Panthers have their QB back; 49ers look like they have a QB problem

Fans attending the 49ers’ preseason home debut against the Broncos at Levi’s Stadium on Sunday were treated to screaming-fast WiFi and an opportunity to christen the new beer garden. Unfortunately, they were also subjected to a sputtering San Francisco offense in a 34-0 loss.

For the second straight week, offensive coordinator Greg Roman’s unit was unable to get in the end zone.

Quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s two series didn’t garner any points, but under his guidance, the offense was able get in field-goal range. Still learning the nuances of the new playing surface, kicker Phil Dawson struggled to connect on both of his field-goal tries, missing from distances of 55 and 44 yards.

It’s certainly not time to panic regarding San Francisco’s first-team offense, though. Roman’s creative play-calling, which includes cutting-edge, read-option concepts, was shelved for the week.

Giving veteran wide receiver Brandon Lloyd and other faces an extended look, the 49ers seemed to be in evaluate-and-learn mode.

One thing was clear, though. The Broncos have formidable options behind their franchise signal-caller, while the 49ers own a huge question mark.

Following quarterback Peyton Manning’s two scoring drives, one that was capped by a 17-yard scoring strike to tight end Julius Thomas, Brock Osweiler moved the offense efficiently. The 6-foot-7, 240-pound quarterback even connected on a 33-yard score with rookie wide receiver Cody Latimer in the third quarter, putting an exclamation point on a day when he completed 10 of 13 passes for 105 yards. San Francisco’s backup options didn’t enjoy the same types of success.

Blaine Gabbert, whom the 49ers traded a sixth-round pick for this offseason, piggybacked his subpar preseason debut with another forgettable display.

Gabbert appeared hurried and indecisive. In two weeks, the fourth-year quarterback hasn’t completed a pass that’s traveled at least 10 yards in flight. Accuracy and ball placement issues were pointed out by color analyst Tim Ryan.

Gabbert floated a pass high over the middle intended for running back Jewel Hampton, and the ball was tipped and nearly fell into the hands of Broncos cornerback Omar Bolden.

Later, Gabbert zeroed in on second-year wide receiver Quinton Patton. Broncos cornerback Tony Carter undercut the pass and hauled in the interception, running it 32 yards before Gabbert brought him down. After that pass — and tackle — Gabbert’s day was done.

Quarterbacks Josh Johnson and McLeod Bethel-Thompson weren’t much of an upgrade, either.

While head coach Jim Harbaugh said he was “very pleased” with Gabbert’s 3-of-11 outing last week, the back-to-back puzzling performances suggest that Gabbert could be more of a liability than a viable contingency plan.

“Whoever doesn’t turn the ball over will be the back-up quarterback,” said Harbaugh after the game, via San Jose Mercury News, ruling out any idea the team will be in the market for another option.

With Gabbert, the 49ers understood what they were taking on when they acquired him.

“That’s what our guys are working on with him,” 49ers CEO Jed York said on the telecast, referencing Gabbert’s on-field mentality. “Obviously, he didn’t have the best experience in Jacksonville, and it’s very similar to Alex [Smith]. You’re an early draft pick and not performing. He didn’t have all the pieces, and you have to start undoing some of the things. He needs to go out there and have fun.”

With other backups such as Eagles quarterback Mark Sanchez and Patriots quarterback Ryan Mallett using the preseason as an opportunity to build their resumes, Gabbert has fallen short in his small sample size.

Guaranteed a $2 million base salary this season, Gabbert is a likely lock to make the 53-man roster. The real question is will he have any suitors next offseason when he enters free agency.

When Kaepernick was asked if he had anything to say regarding Gabbert’s performance, the third-year quarterback quipped, via San Jose Mercury News: “That’s the great thing about being a player, I don’t have to worry about that.”

With a sparkling stadium in Santa Clara and Super Bowl expectations swirling, the 49ers’ priority remains Kaepernick’s availability.

The Carolina comeback

Cam Newton’s first in-game action since undergoing ankle surgery in March started slow. Overshooting his wide receivers and succumbing to a fierce Chiefs’ pass rush, Newton was immobilized.

After the Panthers’ third straight three-and-out to open the game, the 6-foot-5, 240-pound quarterback finally found his rhythm.

Hooking up with tight end Ed Dickson on the drive’s second play after a 1-of-5 start to his game, Newton led the Panthers into scoring position and, after a 32-yard pass interference call, running back Jonathan Stewart punched it in from six yards out for a score and a 7-6 Panthers lead.

On the next series, Newton opened with a 24-yard strike to rookie wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin, putting Carolina deep inside Kansas City territory. A few plays later, Stewart knifed a carry in for a score from three yards out, and the hosts were up 14-6 en route to a 28-16 win.

Overall, Newton finished 4-of-9 for 65 yards, playing behind a remade offensive line and a group of new pass catchers. And perhaps more than what they saw, Panthers fans — and coaches — had to like what they heard from Newton after the game.

"We had a slow start tonight, which is unacceptable," The Associated Press quoted Newton as saying after the game. "We have to stay on schedule and not waste opportunities like the shot to Benji. Kansas City’s a good football team and we didn’t match their intensity early, but it was good to put a few drives together and score some points."

For the record, "Benji" is receiver Benjamin, whom Newton overthrew during his sluggish start, after the rookie got behind the secondary.

Chief priority

Dwayne Bowe’s tumultuous week, which included being handed a one-game suspension by the NFL, ended on a bright note.

Bowe was targeted often by Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith and finished with five receptions for 62 yards. Despite head coach Andy Reid referencing one of Bowe’s fingers as “shot” earlier this week, the veteran wide receiver flashed sticky hands.

While the Chiefs could technically cut ties with Bowe and be off the hook for his hefty salary after his suspension for violaing the league’s substance-abuse policy, FOX Sports 1’s NFL insider Alex Marvez writes Kansas City has shown no inclinations of doing so.

Denver hits the ground running

While Montee Ball recovers from an appendectomy, other Broncos running backs are gaining valuable reps.

C.J. Anderson, who returned from a concussion suffered in the preseason opener, finished with a game-high 29 yards on nine carries. Anderson displayed a nice blend of power and lateral agility.

Anderson, who went undrafted in 2013, was complemented by Ronnie Hillman, who caught the eye of NFL on FOX analyst Kirk Morrison with his 25 total yards from scrimmage on five touches.

From the trainer’s room

*49ers safety Antoine Bethea had an early exit after sustaining a concussion in the second quarter, the team announced. Bethea must pass the league’s concussion protocol to be available for next week’s contest against the Chargers.

*The Chiefs employed a steady dose of Knile Davis and Cyrus Gray as running back Jamaal Charles was inactive. Charles, who was held out for precautionary reasons, is recovering from a bruised foot.

*Bowe’s one-game absence has young receivers such as Junior Hemingway slated to earn key playing time in Week 1. Hemingway, though, sustained a hip injury and did not return to action, via the Kansas City Star’s Terez Paylor.