Jacksonville Jaguars quarterback Blaine Gabbert had a rough rookie season in 2011. We can all point to excuses and reasons why he played so poorly. We can cite the poor receiver play, we can cite the lack of an offseason and we can cite the fact that he played with a broken toe on his plant foot that no one knew about until this offseason.
Fact of the matter is however, Gabbert has to play better.
There has been a lot of talk that's come back up about Gabbert's toughness, or lack there of. Pete Prisco of CBS Sports recently wrote an article talking about why he didn't think Gabbert would be a bust and even asked Gabbert about those who were critical of his toughness in the pocket, specifically Michael Lombardi of NFL Network. "Every season a player is going to have a certain label. It creates buzz. It creates controversy and interest," Gabbert told Prisco. "Whatever the label is for the year, it's going to stick with you. He doesn't know what's going on. He doesn't know anything about me. It's comical. It's funny."
There are concerns with Gabbert and his ability to make throws from the pocket, but to label it a lack of toughness is just pulling the wrong buzzword to regurgitate.
"In my 20-plus years in the NFL, I don't think I have seen a high first-round pick look as scared or as out of place as Blaine Gabbert. The game looks entirely too big for him. When the ball is in his hand, he treats it like a hot potato. His play was embarrassing, considering he was a top-10 pick. I believed Gabbert was a good prospect and wrote about it leading up to the draft. When everyone was concerned about his down-field throws, I thought he would be able to adjust. But never did I think his eye level would be this low, his unwillingness to hang in the pocket this bad. I readily admit my mistake. Now the Jaguars need to do the same. How can they expect players around him to buy in? Gabbert cannot fool his teammates. If he continues to play like this, no one will want to play with him."
If you watched Blaine Gabbert at all during his rookie season, his skittishness in the pocket was blatantly obvious. If the receiver Gabbert was supposed to go to on the play wasn't at the correct spot or not open, he would kind of pause a second and panic, then try to take off and run. That split second pause and panic was usually enough time for a defender to get on him and sack Gabbert. There were also times Gabbert felt "ghost pressure" and would leave the pocket entirely too early, feeling pressure that wasn't there.
These were all issues Gabbert had in college at Missouri and should have been there for everyone to see when they evaluated him, like Lombardi did, and ranked him as their number one quarterback in the 2011 NFL Draft. Despite that, there was never really a mention of Gabbert being scared or lacking toughness in his evaluations leading up to the draft.
That's probably because toughness and fear aren't actually a concern for Gabbert. It's an easy buzzword that carries a disastrous connotation and puts an unwarranted label on a player. Gabbert panics in the pocket when the play doesn't go how it's drawn or the receiver isn't in the spot they are supposed to. Admittedly, Gabbert does this way more often than he should, but it's not out of fear or lack of toughness from what I've been told by people in the Jaguars franchise and from Gabbert's teammates. It's confusion.
The rookie quarterback took a pounding last season and got back up every time and went back to the line. He missed just a single series against the Houston Texans after he took a shot to the body from the Texans defenders. Gabbert went to the sideline, got his ribcage wrapped up, and trotted right back into the game. In college against Nebraska, Ndamkong Suh nearly ripped Gabbert's ankle from his body, but the quarterback finished the game and then played the next few weeks on a high ankle sprain.
That doesn't sound like a player who lacks toughness. Gabbert is a lot of things, but soft isn't one of them.
The problem here is, people equate Gabbert's uncomfortableness in the pocket with being scared to take a hit and lacking courage. There have been plenty of instances where Gabbert took the shot as he released the football instead of just cowering away from the defender. Heck, Gabbert threaded a touchdown pass against the Pittsburgh Steelers with a defender bearing down on him. He's shown he can do it, the problem is he doesn't do it with any consistency.
Toughness isn't the problem with Gabbert. Never has been.
The big question is, will Gabbert ever overcome his issues in the pocket. Whether you call him scared or just confused, in the end it amounts to the same problem. For Gabbert to be a successful quarterback in the NFL he will have to learn to play from within the pocket, move around in it, and yes take a shot if necessary.
A lot of this issue is Gabbert's awful footwork, which also was apparent on the film if you evaluated him coming out of Missouri. Gabbert has a tendency to squat and lean away as he's throwing. Almost like an unnecessary fade away jump shot in basketball, it's an unnecessary fade away pass. When Gabbert does set his feet and square his shoulders, he spins the ball cleanly and can hit spots down the football field, picking up chunks of yardage. It's just a matter of drilling the proper footwork and mechanics and translating that to the game.
Gabbert now has 14 games of NFL experience under his belt after starting just two seasons at Missouri. There is a debate about if pocket presence is just an innate ability, or if it can be something that can improve over time. I tend to think it's a combination of experience and instincts.
The only way Gabbert can silence his critics however is to simply improve his play on the field and win football games.
"I can't let that stuff bother me. I just have to show it's not true with the way I play," Gabbert told Prisco. "And I will."