Troy Wayrynen-USA TODAY Sports

Troy Wayrynen-USA TODAY Sports

Has Blaine Gabbert been judged unfairly?

Al Sacco
Jul 27, 2016 at 8:15 AM13

In today's NFL, young quarterbacks are held to a much higher standard than they were year's ago. In the past, it was expected that a rookie or developing signal caller would struggle in the early stages of their development, and you just had to be patient while they learned the ins and outs of playing the position. Now, players aren't given that luxury. Everyone wants the next Russell Wilson or Andrew Luck. You see, there's no time for a learning curve. We want results and we want them now. If we don't get them, you're a bust, a wasted draft pick.

In reality, these expectations are ridiculous and not in the least bit fair. There are so many factors that go into good quarterback play, and every player (and their situation) is different. For example, Wilson was drafted by a team that was blessed with a dominant defense and excellent running game. His coaching staff could game plan around him, because other areas were so strong. He was allowed to develop without being asked to do too much early on, and it helped him grow into the franchise quarterback he is today.

Not every quarterback is as fortunate as Wilson, or is a once in a generation talent like Luck, but they're still held to impossibly high standards. So when a quarterback is slow to learn, is put into a system that doesn't quite fit their skill set, or has a bad team around them, do franchises pull the plug too quickly?

The answer to that is probably, although it's not like you can really fault the reasoning. Coaches and general managers want to save their jobs, and they usually aren't given much time to prove their worth. If the guy behind center doesn't show progress immediately, the clock starts ticking. The sad part about it is, once the quarterback is benched or jettisoned all together, the media, fans, and sometimes even other teams, immediately look at him as a lost cause or a punch line. That's not always fair.

So as I sit and ponder the often unjust life of an NFL quarterback, I can't help but wonder about Blaine Gabbert. After all, it's looking more and more like he's the front runner to start for the San Francisco 49ers this season, but it doesn't appear as if many in the outside world have much faith in him. For example, Pro Football Focus ranked the Niners' quarterback situation as 31st in the NFL, with only the Ryan Fitzpatrick-less New York Jets behind them.

Key stat: 2015 was by far the best season of Blaine Gabbert's career, and still saw him grade below average, with a passer rating of 86.2.

The 49ers will be hoping Chip Kelly can work his magic on their quarterbacks, because on paper, neither Gabbert nor Kaepernick has been able to perform well going back for several years. Kaepernick has at least had a stretch of play at this level where he looked legit, but Gabbert has never justified his first-round selection on the field.

It's hard to argue with this numbers wise, as Gabbert's performance has been underwhelming to say the least since he was drafted by the Jacksonville Jaguars with the 10th overall pick in 2011. His stats in Jacksonville were awful, as he went 5-22 as a starter, completing 53.3 percent of his passes with 22 touchdowns and 24 interceptions. His yard per game was at a paltry 155, which is basically non-functional.

Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

In Gabbert's defense though, he was put in an impossibly bad situation. The Jags were a very, very poor football team, and he was thrown to the wolves right away. His leading wide receivers during his rookie season were Mike Thomas and Jason Hill (yes, that Jason Hill) and his offensive line was a sieve. Gabbert was sacked on 7.3 percent of his drop backs his rookie year in 2011, 8.8 percent in 2012, and 12.2 percent in 2013.

If you don't buy the team excuse, consider the fact that Gabbert simply wasn't ready. Even draft experts thought he needed time on the bench before he'd be able to effectively lead an NFL offense.

Gabbert has it all physically, but has a long way to go before he's ready to lead an NFL offense. He played in a spread offense and will have to learn to take snaps under center and make progressions in the pocket. However, he is a smart football player that seems to understand coverages and he has the arm strength to fit the ball into tight windows. He is also very mobile and elusive in the pocket and shows the ability to make plays with his feet. Overall, Gabbert's tools will be too alluring for a team without a quarterback, and he seems assured to be a top-10 pick, maybe even the first QB off the board.

So, basically, Jacksonvile took a college spread quarterback who needed time to get accustomed to the NFL game and threw him into the fire while he was surrounded by a terrible roster. Sounds familiar, doesn't it? (See: Smith, Alex)

Fast forward to 2015, and Gabbert once again found himself in a tough situation. Now with the 49ers, he was inserted midseason into a poorly coached, talent deprived offense that had scored seven points or less in four of their last six games. It was a recipe for disaster for sure, but a funny thing happened. Gabbert actually looked okay.

Now I'm not saying he played at a Pro Bowl level or anything, but he certainly made the most out of a bad situation. The 49ers had major issues on the offensive line, were using running backs off the street, and were routinely outcoached week after week. Despite that, Gabbert managed to complete 63 percent of this throws and averaged 253.9 yard per game. Over a 16 games season, his numbers would have been equivalent to 4,062 yards and 20 touchdown passes. San Francisco hasn't had a quarterback break 4,000 yards since Jeff Garcia in 2000.

