SANTA CLARA, Calif. - Blaine Gabbert was 22 yards from potentially beating one of the favorites to reach the Super Bowl on Sunday.
The 49ers drove down to the Arizona Cardinals' 22-yard line with 1:20 remaining, down just six points after the Cardinals scored a go-ahead touchdown earlier in the quarter and missing the extra point.
But Anquan Boldin came up two yards short of a first down on a fourth-and-20 play with the game in the balance. It was a deep crossing route, and two defenders tackled him short, thwarting the 49ers' chances at an unlikely comeback.
Gabbert was sacked for a 10-yard loss on third-and-10, making things difficult on the 49ers. The Cardinals, as they typically do, blitzed, and Gabbert couldn't get rid of the ball quickly enough.
"I just got to find a way to get the ball out. They have a tendency to bring pressure after you got a completion, especially in the two-minute drill and it was just unfortunate," Gabbert said. "I tried to slip a tackle and maybe get a run in there, but I got to find a way to get rid of the ball. I can’t take a sack in that situation.”
Truthfully, Gabbert was a downright bad quarterback during his stint with the Jacksonville Jaguars, before the 49ers traded a throw-away sixth-round pick to make him Colin Kaepernick's back up before the start of 2014.
But since taking over the starting job from Kaepernick three games ago, he's proven a far more competent passer than many projected. His play in a win over Atlanta and last week's loss to Seattle drew praise from Cardinals defensive back Tyrann Mathieu leading up to Sunday's game. However, Mathieu intercepted Gabbert, leading to an Arizona field goal in the first half.
The 49ers had two turnovers on the day leading to six points, before losing 19-13.
But Gabbert has become a far more confident player, and it's evident in the way he plays. Stepping up against pressure, not leaving the pocket too soon, and taking big hits when he knows they're coming while still keeping his eyes down field. Those were all things that Gabbert didn't do in Jacksonville, leading many to believe he wouldn't be fit for the starting job after Kaepernick struggled so mightily behind a struggling offensive line.
"Confidence is key in this profession. If you don’t step on that field with that confident mindset, you’re not going to play well. And so, I try and put my best foot forward day in and day out throughout the week of practice so I can go out there and be confident in our team, myself and go out there and win football games,” said Gabbert.
Gabbert's immediate future is as the starting quarterback for the remaining five games after Kaepernick had surgery to repair a torn labrum in his non-throwing shoulder last week. Gabbert's 318 yards passing against Arizona's fourth-ranked defense was a career high. He even out-dueled Carson Palmer, the NFL's most prolific passer, who threw for 271 yards Sunday.
"Blaine’s playing awesome. Some of the plays he makes, I think he’s able to showcase some of his skills and prove that he belongs in this league," receiver Torrey Smith said. "I’m just glad that he’s able to go out and prove it. But we need to get some wins to show for it and make some plays for him."