Jaguars counting on Gabbert to make progress
With a new owner, a new coach and a few new faces, the Jacksonville Jaguars have reason to be excited about the season.
Players are energized and fans are optimistic - the kind of feelings the franchise has seldom enjoyed while missing the playoffs 10 of the past 12 years.
How long those last likely will depend on quarterback Blaine Gabbert. The 10th overall pick in last year's NFL draft, Gabbert has to be more productive for the Jaguars to turn things around in 2012.
''I would expect significant progress in his play from Year 1 to Year 2,'' general manager Gene Smith predicted last month.
If not, the Jaguars could be in for another long season.
Gabbert completed 50.8 percent of his passes for 2,214 yards as a rookie, with 12 touchdowns and 11 interceptions. He also was sacked 40 times. The biggest concern was that he seemed to feel phantom pressure, which caused sloppy footwork, off-balance throws and inaccuracy.
The former Missouri standout had plenty of excuses: an offseason program significantly shortened by the NFL lockout, a lame-duck coaching staff that included a former receivers coach serving as his tutor, and arguably the worst receiving corps in the league. He also spent much of his college career working from the shotgun formation in a spread offense, so his transition to pro-style sets took time.
And to be fair, Gabbert wasn't even supposed to play last season.
The Jaguars drafted him with the intention of letting him sit as a rookie and learn from veteran David Garrard. But Garrard re-injured his back during training camp and struggled in the preseason, prompting the Jaguars to cut him just days before the opener. Even then, Luke McCown was given the starting job. But after two lackluster weeks, Gabbert got the call.
He started 14 games and looked every bit like a young kid in a tough spot.
''It was an unfortunate situation having to come in August,'' Gabbert said. ''It takes time. It's not one of those things you can pick up overnight when you step onto an NFL football field as a 21- or 22-year-old kid trying to learn a new system. It's just different from what you've learned in the past.''
The Jaguars went 5-11 in what was the most tumultuous season in franchise history.
Coach Jack Del Rio was fired in November after a 3-8 start, let go the same day that the team was sold to billionaire Shad Khan. Interim coach Mel Tucker took over and shook things up by firing an assistant coach and releasing a starting receiver.
Just about every major move since has been to make Gabbert better.
Khan and Smith hired former Buffalo Bills coach and Atlanta Falcons offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey as the franchise's third head coach. Mularkey brought QB coach Bob Bratkowski with him from Atlanta to serve as offensive coordinator and hired former Tampa Bay Buccaneers offensive coordinator Greg Olson as quarterbacks coach.
Bratkowski and Olson spent much of the offseason tweaking Gabbert's mechanics, starting with shortening his stride.
''We've slowed some things down with the drop, just to maintain that balance,'' Mularkey said. ''We're not asking him to drop as deep just so he remains balanced so he's not too fast into it where he doesn't keep his balance. Slowly but surely, it's getting better and better.''
The Jaguars have tried to surround Gabbert with better talent, too.
They signed former Dallas Cowboys receiver Laurent Robinson to a five-year, $32.5 million contract and traded up to select Oklahoma State star wideout Justin Blackmon with the fifth overall pick in April's draft. The additions should help improve what was the league's worst offense in 2011.
''I'm real impressed,'' Robinson said. ''I feel like we're way ahead of schedule. There's still a lot of work to do, but we're moving at the right speed, catching on and doing the right things.''
Even so, the Jaguars still have plenty of concerns heading into training camp. Will star running back Maurice Jones-Drew hold out in hopes of getting a new contract? Will Blackmon, who was arrested on a DUI charge in June, stay out of trouble? Will tight end Marcedes Lewis, who struggled in 2011 while dealing with a child-custody case, return to his 2010 form?
Will Jacksonville's defense, which ranked sixth in the league last season, continue to play at a high level? How defensive tackles Terrance Knighton, Tyson Alualu and D'Anthony Smith return from injuries? Will defensive ends Jeremy Mincey, Austin Lane and rookie Andre Branch provide a more consistent pass rush? Will rookie punter Bryan Anger, a third-round draft pick, really make a difference on special teams?
All of those, though, pale in comparison to questions surrounding Gabbert.
''I think Blaine's obviously made some strides,'' Smith said. ''I clearly expect him to take a step this year. ... I think with any young quarterback, whether it's your first year or coming in here as a second-year starter, he'll have some trying times. It will certainly help him having gone through that a year ago and persevered in a lot of ways.''