Gabbert must overcome the negativity

BY Alex Marvez • August 12, 2012

Jacksonville Jaguars quarterback Blaine Gabbert wasn’t on the field for one of the most valuable football lessons he has ever received:

Don’t let yourself become affected by outside criticism.

Five games into his 2008 freshman year at the University of Missouri, the Tigers were on the cusp of a No. 1 poll ranking. Starting quarterback Chase Daniel was the toast of Columbia for leading Mizzou to such heights.

And then came an upset home loss to Oklahoma State that ruined the team’s national championship aspirations.

“All of a sudden, the media just turned on him,” Gabbert recently recalled. “That was the first time I realized you can’t worry about what they say because they don’t know.

“There’s a certain point where you learn to take care of your own business and worry about the guys in the locker room. Those are the guys on the field that are with you week in and week out.”

Such healthy perspective is serving Gabbert well this preseason.

The negativity surrounding Gabbert from a disastrous rookie campaign in Jacksonville followed him into training camp. New head coach Mike Mularkey said Gabbert “has been absolutely criticized up and down and beaten down like no player I’ve been around even before I got here.” The static continued in early camp practices as Gabbert experienced the kinds of growing pains one should expect from a 22-year-old who would be a redshirt senior this season had he stayed in college.

Gabbert, though, is persevering as he tries to fulfill the expectations that came with being the No. 10 overall pick in the 2011 draft. He even showed significant signs of progress during Jacksonville’s first two preseason games.

Gabbert led an 89-yard drive against the defending Super Bowl champion Giants' first-team defense in the opener, capping the series with a crisp fade pass to wide receiver Cecil Shorts in the back of the end zone.

On Friday night, Gabbert helped the Jags jump to a 17-3 lead vs. the Saints, completing 13 of 16 passes for 112 yards and two touchdowns, the first a 16-yard strike to top draft pick Justin Blackmon, who was making his debut.

“I just think people don’t know the whole picture,” Mularkey said. “You have to step back and look at everything that took place in this guy’s past since he’s been in the NFL.”

It’s not a pretty picture — especially when compared to the record-breaking season of another Class of 2011 quarterback.

In winning NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year honors, Carolina’s Cam Newton overcame significant obstacles like the lack of offseason practices because of NFL labor strife and the major adjustment to a pro-style offense after having operated a spread system in college. Gabbert couldn’t immediately leap those same hurdles or the others thrown in his way by the sorry state of the Jaguars franchise.

The first disservice Jacksonville did was play Gabbert well before he was ready. Gabbert should have spent at least the early part of his first NFL season as a third-stringer behind starter David Garrard and veteran backup Luke McCown. But when Garrard was cut at the end of the preseason and McCown struggled in Jacksonville’s first two games, Gabbert was thrust under center.

This proved painful to watch. Gabbert never appeared comfortable in the pocket and was usually looking for check-downs rather than downfield. His mechanics were as bad as the wide receiver talent Jacksonville had assembled.

The lame-duck coaching staff then began crumbling when Jack Del Rio was fired from the top spot in November. The franchise was sold shortly thereafter, indicating more instability was on the way.

Gabbert finished the year 4-10 as a starter. Even more discouraging, he didn’t look the part of the franchise quarterback the Jaguars thought they were getting. Gabbert barely connected on 50 percent of his passes. Gabbert’s 5.4-yard average per completion ranked lower than 32 other quarterbacks, including the notoriously inaccurate Tim Tebow (6.4). He was sacked 40 times, reflecting indecision as much as shoddy protection.

Partially because of his work as offensive coordinator in helping to develop Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan, Mularkey was hired by the Jaguars to salvage Gabbert before he became permanently ruined like other once-promising passers who took too many early lumps. The Jaguars also upgraded their wideouts by signing free agent Laurent Robinson (Dallas) and making the Oklahoma State standout Blackmon the No. 5 pick in April’s draft.

“There were a lot of things going on around (Gabbert),” Mularkey said. “One thing I can tell you is that never once have I heard him say anything in regards to it bothering him. He's never shown it. No body language. No nothing.

“All he has done is gone out and done what we’ve asked him to do since we’ve been here. That’s really a big credit to him because he’s had a lot of pressure.”

That isn’t going to change.

Mistakes like the huge one Gabbert made during an Aug. 8 practice — throwing an interception deep inside his own territory that cornerback Aaron Ross returned for an easy touchdown — should draw scrutiny to his decision-making. Gabbert must continue to fine-tune his footwork and prove he can carry the technical points being taught during practice into game situations. He also must do this for now without star running back Maurice Jones-Drew, who is engaged in a contract holdout that shows no immediate signs of ending.

But if there is one positive to last season, it taught Gabbert how to handle adversity at the NFL level.

"Everybody can tell you all the stuff that’s going to happen,” Gabbert said. “But until you live it and see what goes on throughout an NFL season — having the owner sell the team, the coaching staff in turmoil — you’re never really prepared.

"We’ve seen the bottom of the barrel. We’re only going up from there. That’s why we’re looking at this season with such a positive outlook."

Even as Gabbert knows all eyes are on him.

Alex Marvez and co-host Bill Polian interviewed Blaine Gabbert and Mike Mularkey on SiriusXM NFL Radio