NEW ORLEANS – Blaine Gabbert took a beating as a rookie, literally and figuratively, and the football world took notice. Pummeled in the pocket with impunity during the Jacksonville Jaguars' hot mess of a 2011 season, the 10th overall pick in that year's draft became a similarly statuesque target for critics.
There were whispers – OK, even flat-out pronouncements – that Gabbert was scared, which is pretty much the worst adjective that can be hurled at a quarterback.
Yet as he prepares for his second NFL season, Gabbert is still standing – and sounds ready to fight back.
"I think that's part of our job description: Deal with the crap," Gabbert said Thursday evening at the Jags' French Quarter hotel, a day before the quarterback completed 13 of 16 passes for 112 yards and two touchdowns in the team's 27-24 preseason win over the Saints. "But for people to say [I'm scared], I just don't understand it. They've never played in the NFL. They really don't know what goes on, or what happens.
"So that argument, I think, is just a copout for people to make because they're – I don't want to necessarily want to say jealous – but, they couldn't do my job. And that's the truth. They can't do my job. There are 31 other guys that can do my job, and that's it. And that's kind of the way that the quarterbacks look at it. Selfishly, I think it's the best job in the world, but that [requires] putting in an honest day's work on a daily basis to keep it."
Thrust into the starting lineup in Week 3 of 2011, less than a year after reaching legal drinking age, Gabbert had one of the more daunting job descriptions an entry-level passer has encountered. He had no marquee receivers, or even B-list wideouts. His coach, Jack Del Rio, was fired in late November, on the same day it was learned that Wayne Weaver had reached a deal to sell the franchise to Shad Khan. Other than that, things were pretty stable.
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"He's a young guy, and he walked into a nightmare situation," linebacker Paul Posluszny said of Gabbert. "He had all the negative things that anybody could have happen to him. I said, 'Man, I feel bad for Blaine, because he's a good kid and he's doing everything the right way, but we're not winning on the field. And, of course, he gets the blame for it.' "
The Jags went 5-11, but internally it seemed more like 5-111. Gabbert, who started the final 14 games, completed just 50.8 percent of his passes, throwing 12 touchdowns and 11 interceptions. He was sacked 40 times and lost five fumbles. With a 65.4 passer rating, Gabbert was the anti-Aaron Rodgers, ranking last among the 34 quarterbacks with enough attempts to qualify for the passing title.
Gabbert was hardly the first rookie quarterback to struggle. However, juxtaposed against the transcendent play of first overall pick Cam Newton in Carolina, the former Missouri standout seemed overwhelmed on the big stage.
Worst of all, Gabbert's toughness was called into question, most conspicuously by NFL Network analyst Michael Lombardi, a longtime league executive. Gabbert, having played in a system at Missouri in which he primarily took snaps out of the shotgun and faced limited pressure, looked jumpy in the face of a legitimate pass rush to Lombardi and others.
"In my 20-plus years in the NFL, I don't think I have seen a high first-round pick look as scared or as out of place as Blaine Gabbert," Lombardi wrote on nfl.com last December. "The game looks entirely too big for him. When the ball is in his hand, he treats it like a hot potato. His play was embarrassing, considering he was a top 10 pick.
"I believed Gabbert was a good prospect and wrote about it leading up to the draft. When everyone was concerned about his down-field throws, I thought he would be able to adjust. But never did I think his eye level would be this low, his unwillingness to hang in the pocket this bad. I readily admit my mistake. Now the Jags need to do the same. The longer they play him, they run the risk of losing the team. How can they expect the players around him to buy in? Gabbert cannot fool his teammates. If he continues to play like this, no one will want to play with him."
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Fear, of course, is in the eye of the beholder. What may have seemed like a lack of courage to skeptics like Lombardi may have merely been self-preservation to Gabbert, who spent a fair amount of time with unblocked behemoths in his grill.
"I mean, I don't think he's scared," Posluszny said. "The guy took a lot of hits last year, and there were a lot of grown men chasing him. It's not an easy thing to do."
Said one player who was with the Jags in 2011: "I'll bet he was scared, 'cause there were dudes all over him when he tried to throw, and he was getting pounded. Most people would have been scared. It wasn't the greatest situation."
After Khan hired Mike Mularkey as coach last January, the new regime immediately took steps to address Gabbert's Happy Feet affliction. During minicamps, OTAs and throughout training camp, Mularkey's staff placed a premium on teaching Gabbert to recognize protection schemes and to keep his eyes locked downfield, regardless of the pressure he faced in the pocket. The staff largely eliminated 7-on-7 drills, instead substituting full-team passing sessions that forced the quarterback to contend with a simulated rush. On other occasions, offensive assistants used blocking bags and hand shields to swipe at Gabbert as he went through his progressions.
