The sun is shining, the weather is sweet, and Blaine Gabbert is improving. It’s somewhat unpopular to speak in praise of the Jaguars quarterback and call him anything but a bust since the franchise is in a state of emergency (!), and general manager Gene Smith should definitely trade for local superhero Tim Tebow to save the day. That’s what critics want you to believe, but under the hot — really hot — Florida sun, there has been incremental improvement in the performance of the 2011 first rounder that will furrow the faces of even his most passionate critics.
When Gabbert was drafted out of Missouri in the first round, there were many people split on his potential. Some felt that he had a vast ceiling, pointing to his strong arm, mobility, and mind-bending photographic memory. Others were not so kind, criticizing the screen and play action laden spread offense he came out of, his oft-messy footwork, and phobia of pocket pressure.
All six of those characteristics have been on display in his two years in Jacksonville so far, which was expected. It hasn’t helped that he’s seen little continuity in his coaching staff, as he’s had two coaches in two years and could potentially be seeing a third come into his life if the franchise doesn’t miraculously start to win games. For the time being his coach is Mike Mularkey, who has done fairly well coaching up his quarterback and attempting to iron out Gabbert’s flaws by building the offense around his strengths and scaling back his responsibilities.
But some of those flaws come from within, which means it’s debatable if they can be “fixed,” and it’s arguably the sole reason why some are anti-Gabbert. Whether one can be “fixed” or not is debatable, but what’s not is that Gabbert is making strides in his footwork and pocket movement.
He’s transferring his weight from his back foot to his front more consistently, which has led to more connections on deep shots over the last two games and he’s arguably throwing the deep ball better than he ever did at Missouri, where I didn’t find him to be as strong in that department as some others did. And then his pocket movement, oh yes the pocket movement that has been a dark cloud over Gabbert’s head since personnel men and draftniks started studying his tape at Missouri. It’s an area that he’s shown some lapses in, naturally, but some strides as well.
As noted by my Rotoworld colleague Eric Stoner (@ECStoner; I suggest a follow) on more than one occasion in conversation, the Missouri offense that Gabbert operated in really didn’t benefit his pro aspirations. The offense dictated that Gabbert should leave the confines of the pocket only once his initial reads were covered, and he should keep his head down while running, which has translated over to the NFL — where it doesn’t work that way. In his rookie season, this was a great concern as Gabbert looked simply terrified in his dealings with pressure at times and didn’t keep his eyes up on the move, but he’s since improved, and his progression in that area was on display during the jaguars’ Week 8 loss to the Packers.
Toward the end of the first half, Gabbert stood alone in the backfield in the shotgun, empty set and had five pass catchers spread out all over the formation. Upon receiving the ball, he took a quick drop and looked to his left where two of his pass catchers were running routes. As he scanned left, the pocket from the middle collapsed, forcing him to abandon the area and climb the B-gap into open grass. Once he got into open space, the improved Gabbert showed up; instead of dropping his eyes and running — which in hindsight he may have led to a touchdown — he kept them up as he scrambled forward, planted his right foot, and rotated and squared his hips to deliver a perfectly placed pass to receiver Mike Thomas, who bobbled it as he attempted to score before dropping it (have fun being buried on the depth chart in Detroit, Mike).
The pass wasn’t completed, but it was a prime example of a situation in which Gabbert did something that he likely wouldn’t have done at Missouri: he passed the ball.
The next play was also showed improvement, except this time with his pocket toughness. Gabbert stood in the shotgun with the same empty set as the previous play and once again took a quick (three-step) drop. He scanned the right of the field before once again dealing with pressure.
It came from his left, where a Packers rusher was at his feet, and in front of him, his blocker collapsed to the ground, leaving Gabbert with little functional space. It didn’t matter, however, because Gabbert kept his eyes up and found his receiver running an option route across the goal-line for the completed pass despite not having room to step through his pass and transfer his weight forward.
So Gabbert has made strides as a pocket passer in his second year, which may or may not quiet those who wish to replace him so soon. It’s expected that he will continue to improve, but there will still be bumps along his road. He still goes back to some of his old habits, such as checking the ball down too early or bringing his eyes down, but that’s to be expected as he continues to learn his craft.
The key will be for him to keep his confidence high, keep improving, and keep his coach around for another season.