Great memory turns Gabbert into top prospect

Blaine Gabbert rattled through math problems so easily as a child, remembering everything from multiplication tables to batting averages, that his mother, Bev, began to imagine something magnificent going on in her oldest son’s head.

“He’s almost got a photographic memory,” she says over the phone from the family house just outside St. Louis.

This is the attribute that might just take Gabbert far in his pursuit to be a starting quarterback in the NFL. He already has those other things the NFL desires: standing 6-foot-5 with the ability to fling the ball three-quarters of the field in the air. But it is his mind that might push him farther, for in the complex world of football offenses little matters more than memory.

“Once you say it to him it is set in stone,” says David Yost, University of Missouri offensive coordinator and quarterback coach. “His ability to process the information is amazing. You give it to him, he retains it.”

The NFL has all kinds of tricks designed to test a quarterback’s intelligence. Over the past few weeks, as Gabbert has talked to the teams that need a quarterback in this draft – Carolina Panthers, Buffalo Bills, Arizona Cardinals, Tennessee Titans and Washington Redskins – the challenges have come out. Teams have handed him pens and asked him to draw from memory his offense from college. Then they dictate the elements of their own offense, often one he has never seen before. After he has scribbled this on the same board, they erase it and tell him to write it all over again.

Gabbert shows off wheels at the combine.
(US Presswire)

Here is where the NFL men learn about the minds of their future passers. Can they learn fast? Can they adjust? Ultimately the result is often more important than if the quarterback can hit a receiver on the dead run with a 65-yard throw.

And the reports that have trickled back to Missouri where Gabbert played quarterback are that he has dazzled with his ability to decipher offenses. And it is probably the biggest reason he has risen as a junior who left college early to one of the top two quarterbacks taken in next week’s NFL draft.

“I guess I’m good at remembering and picking things up quickly,” Gabbert says over the phone with a bit of an embarrassed laugh. “I’ve always retained things quickly.”

Few characteristics are greater for NFL quarterbacks than their mind. Offenses have become so complex, with so many different variations and adjustments made each week that a quarterback who can understand what is going on becomes invaluable. The 700-page playbook Al Saunders introduced to the Washington Redskins when he was hired as their offensive coordinator in 2006 immediately became legend around the league, until it was revealed that 700 pages was actually normal for an NFL team and that Saunders’ book might really run closer to 1,000 pages with all the other options the plays demanded. Many others are similar in size.

David Yost
(US Presswire)

At Missouri, Yost sometimes changed the Tigers’ offense depending on the team they were playing, a common adjustment professional teams make. He learned early that Gabbert, who reportedly scored 42 out of 50 on the Wonderlic test during the NFL scouting combine, could handle the change. Where most quarterbacks he worked with usually needed to see the play on a board or have it explained with video, Blaine almost always understood when the play was first described.

For instance, while preparing for the Insight.com Bowl against Iowa late last year, Yost mentioned a particular red zone defense Iowa likes to play to Gabbert and quickly offered a solution. Later that day, in practice, a red-zone situation arose and Gabbert immediately made the change even though it was something he had barely discussed with Yost hours before.

Subtle emergence

In an autumn where the quarterback news was dominated by Stanford’s senior-to-be Andrew Luck and Auburn’s Cam Newton, who might be the most scrutinized Heisman Trophy winner in years, Gabbert was an afterthought. His Missouri Tigers won 10 games yet he was never much in the conversation as a first-round draft pick for this spring. He could throw long but he played in Missouri’s spread offense in which the quarterback is almost always in the shotgun. It’s the kind of offense that’s generally perceived not to translate well to the NFL.

So in many ways Gabbert is kind of a new discovery. Obviously the pros knew about him. but they didn’t seem to understand exactly what they were getting. One big misconception is that he was not fast or athletic compared to Newton who can tear down the field. Lanky with blonde locks that spill out from beneath his helmet, Gabbert looks like he wouldn’t be very agile or fast. But Gabbert ran a 4.62 40 yard dash at the combine and is, if nothing else, elusive. At Missouri he rushed for 458 yards.

He also knows how to play under center having worked since midway through high school with a private quarterback coach Skip Stitzell, who often drove to the Gabbert’s St. Louis-area home. Stitzell only instructed Blaine on running a pro-style offense – even while Gabbert was in college – figuring it to be the best base from which to learn.

“I have a joke with Blaine that everyone says he’s going to have to learn to stand under center and do three-, five- and seven-step drops,” Stitzell says by phone from his Fayette home. “No he doesn’t. I think he’s actually better under center than in the gun. He’s got better rhythm and timing. He’s very good at the play-action stuff which you need to do in the NFL.”

“Would another year in college have made him a better quarterback?” Yost asks. “Sure. But talking to NFL people I don’t know if another year would have made him more marketable to the NFL.”

So he left.

“The timing was right,” Gabbert says. “I know I need to challenge myself at the next level. From a quarterback standpoint I knew I was the best quarterback coming out of college football.”

Gabbert had a school bowl record of 434 passing yards in the loss to Iowa.
(US Presswire)

He does not say this in a cocky way. Rather his tone never changes. It is something he is sure of, something he believes. He had a decent junior year throwing for 3,186 yards and 16 touchdowns in 13 games and probably could have improved on all of those numbers had he come back next season. It was a surprise to some that he came out, but then, Gabbert can surprise.

Like when he says that if he hadn’t been such a top athlete he might have gone the way of his good friend growing up, Steve May, who went to West Point. When the rest of his teammates ask to play the traditional “Halo” in the Missouri locker room, Gabbert insists on the game “Call of Duty,” showing a unique understanding of World War II battles and generals’ tactics.

He says he loves to read about war history, often reading on planes when his colleagues are more likely to be sleeping or watching movies. His favorite book is “Lone Survivor” by Marcus Luttrell, the story of a Navy SEAL who was the only member of a four-man team to live through an attack in Afghanistan.

In a league where coaches often look to the memoirs of military leaders for inspiration, Gabbert’s interests will undoubtedly be an asset. As will his memory.

“He’s the smartest guy I’ve ever worked with,” Yost says.

Les Carpenter is a feature writer and columnist for Yahoo! Sports. Follow him on Twitter. Send Les a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Tuesday, Apr 19, 2011