When it comes to rookie quarterbacks, there are two lines of thought. The first is what I like to call “the Matt Ryan model”. Of course, this could also be called “the Joe Flacco model” or “the Cam Newton model”, but Matty Ice best exemplifies the peak potential of this model. You likely spent a first round draft pick on this guy, and you’re going to see what he’s made of – and hopefully energize the fanbase in the process. You drafted this quarterback to be the leader of your team and the face of your franchise, and that process begins in year one. You hand him the reigns and commit your team’s future to his growth. He may struggle (like Matt Ryan’s 29.6 QB rating in his second game of the season, or Peyton Manning’s 11 INTs in his first 4 games), but you’re all in – even if he struggles or regresses – like Joe Flacco did in year four and like Cam Newton is doing now.
The second line of thought follows what I like to call the “Aaron Rodgers model”. This could also be called “the Philip Rivers model” or “the Carson Palmer model”. In this model, your team has an established veteran quarterback that gives you the luxury of slowly bringing the new rookie along. In some cases, this veteran quarterback is a future hall of famer like Brett Favre. In other cases, he’s a middling, average-at-best quarterback that gives you stability like Jon Kitna was in Cincinnati. Regardless, this model gives you the opportunity to groom your prized first round pick at a pace that you see fit – allowing him to adjust NFL-style practices, including dealing with the physical demands, becoming a student of the game in the film room, and earning his stardom. In this situation, what is lost in on-the-job training is made up for in preparation – from the snaps he gets in practice to the opportunities he gets to run the scout team, the new rookie quarterback is essentially given a guide on how to succeed in the NFL, and his talent and effort determines whether or not he’ll achieve this success.
What makes a quarterback more apt to one of these models than another? It’s easy to look at a guy like Matt Ryan – a four year starter in a pro-style offense – and point to experience. It makes a lot of sense that experience in an NFL-style offense and as a leader of your team for many years may make you a better fit to jump in as an NFL starting quarterback from day 1. However, if things completely made sense, it wouldn’t be so hard picking franchise quarterbacks. Having this experience certainly does not make you ready to lead an NFL team (see Quinn, Brady), even if you were groomed behind a veteran quarterback – like Matt Leinart was. Additionally, lacking this experience also doesn’t make you not ready to lead an NFL team, as we’ve seen with Joe Flacco, who played at Delaware, and Cam Newton, who really had a very limited experience as a college quarterback before coming to the NFL.
So when looking at Blaine Gabbert, it’s easy to say that the Jaguars should have brought him along slowly. Do I think he should’ve been brought along slowly? Yes, and I always have – he was a two year starter, playing in a spread offense, in a conference notoriously low on defense – and that’s not even taking into account how little support he was going to get from a low-in-talent Jaguars team. But that’s not to say that Gabbert couldn’t have succeeded when thrown straight into the fire like fellow first round pick Cam Newton. Part of the blame goes to his poor mechanics, slow growth, and poor coaching / play-calling.
The only things a team can do to decrease a rookie quarterback’s chance at succeeding are exposing him to injury and diminished confidence. In the year and a half that Blaine has been with the Jaguars, they have done both. First, he’s been playing injured since early in the season with a torn labrum. Even though it’s in his non-throwing arm, a torn labrum still produces an incredible amount of pain and affects his ability brace himself and take a hit. For a quarterback labeled as “skittish” who needed to work on his footwork and timing in the pocket, why did the Jaguars think it was a good idea to expose him after this kind of injury behind an offensive line that could be described as patchwork as best (how could this not increase his skittishness?). For all the negative things you could say about how Blaine Gabbert has played, you have to respect his toughness in the pocket this season with that injury.
Second, he’s been subject to an uncontrollable front office turnover and a controllable front office fickleness. Sure, neither Gabbert nor the Jaguars could really help getting a new owner, a new coach, a new offensive coordinator, and a new offensive system. But if the Jaguars decided from the beginning that Gabbert wasn’t ready to start in the NFL, they could’ve stuck with that. The play/injury of David Garrard had no impact on Gabbert’s preparedness. Neither did the play of Luke McCown. But after seeing that Garrard had become an old man and that McCown was exactly what every other team in the league thought he was, the Jaguars decided that it was best for them to start Gabbert and get him some game-time experience. Despite Gabbert’s agonizingly slow start in the NFL and the incredibly negative press that he and the Jagaurs were subject to, the Jaguars stuck by Gabbert, making him a number one priority when making head and assistant coaching decisions in the offseason.
But now, 10 games into the season, the Jaguars have gone back on their quarterback decision again. After a once-in-a-lifetime game by Chad Henne, the Jagaurs staff has decided that Henne, not Gabbert, will be the starter on a merit basis. Mind you, this is after Gabbert had his 1st, 3rd, and 4th highest passing yardage totals in his last three games (granted, this isn’t saying much, but it is saying that despite a significant injury and a team that is 1-9, Gabbert was finally starting to show some improvement). Were there still agonizing games that featured dump off after dump off? Of course there were – Gabbert’s development will likely take patience and three or four years of it. He was a project of a first rounder – much like Ryan Tannehill was this past year.
Am I saying that starting Henne over Gabbert is clearly not the best thing for the Jaguars this season? No, I’m not, and after the last two weeks, it’s understandable why Jaguar fans are excited by Henne’s play. While it’s grossly premature to anoint Henne our quarterback of the future, Henne, being just 27, still has enough natural ability and potential to be a viable quarterback in this league.
That being said, I honestly don’t know how much worse or better Gabbert is than Henne. I think that regardless of who the quarterback is, Jaguar fans will see flashes of good quarterback play intermingled with agonizingly sub-par quarterback play. And regardless of the ideal plan for the rest of this season (whether it’s winning games or winning the best possible first round pick), promoting Henne over Gabbert is going to affect his confidence, his development, his future with the team, and the future of this franchise. We’re now seemingly in a full-blown quarterback battle, a la Kelly Holcomb and Tim Couch, with Henne auditioning for the starting job next season. As a quick aside, please look at the schedule and note how soft the rest-of-the-season schedule looks. We have a chance to win four more games and part of it has nothing to do with who’s playing quarterback.
The last few years, this team has been plagued by a lack of talent and a lack of consistency. Unfortunately, this seems to be true for both the Jaguars’ players and their front office. At the end of the day, you have to have a vision for the team, and for better or for worse, give it a legitimate chance and see it through. The bottom line is, if Gabbert’s your guy and the plan was to hand him the starting reigns from day 1, you need to stick with him through the struggles until you do not believe he can develop into a viable quarterback. Of course, the problem is, Gabbert wasn’t Mularkey’s guy – he’s Gene’s guy, and the initial plan wasn’t for Gabbert to have the reigns from day 1 – it was to slowly bring him along – the “Aaron Rodgers model”. Meanwhile a raw young quarterback may be being doomed by circumstance – the injury to Garrard, the quick unforeseeable promotion to the starting job, the ownership change and coaching staff turnover, the injuries, and now a quarterback battle that he can’t actually participate in because he’s recovering from injury. During all this, do the Jaguars have an actual plan for him – regardless of how well or poorly Henne plays? Is Gabbert still the presumptive quarterback of the future? Face of the franchise? Eleven weeks into the season, do the Jaguars visionaries have even a general outline of a plan? In the midst of the muddle, it’s become increasingly difficult to see what they envision at quarterback.
– Zain Gowani