HOUSTON -- Blaine Gabbert got the surprise start in the 49ers' exhibition finale Thursday night, and he reverted to the sketchy form that won't inspire confidence as Colin Kaepernick's top backup.
Gabbert was 4 of 11 passing for 60 yards, ending at least on a positive note with a 14-yard touchdown pass on his final throw in the 49ers' eventual 40-13 win over the Texans.
Josh Johnson is the 49ers' only backup option beside Gabbert, and he made a valiant bid to stick on the roster, if not unseat Gabbert for the No. 2 role.
Johnson was 14 of 17 for 135 yards with three touchdown passes, including one on his first snap, a 13-yard throw to Bruce Ellington just before halftime.
Safely watching from the sideline was Kaepernick, who coach Jim Harbaugh said Monday would start as he did last year's exhibition finale. Kaepernick warmed up and stayed in full uniform, as did most other projected starters for the Sept. 7 regular-season opener, just up Interstate 45 against the Dallas Cowboys.
While Gabbert's grasp on the No. 2 job could be best tied to his $2 million guaranteed salary, Thursday's audition brought back reminders of his struggles in the first two exhibitions, not to mention his former tenure with the Jacksonville Jaguars.
Gabbert was 1 of 6 for 11 yards before throwing into double coverage and finding Derek Carrier for a 32-yard completion. His overall exhibition stats: 22 of 47 for 186 yards, two touchdowns, two interceptions and a 54.0 passer rating.
The 49ers' first-half possessions behind Gabbert: punt, punt, punt, punt and then, presto, a touchdown pass to rookie tight end Asante Cleveland 1:18 before halftime.
Harbaugh hasn't wavered on Gabbert as his No. 2 quarterback, though the coach threw open the job to anyone who didn't commit a turnover after Gabbert, Johnson and McLeod Bethel-Thompson each committed one in an Aug. 17 loss to the Denver Broncos.
Gabbert struggled out of the gate against a Texans defense that sat all but three of its first-string players, including J.J. Watt, Jadeveon Clowney, Brian Cushing and Johnathan Joseph.
Gabbert overthrew Stevie Johnson on his first two pass attempts, and on the next possession, he had a third-down pass nearly intercepted after it sailed over 6-foot-4 tight end Vance McDonald. The third series stalled near the 49ers goal line, keyed by a holding penalty on Daniel Kilgore and a sack of Gabbert that left tackle Carter Bykowski allowed.
At least three of Gabbert's passes went off receivers' hands, those of Johnson, Ellington and Alfonso Smith. Gabbert showed his running ability more than he had, producing two carries for 11 yards and having one scramble wiped out by an in-the-grasp call.
Johnson completed his first four passes (for 49 yards) before Lance Lewis dropped a third-down pass. Johnson's mobility also is a plus for his bid, and he used that to dash 17 yards on a fourth-and-2 keeper.
Although Johnson had a third-quarter pass intercepted and returned for a touchdown (by Andre Hall), that blame can at least partly go to wideout L'Damian Washington, who whiffed on the ball. Johnson later found Kyle Nelson for a fourth-quarter touchdown pass.
No matter how well Johnson played Thursday, history shows it may not matter. He excelled in the 2012 exhibition finale but lost out on the No. 3 role to Scott Tolzien. Johnson's progress and Gabbert's struggles could prompt the 49ers to carry three quarterbacks, something they did only part of last season.
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