Tomsula wouldn’t tell us, but Gabbert showed us

By Art Spander

SANTA CLARA, Calif. — The head coach was hesitant to tell us, maybe even afraid to tell us, but the new quarterback certainly showed us. The position is Blaine Gabbert’s to lose because when finally given the chance to start he didn’t lose, and all the avoidance and equivocation by Jim Tomsula won’t make a difference,

Gabbert, a replacement for the beleaguered Colin Kaepernick, wasn’t the only reason the 49ers won a game, scoring a touchdown for the first time in nine quarters Sunday, then another, and stunning the Atlanta Falcons, 17-16, before some fans (70,799 announced) and a lot of empty seats at Levi’s Stadium.

The Niners' defense, reminiscent of the recent glory days circa 2012, and led by the resilient NaVorro Bowman, alternately stuffed the run and chased the passer, Matt Ryan, so a team averaging 414 yards a game was held to 302. And no less significantly was held to one touchdown and three field goals.

So if you want to contend as football people have for decades that defense was the difference — hey, if the other team doesn’t score, you can’t lose — you’ll get no argument here. But no less significant was the way the Niners (3-6) moved the ball when needed, and that certainly had to do with Gabbert.

When after their bye weekend the Niners resume the schedule November 22 at Seattle, Gabbert should once more be in the starting lineup. And will be. However, Tomsula, who is both uninformative and uninspiring, refused to make a commitment. His catch phrase is “We’ve got a lot of work to do.”

Of course. But the work has to be done by people on the field. And after throwing a couple of touchdown passes to Garrett Celek (and completing 15 of 25 for 185 yards, with two interceptions) and running for 32 yards, including a couple of bootlegs for first downs, Gabbert has to be one of those people.

This was a strange if rewarding day for the Niners, in a game that had a few spits of rain early on but mostly was played in dry, bleak weather — and so much for the complaints of fans on the east side of Levi’s having to flee downstairs to avoid sunburn.

The Niners had all sorts of backups, including running back Shaun Draughn (58 yards rushing, 38 receiving) and defensive back Marcus Cromartie, just activated, in their lineups. They also had a gift of sorts from Atlanta coach Dan Quinn, who went for a field goal from the San Francisco one on fourth and goal with three minutes remaining.

He went by the book, believing it’s sacrilegious to get that deep and fail to get on the scoreboard. “He was confident our defense would get the stop,” said Ryan, the Falcon QB. But the defense didn’t, and so the Falcons fell to 6-3. You need guys on the other side to make dumb decisions along with players on your side making smart ones.

Bowman was a major factor in the Niners success of 2012 and 2013 but had his knee ripped up in the 2013 NFC Championship loss at Seattle. Only now, almost two calendar years after the injury, does he feel like the line backer of yore — if 22 months can be considered yore.

“I’m getting there,” said Bowman, satisfied with much of his play, particularly a sack of Ryan on third and nine for a nine-yard loss early in the final quarter.

“After going through adversity at times you feel like you’re still going backward even when you’re making progress,” said Bowman. “At times we’re playing like we did in the past.”

Atlanta’s Devonta Freeman, leading the NFL in rushing with an average of 88 yards a game, was limited to 12 yards in 12 carries. That’s defense. “The coaches did a great job,” said Bowman about the game plan. “They said we had to get in his face.”

Gabbert hadn’t played in a league game since 2013 when he was with Jacksonville. He was prepared to make a return, physically — he had a broken thumb at Jacksonville — and mentally, treating the start with the calmness required.

“The biggest thing,” said Gabbert, echoing the appropriate comments of others in his situation, “is we got the victory. It wasn’t pretty at times, but our defense played well.”

It takes an honest man to sing an honest song.

“I felt great,” he said. Until in the fourth quarter when he was smacked, had to undergo a concussion check and was replaced for three plays by Kaepernick. “I was a little fired up,” said Gabbert about being replaced, even for so brief a time, “but that’s the protocol.”

Another type of protocol is to declare the quarterback who comes off the bench to get points and a victory your starter. Come on, Coach Tomsula. Your team and Blaine Gabbert deserve no less.

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