Over the last two weeks, we’ve been spoiled with the performance of a rookie quarterback.
To some degree that also applies to the last seven years, dating back to when a young Ben Roethlisberger stepped in for Tommy Maddox in 2004. Sure, there’s been some glaring exceptions–most notably some dude named Russell who enjoys a fine batch of Purple Drank–but the success stories have mostly outweighed the dismal failures, led by Matt Ryan guiding a Falcons team in disarray to the playoffs in 2008.
So it’s easy to forget that adequate was once the norm for rookie quarterbacks, and that’s where our expectations should lie for Blaine Gabbert, despite the 1,267 combined passing yards thrown by Cam Newton and Andy Dalton through two weeks.
The Jaguars and head coach Jack del Rio made the only logical call by choosing to insert Gabbert as the team’s Week 3 starter earlier today. After training camp David Garrard was dispatched, and Luke McCown was left to be the caretaker until Gabbert was deemed ready. McCown showed the janitorial skills of a six-year-old asked to clean up spilled Lucky Charms, throwing four interceptions and getting yanked during Jacksonville’s blowout loss Sunday to the Jets.
If a quarterback on the Jags’ roster is going to turn the ball over four times in one game it should be Gabbert, whose hiccups during the maturation process are far easier to tolerate. However, what we can expect from Gabbert throughout the season will hinge on the confidence he’s likely to build this week.
Gabbert’s first start comes on the road against Carolina, a defense with a linebacker corps that’s been decimated by injuries, most notably to three-time Pro Bowler Jon Beason. Fellow linebacker Thomas Davis also followed the latest and coolest NFL trend by tearing his ACL, meaning that Gabbert will receive plenty of support from the running game this week as Maurice Jones-Drew capitalizes on a depleted front seven. Last week Green Bay had 124 yards on the ground against Carolina.
Ideally any thought of launching a barrage of blitzes against Gabbert will be neutralized by Jones-Drew. However, this also means that Gabbert likely won’t be asked to do anything dangerous. When he’s not handing off to Jones-Drew or backup Deji Karim, Gabbert will be making quick, safe throws from the pocket. He’s mobile and agile, but he doesn’t possess Newton’s athleticism (Gabbert’s 40-yard dash time was 4.62), so likely having tight end Marcedes Lewis back from a calf injury will provide a reliable security blanket. Simply by playing mistake-free football and managing an offense in a meaningful NFL game, Gabbert will build confidence after completing a very pedestrian 50 percent of his passes during the preseason.
Beyond this week, Gabbert won’t challenge Newton’s rookie passing record over his first two games. That would be a little too ridiculous in a league where pass defense is increasingly becoming a sacred urban myth. He won’t break any records, primarily because while Newton is also supported by a consistent running game, he has something Gabbert doesn’t have: reliable veteran targets. Newton is throwing to Greg Olsen, Jeremy Shockey, and Steve Smith, while Gabbert has only Lewis as his set of steady hands.
Wide receiver Mike Thomas is set to break out in Jacksonville during his third season after his 829 receiving yards last year, but he still only had six games in 2010 with over 60 yards. Somewhere Jaguars general manager Gene Smith is sitting in a lonely office right now wishing he’d been more aggressive in free agency with Mike Sims-Walker, and shown more patience in his development. Smith let Sims-Walker walk and he was signed by the Rams, and his presence in a Jaguars uniform now would have given Gabbert what Andy Dalton has in Cincinnati: a core of young receivers, and the opportunity for the key pieces of a passing attack to grow together and develop chemistry.
Carolina has taken the veteran approach with their offense to give Newton the best opportunity to succeed early, while Cincinnati has invested in youth over the past two drafts. Jacksonville has neither, and over the next five weeks Gabbert faces a Saints pass rush boosted by the return of Will Smith, a Steelers defense that sacked Tarvaris Jackson five times last week, and a Ravens secondary that gave up the second lowest yards per reception in 2010 (6.4).
Welcome to the show, kid.