"We want him looking downfield at all times, and he has shown improvement in that area," quarterbacks coach Greg Olson said Friday. "If you look at last year, you saw what looked like a lack of pocket instincts. In this league, you're going to have to stand in there and deliver the football with people in your face. I'm encouraged by what we've seen. Blaine has tremendous physical tools and is extremely intelligent, but until he develops those pocket instincts, it's going to be hard for him to have a lot of success."
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The notion that Happy Feet can be cured is not a far-fetched belief. Former Jaguars defensive end Jeff Lageman, now a Jacksonville-based broadcaster, remembers encountering another young quarterback in a similar situation more than two decades ago.
"I was with the Jets, and we played the Cowboys in 1990, which was Troy Aikman's second year," Lageman recalled. "We'd watched him look jittery on film and concluded he was scared, and on their first play all four of us [defensive linemen] intentionally jumped offsides and blasted him. He fumbled the next snap, and we kicked his butt all day.
"At that moment, if you'd have told me he was going to be a Hall of Famer, I'd have said you were completely insane."
Lageman's point was that fear is not absolute. "It can be coached," he said. "When you put the right players around a guy, and put him in the right system, and give him a chance to succeed, it's a whole different story. I think Blaine has a chance to be a big-time guy."
It's early, of course, but so far the Jags believe there are some promising signs. Whereas the lockout kept him from working with coaches until training camp of his rookie year, Gabbert enjoyed the full benefits of an offseason in 2012, something he called "a world of difference." Mularkey has an offensive background, and his system, run by offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowksi, should be more quarterback friendly than Del Rio's was.
Shortly before training camp, Olson brought Gabbert into his office and showed the quarterback a video he'd put together of highlights and lowlights from 2011. It was, Olson said, "a clip of what we needed from him in the pocket, and of what was unacceptable – plays that wouldn't allow him to stay in the league, if they continued. He was receptive. And I think we'll see improvement."
The Jaguars also upgraded their talent at receiver via the free-agent signing of Laurent Robinson, who had a breakout year for the Dallas Cowboys last season, and the drafting of former Oklahoma State standout Justin Blackmon with the fifth overall pick. (On a less positive note, halfback Maurice Jones-Drew, the reigning NFL rushing champion, remains away from the team due to dissatisfaction with his contract, though it's unlikely the stalemate will continue into the regular season.)
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"What I've seen so far, [Gabbert] looks great," Robinson said Thursday. "He's throwing the ball accurately, and he's composed and confident. I'm excited about his leadership. I feel like he has that 'it' factor in the huddle. He takes control, calls the plays, understands where the ball needs to go. He's making huge strides from where they said he was last year."
Agreed Posluszny: "I think Blaine is really gonna impress a lot of people this year, 'cause he's come back strong. He's got new weapons to throw to, and a lot of confidence in himself. Now that he's in his second year I think he'll be more comfortable, and I think people will see that early on – the poise in the pocket, him standing in the pocket and throwing the ball downfield. That's what he's been doing in training camp so far, and it's great to see. We've seen the progression. He's starting to come along. Now that he has opportunities to do that against other competition, I think that'll come out."
Jaguars coaches were encouraged by Gabbert's performance in the team's preseason opener, a 32-31 victory over the New York Giants last Friday night. Gabbert (5-for-10, 62 yards, one touchdown, no interceptions), in the shadow of his end zone on his first play, hung tough in the pocket and took a hard shot from defensive end Justin Tuck as he delivered a deep pass over the middle to tight end Marcedes Lewis. The ball fell incomplete, but Gabbert didn't flinch. Later, however, he lost a fumble after holding onto the ball too long and taking a hit in the pocket from defensive end Adrian Tracy.
Despite such reminders of his inglorious recent past, Gabbert believes he'll make an appreciable jump in his second season, if only because of the heavy doses of character-building he received in his first one.
"It was a wild situation," he said of his rookie year. "Looking back on it, I wouldn't change it. I started 14 games as a 21-year-old in the National Football League. That in itself was an accomplishment, albeit we wanted to have a better record. Going through a year like that, not many players in the NFL will have a head-coaching change and an owner sell the team in the middle of the season.
"But that's going to help us. We've seen the lows of the lows; now we're just waiting to see the highs. The arrow's pointing up for this football team."
If so, all the slings and arrows Gabbert absorbed as a rookie will have been well worth it.
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