COMMENTARY | Going into the 2013 NFL season, there may not be a quarterback with more pressure to succeed than Blaine Gabbert, who will be trying to silence the critics that are already dubbing the 2011 first-round pick a bust.
There are two schools of thought when attempting to evaluate Gabbert's career thus far. On one hand, he came into the league at 21 years-old, just four years removed from high school. He was one of the youngest starting quarterbacks in the history of the NFL and was forced into the starting lineup before he was ready. The original plan was to have Gabbert sit and learn for a year behind incumbent quarterback David Garrard (followed by Luke McCown). Garrard ended up being released by the team prior to the start of the regular season, which bumped Gabbert from third-string to backup. However, as the year progressed, and a coach became desperate to keep his job, the team benched the struggling McCown and started Gabbert the rest of the year. You can call this the "young and inexperienced" argument made by the "wait and see" crowd.
On the other hand, his play has been below average so far, at times downright abysmal. While it typically takes a quarterback several years to really "blossom" into their potential, today's game has gone a bit against the grain in that regard. With young quarterbacks like Cam Newton, Robert Griffin III, and Andrew Luck coming in and playing at a high level almost immediately, more people are going to look Gabbert's way and expect him to do the same. That just has not happened.
Many pundits and fans alike wanted the Jaguars to take West Virginia quarterback Geno Smith in April's draft, saying the club should give up on Gabbert and move on as a franchise. They believe there has been enough evidence to conclude Gabbert is not a franchise quarterback. This is the "what have you done for me lately" argument.
In the 2011 NFL draft, the Jaguars traded up six spots to select the Missouri standout, hoping that they had secured their franchise quarterback for the next decade. Gabbert had all the potential to be an elite quarterback at the highest level. He had prototypical size at 6'4, top-notch intangibles, tremendous arm strength, and after a lights-out performance at his pro day, analysts were raving about his accuracy. So with the 10th overall pick, the Jaguars selected Gabbert, passing on Andy Dalton, who many said did not have a high enough "ceiling," and Colin Kaepernick, who was criticized for never winning a "big game" in college. Dalton went on to lead his team to the playoffs two years in a row, and Kaepernick had a breakthrough second season, winning several "big games" and leading his team to a Super Bowl appearance.
In his rookie season, Gabbert started in 14 games, threw 12 touchdowns and 11 interceptions. That is not a horrible stat line; not great, but not horrible either - especially for a rookie. However, what stood out were a 50 percent completion rate, a 5.36 YPA, 14 fumbles, and the "deer in headlights" look anytime a pass rusher was in his vicinity. He would often throw to his first option or dump it off to his running back anytime he felt a hint of pass-rush.
The following offseason, there seemed to be some buzz building of an improved Blaine Gabbert. That July, then-defensive coordinator Mel Tucker told the Florida Times Union that Gabbert was more decisive and in command of the offense, also saying that he had a "different presence" than the previous year. Offensive guard Uche Nwaneri also chipped in, saying Gabbert had been "standing tall" in the pocket, mentioning that he has not been ducking or dodging in the presence of a pass-rush. It is worth noting that quarterbacks are not allowed to be hit in practice.
In 2012, Gabbert did seem determined to shatter the "scared in the pocket" myth and did stand tall in the pocket from time to time as pass-rushers were breathing down his neck. He also seemed to be overall improved from the previous year. In a Week 1 matchup against a much improved Minnesota Vikings team, Gabbert rallied the offense late in the game and threw a touchdown to receiver Cecil Shorts III which gave the Jaguars the lead with 20 seconds left in the game (the Jaguars would go on to lose the game in overtime).
In a Week 3 matchup against the division rival Indianapolis Colts, Gabbert threw a game-winning 80-yard touchdown on a slant route to Shorts in overtime. He also had the first 300-yard performance of his career against the Packers in Green Bay later in the season. However, these were the only highlights of Gabbert's season.
