Gabbert to Jaguars makes sense

Editor’s note: Yahoo! Sports will break down how 12 top 2011 NFL draft picks can immediately impact their new clubs.

Blaine Gabbert(notes) passed for 40 TDs and 6,822 yards in three seasons.
(Getty Images)

When the Jacksonville Jaguars traded up from the 16th to the 10th overall pick in the 2010 draft so they could select Missouri quarterback Blaine Gabbert, there were certainly some raised eyebrows around the NFL. After all, the Jags have been known for their physical, run-heavy style, led by star running back Maurice Jones-Drew(notes), and Gabbert was coming from a spread offense system in which there were five receivers and no running backs at all in a relatively high percentage of plays. In addition, Jacksonville had a quarterback in David Garrard(notes) who, though no longer a popular favorite, has performed at a league-average level despite some questionable high draft picks at receiver over the last half-decade.

However, the power offense seemed to be more a surface concept, as did Jacksonville’s sense of contentedness with its quarterback situation. Without a truly dynamic playmaker outside of Jones-Drew, the Jags were earthbound far too often, even when they tried to fly. Perhaps the best example of this came in a 28-3 Week 2 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles, in which Jacksonville’s coaching staff tried to run multiple trips and bunch formations in the second half to no avail. While the concept made a lot of sense – group multiple receivers together and have them run short, quick routes to beat coverage – the implementation was less than spectacular, because Garrard is a quarterback who seems more content to let plays develop, which often has him looking up to the sky after a sack, wondering what just happened.

In 20 trips/bunch plays against the Eagles, Garrard went back to throw 13 times, was sacked twice, scrambled twice for 10 yards and completed four passes in 11 attempts for 23 yards. Eventually, the plan was to run out of those formations, because the passing offense wasn’t quick enough with Garrard to make those clearing routes happen. At that point, Jacksonville’s coaches and scouts likely realized that to regain a foothold in the explosive AFC South, they’d have to run a quicker offense that allowed more quick-strike plays to go off. And it wouldn’t have taken a lot of Missouri tape to realize that Gabbert was a perfect fit for that concept.

Play diagram

The 23-13 win over Illinois in Missouri’s 2010 season opener was instructive in that it showed Gabbert’s ability to adjust to defenses primed to make him unproductive. Missouri’s spread offense didn’t have much of an answer in the first half against the Illinois’ base nickel-pass coverage because they were running a lot of standard clear-out stuff with their three- and four-man receiver formations. And for every receiver running a straight short route, there was a defensive back or quick linebacker there to make it more difficult.

But in the second half, the Tigers started sending receivers on deeper routes from less conventional sets, and that seemed to upend Illinois’ plans. With 8:14 left in the third quarter and Missouri down, 13-10, Gabbert’s team went trips left and sent outside receiver Wes Kemp through the left seam, betting on the fact that Illinois would hold the zone concept and let Kemp pinball through the defenders. That’s exactly what happened, and the Tigers used similar ideas to come back and win the game.

Gabbert will face his challenges as the likely early starter for his new NFL team – the Jags’ offensive line is far from elite in certain areas, and it will take a whole for everyone to get on the same page. Gabbert will need to learn the value of play action because the best player on his team is the starting running back. But from a pure play-speed perspective, the Gabbert-Jags marriage looks like a solid pairing – no matter how much it might surprise at first blush.

Doug Farrar is a writer for Yahoo’s Shutdown Corner blog and a senior writer for Football Outsiders.