There he was, San Francisco 49ers quarterback Blaine Gabbert, sprawled on his back in the grass, tugging at his chinstrap. Nearby, Carolina Panthers defensive tackle Star Lotulelei pranced to the sideline.
Lotulelei’s sack would not decide the game as much as confirmed the eventual result – a 46-27 Panthers victory.
The play, at the start of the fourth quarter, came with the 49ers trailing 31-10 and largely inept on offense. Their sole touchdown had been a 28-yard pass from Gabbert to Torrey Smith in the second quarter. But otherwise? Nothing.
Yet here they were, with the ball 15 yards from the end zone, with a possible comeback waiting.
But there was no touchdown. Instead there was Gabbert, the ball tucked under his armpit, mauled by a man 80 pounds heavier. Then Gabbert sadly sat on the field while the field goal unit jogged on. The 49ers settled for three points instead of seven.
That play, more than Gabbert’s two garbage-time interceptions or multiple off-target passes, summarized his less-than-ideal afternoon.
“Up and down,” 49ers coach Chip Kelly called Gabbert’s performance. “Just as a team we were up and down. I’m not going to single one guy out.”
He doesn’t need to. Gabbert’s afternoon, where he completed less than half his passes (17 of 36, for 243 yards) and threw two game-clinching interceptions in the waning minutes, spoke volumes.
But Gabbert had bright spots: A rushing touchdown, his first of the year, plus the touchdown toss to Smith.
One other play stood out.
The 49ers were down two scores in the fourth when Gabbert unleashed to Vance McDonald, who subsequently ran 75 yards for a touchdown. Suddenly the Panthers, who led by three scores entering the last quarter, only led by seven.
“That was a great catch and run by Vance,” Gabbert said, “and he showed his wheels.”
That was as close as the 49ers would come.
A Carolina field goal stretched the lead to 10, but Gabbert and the offense got the ball back with four minutes to play.
Gabbert’s first pass of the possession went back to McDonald, again streaking down the field. He dropped it.
The very next throw, Gabbert looked to the right edge of the field and unleashed. This time, the ball was caught – by Carolina linebacker Luke Kuechly.
“Those are on me just trying to make a play,” Gabbert said. “Trying to give us a little juice, get a big first down, get chunks of yardage because the clock was dwindling.
“Those fall on me. Those are inexcusable.”
Once he intercepted the pass, Kuechly screamed and did a dance of his own. His teammates joined in the celebration. The last four minutes would be a formality after all.
At that moment, a second Carolina defender sashayed by Gabbert. He watched for a second, then took his helmet off again.
There was nothing more he could do.