In a Week 2 matchup against Houston, he only completed 37% of his passes. A few weeks later, he threw two pick-six's in a blowout loss to the Bears in front of the home crowd. He injured his shoulder on a late hit (which was not called) against Oakland, which ended his season. Gabbert finished the year with nine touchdowns and six interceptions.
While the "young and inexperienced" argument can hold some weight, there is no denying that patience is wearing thin when it comes to Gabbert's progression. The Jaguars fan base seems to be split in regards to Gabbert. It did not help when a former assistant coach with the Jaguars anonymously criticized Gabbert, complaining that nothing was ever his fault, and dubbing him "Blame Gabbert."
Whether the "Blame Gabbert" situation is true or not, there is no denying the pressure Gabbert should be feeling right now, especially when you consider the regime that was in charge in 2011 is no longer here. Since 2011, owner Wayne Weaver sold the team to Shahid Khan, Jack Del Rio was let go, and General Manager Gene Smith was also fired. Khan then hired young General Manager David Caldwell, who in turn hired the fiery Gus Bradley to be the team's new head coach.
This new regime has no loyalty towards Gabbert, nor do they have an obligation to keep him on the roster. In his third year, he is going to have to prove he belongs and earn his starting position. The organization is doing everything it can to help him succeed. Earlier this year, the team drafted mammoth offensive tackle Luke Joeckle with the second overall pick; Joeckle is a guy that many considered to be the best player in the draft, period. They also added speedy offensive players Ace Sanders and Denard "Shoelace" Robinson. This is on top of last year's addition of Justin Blackmon and the emergence of Cecil Shorts III. Marcedes Lewis is a big body, pass-catching tight end that will actually be able to catch some passes from Gabbert now that Joeckle will be manning the right side of the line. Oh, and Maurice Jones-Drew is still on the roster. That helps.
If Gabbert takes the "next step" and proves he can be at least an above-average quarterback in this league, then the Jaguars rebuilding process will go much smoother and they will likely stay competitive. Gabbert will have earned his starting status with the team for years to come, contract extension talks would likely be forming, and the critics will pretend they never called him a bust in the first place.
If he has another below-average season, things will be much different for the Jaguars and Gabbert in 2014. For one, if Gabbert does not succeed this year, it will most assuredly mean the team will have locked up a top five NFL draft pick. If this were to happen, Gabbert can pack his bags because GM Caldwell will likely be salivating for a "can't miss" quarterback in next year's draft. Furthermore, Gabbert will also be considered a failed draft pick and likely won't get another opportunity to start for a very long time. This is, of course, if he even beats out Chad Henne for the starting spot in 2013. Gabbert seems to be looking forward to this particular challenge.
"The best guy is going to win," Gabbert told Ryan O'Halloran of the Florida Times Union in March. "You need to put your best foot forward regardless of the situation. That uncomfortable feeling is a good feeling and that's why good teams are successful - because they have that competition."
Gabbert does have a point. Competition does bring out the best in players, no matter the sport. This year is the first year where his position is being threatened. His rookie year, he was the unquestioned "quarterback of the future" and the future of the franchise. The following year, the organization still believed in him and said he was the unquestioned starter, and that newly signed Chad Henne would not challenge for the starting position. This year, Gabbert is not being given anything. The organization does not know if he is the future of the franchise or even starter material at all. He is going to have to earn his starting spot and, beyond that, prove that he can play at a high level in this league.
A year from now, we are going to know whether the "wait and see" crowd were right, or if Gabbert really is not what he was hyped up to be coming out of college. This is the year for Gabbert to prove that he belongs. Will he crumble under the pressure, or rise to the occasion? Either way, it is "put up or shut up" time for Blaine Gabbert. Let's see how he responds.
Matt Gonzales is a Jacksonville native who has been following the Jaguars for the last decade. He graduated from East Carolina University with a degree in Journalism and is a contributing freelance writer for both Yahoo! Sports and Fanspeak.com.
Follow Matt on twitter @mattgonzales25
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