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CBSSports.com Senior NFL Columnist

Gabbert's rookie year was a nightmare, but he won't be a bust

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Gabbert was thrown into the fire without a rookie's usual prep time. (US Presswire)  
Gabbert was thrown into the fire without a rookie's usual prep time. (US Presswire)  

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- There is nothing worse than being called "soft" in the NFL, only imagine it's a word far worse that that, one we can't print here.

Jacksonville Jaguars quarterback Blaine Gabbert has been called everything and anything you can imagine to insult his toughness after a rough rookie season in 2011. He's been called the kind of names that would make some players fight back, the kind of things you don't want next to your name.

Instead of fighting back, Gabbert has opted to take a different approach to having his toughness questioned by national media, Jaguars fans and even a certain former coach who sits in a Monday night booth and thinks he invented the quarterback position.

"I have to respond on the football field," Gabbert said last week during a break from offseason workouts. "The biggest thing I worry about is my teammates. How do they feel about me? I can't worry about what people are saying. When somebody says something, people run with it. That's what happened. I can't worry about that."

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The Gabbert-is-soft talk became an out-of-control topic after the Jaguars' nationally televised Monday night game against Baltimore, a game the Jaguars somehow won. The ESPN crew, led by Jon Gruden, lit up Gabbert, who was making his fifth career start after being the 10th pick in the April, 2011 draft. The ripping hasn't stopped since.

It didn't help that the Jaguars, who opened their veteran orientation camp Tuesday, were linked to the tough-guy quarterback Tim Tebow, the favorite son of this city, who some fans see as the anti-Gabbert for his gritty style.

The reality is that at times Gabbert was jumpy in the pocket early on last season. But that waned as the season moved along, as he became more comfortable. I say most of the problems were brought on by bad mechanics and a bad system.

It's fixable. Gabbert will not be a bust -- even if most of you think he will be.

In fact, I will go as far as saying that a year from now you will be talking about him as one of the rising quarterbacks in the league. I say that because he is smart, has a big arm, can make all the throws and spins his head. He's also willing to put in the work.

That means something. It's why he's working hard to understand the team's new offense under first-year coach Mike Mualrkey. He spends a lot of time at the team's facility and takes home the work at night.

"You want to make sure it's fresh when you come back in the morning," Gabbert said.

As for the soft talk, you can tell it bothers him, even if he won't admit it. Wouldn't it bother you if you played a tough-guy game for a living and were singled out as the timid one?

So during my half-hour sit down with Gabbert, I pulled out a paper with an evaluation from former NFL personnel man Mike Lombardi, who now works for the NFL Network, and let Gabbert read it.

It read: "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."

Gabbert looked up from the paper and just shook his head.

"Who is Mike Lombardi?" Gabbert said. "Every season a player is going to have a certain label. It creates buzz. It creates controversy and interest. 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."

Lombardi is wrong about a couple of things. The new Jaguars staff -- and especially the front office -- still believes in Gabbert. And just to make sure, I checked with some of the players I trust and asked them privately about his toughness.

To a man, they all said he was plenty tough.

"You watch what he does this year," one player said. "All that stuff got way overblown. He's on a mission to prove everybody wrong. I've seen guys who aren't tough. He isn't one of them."

So what was wrong? How could a player who Jaguars fans roared about after a trade up to get him become the most-hated player on the roster? A day doesn't go by where a fan doesn't call into a talk show and mock Gabbert for his perceived lack of toughness.

It was the perfect storm for a disaster. Among the factors:

 The lockout. Gabbert was given a playbook by the team, but he couldn't meet with coaches to discuss it. It was learning on the fly. Normally by the time a rookie quarterback goes to camp, he knows the playbook, having run the plays at minicamps and OTAs. "It was a weird last year not having these minicamps," Gabbert said. "Not being able to hang out with the coaches and learn their offense with them and have them teach it to you was tough. You're kind of looking at the paper and saying, 'all right.' When I got here last year I hardly knew anything. I showed up Day 1 of camp and all the things I knew were things I tried to teach myself."

 Gabbert was only 22 with only two years of college playing experience. The front office expected him to sit and watch the entire season, but when David Garrard was released in the preseason -- a move that the front office had to make when coach Jack Del Rio told them he wouldn't start Garrard -- Gabbert moved up to second team. When Luke McCown was terrible the first two weeks, he became the starter. Gabbert was the youngest player in league history to start 14 games in a season.

 The run-centric offense. Under Del Rio, the Jaguars were a run-first team and were built that way. That meant a lot of Maurice Jones-Drew and a lot of bunched-up sets and little focus on building around the quarterback position. That made it tough to adjust for Gabbert, or any other passing quarterback.

 Bad receivers. With Del Rio's future in doubt, Del Rio had to piece together a staff and one of the coaches he hired on a one-year deal was receivers coach Johnny Cox, who really struggled and the receivers regressed. Quarterback coach Mike Sheppard was also part of the problem, according to team sources. Nice guy who wasn't tough enough.

 Poor footwork by Gabbert. He spent too much time throwing off his back foot. It's clear his mechanics needed work and Sheppard or whoever wasn't giving it to him. Gabbert had a passer rating of 65.4, worst in the league, and completed just 50.8-percent of his passes. A lot of that had to do with footwork.

 Now we know why. Gabbert played most of the season with a toe injury on his right, plant foot. He never complained about it and didn't miss time because of it. "You have to play through stuff like that," he said. "People expect you on the field. It's just part of the deal. You have to learn to deal with the pain, whether it's a lot of pain or a little pain. You have to push through it."

Add it all up, and no wonder Gabbert is toast in this town instead of the toast of the town.

A change in coaching staffs gives him a new outlook heading to 2012. Mularkey, who helped Matt Ryan develop in Atlanta, will be much more detailed when it comes to his quarterback. Mularkey also hired quarterbacks coach Greg Olson to help tutor the bad things out of Gabbert. Olson is credited with helping to develop Drew Brees at Purdue.

Gabbert said he called Ryan shortly after Mularkey was hired to talk about his new coach and to get a feel for the offense. Mularkey and offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski are expected to liven up the passing game.

"That experience he got will be, I can't tell you, how important it'll be coming into this season," Mularkey said. "Those games he played in will be great for him. Great in the long run."

It might not have felt that way during the season, but Gabbert loved playing, no matter how tough it was for him and how many names he was called.

"I can't let that stuff bother me," he said. "I just have to show it's not true with the way I play. And I will."

I know I am the minority when I say this: I agree with him.


Pete Prisco has covered the NFL for three decades, including working as a beat reporter in Jacksonville for the Jaguars. He hosted his own radio show for seven years, and is the self-anointed star of CBS Sports' show, Eye on Football. When he's not watching game tape, you can find Pete on Twitter or dreaming of an Arizona State national title in football.
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