As soon as the Jaguars-Jets game ends Sunday, expect thousands of thumbs in Jacksonville, Fla., to click to the local Fox station to watch the 49ers’ Blaine Gabbert make his first NFL start since Oct. 6, 2013.
The quarterback was supposed to be the savior in Jacksonville when the Jaguars drafted him 10th in 2011, trading ahead six spots to do so. And why not? Gabbert was tall, fast, had a rifle for a right arm with massive, 10-inch hands. If you were to draw the ideal quarterback, you’d look down at the page and find a picture of Blaine Gabbert.
ESPN draft analyst Todd McShay thought Gabbert was the best passer that year – better than Cam Newton, who was picked first, and Colin Kaepernick, taken by the 49ers early in the second round and the quarterback Gabbert is replacing for the 49ers game Sunday against Atlanta.
But less than 2 1/2 seasons later, the Jaguars’ golden boy was benched. He started just 27 games and completed a little more than half his passes.
When he was traded to the 49ers in March 2014, he had a 66.4 passer rating. The Jaguars got a sixth-round pick in return, and everyone in Jacksonville figured they were lucky to get that. Gabbert never was embraced, never seemed to fit in. He was a bust.
66.4 Blaine Gabbert’s passer rating for the Jacksonville Jaguars
“He never got comfortable being a starting quarterback,” said Gene Frenette, a columnist at Jacksonville’s Florida Times Union.
The question now is whether Gabbert, 26, possibly can succeed in a 49ers offense dealing with many of the same problems he couldn’t navigate on the Jaguars’ woebegone squads.
Jacksonville had an unstable offensive line, especially at left guard and right tackle, and Gabbert was sacked 74 times. He also had middling receivers. At one point, the team had a top-notch target in wideout Justin Blackmon, but he was plagued by substance-abuse issues and is indefinitely suspended. Gabbert’s most reliable receiver with the Jaguars was Cecil Shorts, who might be the second- or third-best receiver on most teams.
The sense in Jacksonville was that Gabbert – 21 years old when he got his first start in Week 3 of his rookie season – simply wasn’t ready to play in the NFL, much less carry a franchise.
Rushed in as a rookie
To be fair to McShay, he thought Gabbert would have time to develop behind David Garrard, then a 33-year-old veteran who had been in Jacksonville for 10 years. Instead, the Jaguars released Garrard just days before the start of the 2011 season.
Gabbert had starred in a spread offense at Missouri. On most of his snaps there, he took the ball out of the shotgun, made one read and the ball was out of his hand.
Early on with the Jaguars, it became clear Gabbert couldn’t go through his pass-option progressions and couldn’t work out of an NFL pocket.
“Blaine developed a reputation as a quarterback who got scared in the pocket,” Frenette said. “He saw too many ghosts – phantom pressure, things like that.”
NFL Films analyst Greg Cosell had a similar take.
His biggest issue, and the reason he’s not there anymore, is that he was not a strong pocket player. He did not handle himself well with bodies around him, what we call a muddy pocket.
NFL films analyst Greg Cosell on Blaine Gabbert’s three seasons in Jacksonville
“His biggest issue, and the reason he’s not there anymore, is that he was not a strong pocket player,” Cosell said. “He did not handle himself well with bodies around him, what we call a muddy pocket.”
Gabbert likely will have similar issues Sunday against Atlanta.
The 49ers’ offensive line is ranked 29th in the league by Pro Football Focus, and opponents have had nonstop success rushing up the middle of the line, the most disruptive type of pressure for a quarterback.
Gabbert also can’t expect to lean on a robust running game. The 49ers’ top three tailbacks are hurt, and a trio of newcomers – Pierre Thomas, Shaun Draughn and Kendall Gaskins – could share the carries against the Falcons’ third-ranked run defense. Starting running back Carlos Hyde will sit out his second consecutive game because of a stress fracture in his foot.
Has Gabbert’s game grown?
Still, there’s a been a ray or two of hope amid the gloomy layers of skepticism.
During his first preseason with the 49ers, Gabbert looked like the jumpy quarterback he was in Jacksonville and finished the summer session with a 54 passer rating.
“He got a little skittish, a little, ‘I’m not ready for this,’ ” offensive coordinator Geep Chryst said.
A year later, however, Gabbert was a guy in command. When the 49ers more frequently rolled him out of the pocket – and away from pressure – he found a rhythm and began throwing passes downfield, something he was criticized for avoiding with the Jaguars. His passer rating improved to 108.8.
One of his former teammates noticed.
“He stands in the pocket well. He throws the ball with accuracy,” running back Maurice Jones-Drew, who played with Gabbert for three seasons in Jacksonville, said in September. “He does a lot of things that everyone thought he could do when he was coming out of college. So I’m excited that he has a chance to sit and be in the same system over and over again and get comfortable. You never know. Obviously with the way things are going for the Niners, he might get a chance. You just never know.”
All the physical traits that captivated the Jaguars in 2011 are still there. Gabbert demurred this week when asked if he could run the same read-option plays that Kaepernick does, saying, “He’s a phenomenal athlete. I like to consider myself a decent athlete.”
But like Kaepernick, Gabbert can throw on the run, and the 49ers are likely to keep him moving Sunday.
Perhaps the most optimism comes from the fact Gabbert no longer is 21. He said he views his benching in Jacksonville and a season and a half as Kaepernick’s backup as a learning experience.
“All quarterbacks want to have long careers and there’s going to be ups and downs, bumps in the road,” he said. “But at the same time, you just have to keep pushing forward because you never know when your opportunity is going to be.”
How they compare
Key career regular-season statistics for 49ers quarterbacks Blaine Gabbert and Colin Kaepernick:
Record as starter