Jacksonville Jaguars quarterback Blaine Gabbert had a rough rookie season, to say the least. He finished the year leading the worst passing offense in the NFL and showing slight improvement overall through the season. Gabbert was clearly in over his head and not quite ready to start in the NFL. He was one of those rookies that needed the NFL offseason, which was robbed from him with the NFL lockout.
Heading into the 2012 season, the Jaguars have hired an entire new coaching staff. The heavy lifting of the hiring was done by the man who drafted Blaine Gabbert with the 10th overall pick, Jaguars general manager Gene Smith, fresh off a three-year contract extension. A big focus of the Jaguars coaching search was going after a head coach who would be willing to work with Gabbert, as he's the quarterback of the future the Jaguars drafted. In Mularkey's introductory press conference, he backed Blaine Gabbert and said he had seen enough from him on film to believe he will be a franchise quarterback.
Fast forward to March, and suddenly there is a quarterback controversy. The Jaguars signed free agent quarterback Chad Henne to a two-year deal, to be the team's back up quarterback. There are some folks however who believe that Henne will win the Jaguars starting job by Week 3 of the 2012 NFL Preseason.
Mike Mularkey insists there is no quarterback controversy and Gabbert is the team's starting quarterback. "No, it's not (a competition). Blaine's our starting quarterback," Mularkey told NFL Networks Albert Breer over the phone. "We feel good about him."
Those words generally ring hollow however, especially in Jacksonville.
Jaguars fans have seen this act play out before, under former head coach Jack Del Rio. Back in February of 2007, Del Rio pronounced that Byron Leftwich was the team's starting quarterback and then he was released in favor of David Garrard a week before the regular season started. Last season, Del Rio proclaimed Garrard the Jaguars starting quarterback all through training camp, but Garrard was also released a week before the regular season started.
The situation with Gabbert and Chad Henne this season however is different.
Simply put: Blaine Gabbert has to be the Jaguars starting quarterback.
"We've got a huge amount invested in Blaine," Jaguars owner Shahid Khan said in January. "Our fate is tied to him. We can't win without him."
The Jaguars invested a Top 10 draft pick to Blaine Gabbert, trading up to get him in the first-round of the 2011 NFL Draft. The Jaguars invested 14 regular season games to Gabbert's development last season and made it a focal point of their head coaching search after Jack Del Rio was fired. The Jaguars invested in free agent wide receiver Laurent Robinson and first-round draft pick Justin Blackmon this offseason to provide Gabbert with some weapons.
Jaguars general manager Gene Smith is tied to Gabbert, as general managers generally are with their quarterback picks. Smith goes how Gabbert goes, both good and bad. It would be relatively nonsensical for the general manager who's job is tied to the quarterback to bring someone in to beat him out the very next season. If Chad Henne winds up being the Jaguars starting quarterback to open the regular season and Blaine Gabbert is not injured, then Gene Smith should be out of a job because that means he completely missed on his quarterback.
For Chad Henne to truly "beat out" Blaine Gabbert before the season actually starts, he would have to play some of the best football of his NFL career while Blaine Gabbert simultaneously shows absolutely no improvement from last season whatsoever. In this situation, if the quarterbacks play is close it will and should default to the 22-year old first-round draft pick, not the 26-year old veteran quarterback who's struggled to be an average starter. Not only has Henne struggled to be even an average NFL starter, what are you going to accomplish with Henne starting? Is Chad Henne going to get you to the NFL playoffs?
The Jaguars owe it to themselves to continue with Blaine Gabbert to start the 2012 season to make sure he's not what they think, or to see a glimpse that he is what they think. The only way to find out what he is for sure is to play him.
Blaine Gabbert has to be the Jaguars starting quarterback when the 2012 season begins. What happens after that however, is entirely up to Blaine Gabbert.
For more on the Jacksonville Jaguars, visit SB Nation's Jaguars blog Big Cat Country.