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Thursday, May 24, 2012
Yes, improving Blaine Gabbert can rebound

By Paul Kuharsky

Blaine Gabbert
Blaine Gabbert is pleased with his progress as he works to put an ugly rookie season behind him.
JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- I came to the Jaguars' headquarters at EverBank Field in search of specifics.

Blaine Gabbert’s terrible rookie year was well-documented. But his new coaches believe he still can become a quality NFL quarterback.

What have they seen that fuels their confidence in him? And can we expect to see improvement in summer camp and fall games?

We’ve heard from coach Mike Mularkey about how he respected the way Gabbert dealt with all the negativity connected to his completion percentage of just over 50.0, the 40 sacks he absorbed, the 12 touchdown passes against 11 interceptions, his 14 fumbles (five of them lost) and 65.4 passer rating.

Offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski offered some analysis of what needed fixing in this “Evening with the Coaches” talk early in the offseason.

I wanted to pick up on that.

Enduring early lumps is part of the deal for virtually every quarterback early in his career. Now, with a new start, tell me about what he’s doing better, I asked.

The initial request was a long shot, but I was still disappointed that Gabbert and his coaches were unwilling to show me one play on film -- comparing and contrasting what Gabbert did with it in last year’s training camp or during last season, and what he’s doing now. No, they don’t need to go into that sort of detail or offer that level of information. But what would it have hurt?

Short of that, Bratkowski offered the most detail in discussing Gabbert’s improvements so far, circling back to what he touched on in that chalk talk.

Bob Bratkowski
Coordinator Bob Bratkowski believes better footwork is crucial for quarterback Blaine Gabbert.
“Fundamentally, there were some times last year in his drops when he was getting a little bit long with his footwork and getting a little too fast,” Bratkowski said. “So what we’ve tried to do is get him to slow his feet down just a little bit, take shorter steps and stand taller in the pocket.

“Those are some things we identified when we first looked at him, and he’s improving on those things out there right now. You can see him carrying it into the actual plays we’re running in team situations.”

After a fast drop that took him too deep, he typically wound up shuffling forward as soon as he completed his drop, and his busy feet hurt his ability to make sound throws.

Gabbert said forming the new habit isn’t hard.

“The biggest thing all the quarterbacks are working on is just calming our feet down, staying in the pocket, not getting too long, not taking too long of a drop,” Gabbert said. “Because at some point in time, the angles get off with our offensive tackles when they’re trying to block a rush end …

“A lot of the footwork is dictated on the route concepts, the type of offense you run, the style of offense you run. And we have a different offense. We have different plays, and the drops go with those types of plays.”

Mularkey said the Jaguars' offense is about half installed at this point. Reporters are dismissed from OTA sessions once the team reaches the installation phase.

So, despite the reportorial desire to be shown, not told, those of us trying to track the team are left to rely more on conversations than observations regarding Gabbert and everything else.

In the handful of team plays I saw, one horrific pass stood out: a short throw over the middle that bounced well behind the intended receiver. At another point, as the quarterbacks threw to a couple of stationary receivers while running through some red zone possibilities, they were aiming for a target at the front left corner of the end zone.

The situation required a high, firm pass. After Gabbert’s first try wasn’t loopy enough, quarterbacks coach Greg Olson assumed the position of a cornerback the pass needed to get over. He stood with his back to the throw, an arm extended. But as he anticipated the ball’s arrival, he jokingly pulled his hands back to cover his head.

“Can I trust you?” he joked as he turned back to Gabbert, whose second attempt at the pass had cleared Olson and landed where it needed to, proving him trustworthy.

It was rhetorically symbolic, I thought.

"It really is about that to me, at any position with any position coach -- there's got to be a trust factor," Olson said. "He's got to feel that everything I tell him is meant to get him better. Three months into the relationship, I think we are developing that trust factor. If there is no trust there, you have no chance to grow."

Gabbert's teammates have big expectations for a big bounce-back after a rookie season that included the team's being sold and former coach Jack Del Rio getting fired during a 5-11 season.

“I don’t know that I’ve ever heard of a situation where a quarterback gets thrown into a starting role that early with the deficiencies in personnel that we had at that time, with a lot of things stacked against him,” said guard Uche Nwaneri.

“I think people kind of teed off on him. There were some things that he did that weren’t particularly the best, but, you know, he was a rookie. There were so many things happening that affect the quarterback as the result of protection, route running, guys getting open.”

Look, it’s somehow fashionable to say that the bad things Gabbert put on display last year serve as indisputable evidence he can’t be a successful NFL quarterback. I understand his footwork isn’t the only thing that gets sped up -- our assessments come faster than ever.

But judging a quarterback on 15 games and 13 starts with a bad team is simply too hasty.

Gabbert is not going to be Peyton Manning or Troy Aikman. But those guys were awful as rookies, too. Manning threw 28 interceptions, and his Colts were 3-13. Aikman threw 18 interceptions and didn’t win a game for the Cowboys.

Two things struck me as I spoke with Gabbert that I think are significant for right now.

Several times he talked about how’s he’s having fun, how football is fun, how the new offense is fun.

And he still looks and sounds the part -- he’s got confidence as he talks, and in the way he carries himself. He doesn’t look like a broken guy. He looks like a kid ready to go give it another try.

The biggest issue is dealing with the rush. Olson said the team is trading some seven-on-seven passing situations (where there are no linemen) for team periods where Gabbert has to feel pressure and sort it out. In drills without defenders, a coach or an equipment guy typically charges at him with flailing arms.

"For a guy coming out of a system in college where he wasn't only in the shotgun, but they had him lined up 7 yards deep, it was new to him last season," Olson said. "We're just hoping he'll be more comfortable with that environment, coming out from underneath center, taking a drop with an oncoming rush. That's all you can hope for right now, is the comfort level gets much greater. And it's been good."

Not having OTAs and minicamps didn’t hurt Cam Newton when it came to posting big rookie numbers for the Panthers, and it didn’t stop Andy Dalton from leading the Bengals to the playoffs.

Gabbert didn’t get off to the same kind of start, and maybe he’ll never earn his way into a conversation about the top quarterbacks of the 2011 draft class.

He’s getting that OTA time now. There is time to build slowly. It’s a different deal.

I wondered if Gabbert was appreciating the pace now, or finding himself anxious to get to the Jaguars' Sept. 9 opener in Minnesota, so he could do something to start to erase the dud of a first season.

“Everybody’s eager,” he said. “When you have a season where things don’t go the way you want them to, you’re always eager to get back out there. But it’s a process.”

The important people are willing to give him the time to go through it. The rest of us will just have to wait.