kelly's offense great. Gabbert is not the offense's biggest problem — Kelly is. Kelly and his offensive game plans.

Kelly alluded to Reason No. 5 at the end of his Wednesday press conference, although he didn't explicitly criticize himself. 'A lot of times if we're not having success on offense, it's all blamed on Blaine. But, if we need to run the ball better, that's not Blaine's fault we're not running the ball better. We've got a Power play called, the quarterback's job on Power is to hand the ball off. So, I don't know how that's Blaine's fault in those situations.

'But, I understand the nature of the beast, and that if you're a quarterback you're going to get your fair share (of criticism). I think he's done a good job protecting the football. We threw an interception the other day but it went through the receiver's hands. So, it goes down as an interception for the quarterback, but you've got to look at how that happened and how that went. Sometimes I think when you just look at sheer statistics, you say, 'Well, he threw a pick.' Well, did he throw the pick or did a receiver drop the ball?

'I think there's certain things you have to look at in terms of how everybody contributes to whether we're having success on the offensive side of the ball or not having success and it's not all just on one guy. If it was on one guy, that would be an easy fix. But, it's not on one guy and that's why we feel real confident with him moving forward.'

Kelly is absolutely right. Take Sunday's game against the Seahawks, which the Niners lost partially because they didn't convert a single third down until the fourth quarter when they were trailing by 34 points.

Gabbert wasn't the reason the offense couldn't convert — Kelly was. He called 10 third-down pass plays, and every single pattern made the primary receiver run short of the first-down marker. On third-and-7, the primary receiver ran a 4-yard route. On third-and-4, the primary receiver ran a 2-yard route.

Call that football idiocy. Every NFL coach knows the best chance to convert a third down involves the quarterback throwing past the first-down marker, not in front of it.

The only third down the Niners converted through the air against the Seahawks, Gabbert threw a 10-yard pass to Torrey Smith who was 7 yards past the marker. And that play wasn't even designed to go to Smith. It was designed for Jeremy Kerley, who ran a 3-yard curl route.

Gabbert made that play in spite of Kelly's timid play call. And Kelly knows it. Knows he hasn't given his offense a real chance to succeed on third downs this season. Knows his game plans must improve before he can pull the plug on Gabbert and make Kaepernick the starter.

I think that's what Kelly is trying to say.

Grant Cohn writes sports columns and the 'Inside the 49ers' blog for The Press Democrat's website. You can reach him at

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