Overall, the Niners went 3-5 with Gabbert at the controls, which is probably better than they deserved to be honest. I'm still trying to figure out how the 2015 team managed to steal five wins. Anyway – again – I'm not saying Gabbert was Aaron Rodgers here, but he was a far cry from the shell of player he was in Jacksonville. I don't think anyone can argue that there's been a major improvement from the train wreck we last saw start in 2013, to the current version.

Now, as Gabbert enters training camp as the presumptive starter, he finally has a coach that's known as a quarterback guru in Chip Kelly. Kelly has worked wonders with the likes of Nick Foles and Mark Sanchez, both of whom played well under Chip but have struggled elsewhere. Kelly will coach to Gabbert's strengths, and his QB friendly offense should help resurrect what recently looked like a dead career. If Gabbert took a step forward under Jim Tomsula and Geep Cryst, is there any reason he can't continue to improve under Kelly?

While hope may be on the horizon, there's still a long way to go and many obstacles to overcome. After all, camp is yet to open and Gabbert hasn't even officially beat out Colin Kaepernick yet. Still, there are reasons to be optimistic here that maybe the 49ers have found a decent starting quarterback whose arrow is pointing up. Stay tuned, Gabbert might just surprise some people this year.

Al Sacco has covered the 49ers for various sites over the years. He's been a guest on multiple podcasts and had his work used by ESPN NFL Insiders and USA TODAY. Follow Al on Twitter @AlSacco49
The opinions within this article are those of the writer and, while just as important, are not necessarily those of the site as a whole.


  • GM
    Excellent article. IMHO, Fantasy Football is ruining the sport because that and Madden assumes you can easily pluck a player out of college and place him in any situation and he should put up stats. The NFL has never been and will never be a level playing field; all rosters have strengths in players, coaching and have differing strength of schedule. Luck and Wilson had drastically different situations when starting; expectations for Wilson were so low, no one even expected him to get out of camp lest we forget. The team already had planned to rely on defense and a run game. Pete Caroll was known for his defensive genius, not offensive coaching. Luck had the luxury of relying on some of the games best offensive coaches in Arians and Pagano.
    Jul 28, 2016 at 10:12 AM
    Response: Thank you! Appreciate it
  • Nick
    Agreed, Kap is not the answer and he proved it the last few seasons. People say it was the supporting cast but I disagree when he had a great D and O-Line and playing in the Super Bowl he still could not effectively read a D and locked into 1 receiver (3 and out Crabtree). It is evident he is not and never will be in the same class as Montana Young or even Garcia. Even Steve Young stated that Kap does not have the "It" factor. Did you ever see Joe or Steve post game with headphones and sideways on his head ? heck never ! Winning with class baby ...
    Jul 28, 2016 at 9:05 AM
  • MichaelC
    Given the way the team was coached last year and the players playing around Blaine, he did well. What I fail to understand is why all the love for Kap? He played well for 1.5 seasons... Declined after that? Remember last year they we're teaching Kap how to read defenses, added the finesse pass (rather than rocketing every pass out) and more. But mind you, don't believe me, believe Michael Crabtree! Look how he played last year in Oakland? What has he said about Kap? Look up his comments. You'll see the truth!
    Jul 27, 2016 at 6:44 PM
  • Ninerfan1652
    Dude, what you are missing is one important stat. Strength of schedule between Kap and Gabert. It was totally different. Balke inserted Gabert against on of the weaker defensive purposely. I think it was against Atlanta. I believe Balke ochrestrated this to show Gabert was better than Kap. How would have Gabert done against the same teams in the beginning of the year!
    Jul 27, 2016 at 6:03 PM
    Response: I have to disagree with you here. Gabbert's second game was @Seattle and he threw for 264 yards and a score. Kaepernick threw for 268 yards in his last 2 games COMBINED @Seattle. Gabbert threw for 318 against the Cards, the same team that Kaep threw for 67 yards against and was picked off 4 times. Kaepernicks only two remotely decent games in 2015 were against the Raven and Giants, who had two of the worst pass D's in the league.
  • Bill
    When judging Blaine some referenced should be made to the three interceptions that bounced off the hands of McDonald and Simpson that would have hit them in the chest if they had not deflected the ball up into the air to be intercepted. Simpson's on the two yard line probably would have been a touchdown. How would three more completions, three less interceptions and another touchdown modify Gabbert's statistics?
    Jul 27, 2016 at 12:45 PM
  • don
    Blaine is treated as a fail by virtually all the so called football experts. They all almost to a man choose Kaepernick as the better option for 49er success.. Blaine showed me enough last season to think he can play top flight QB in the NFL. He hung well in the pocket took his licks and completed passes on numerous occasions. He will have to improve this season but if those QB's who looked so good under Chip, at Philly, there is no reason why Blaine cannot be very productive for the 49ers under Chip at SF..
    Jul 27, 2016 at 12:29 PM
  • Ladale
    So I'm watching Andrew Luck have one of the worst seasons imaginable and still have the support of the organization and fans to come away with a multi-year/multi-million $ deal. They give him the benefit of the doubt because of injury, aging veterans, etc, on a team stacked and picked to win it all at season start. So you have in Santa Clara a QB only a few seasons removed from an actual Super Bowl appearance forced to operate behind a depleted O-line, your best receiver was born in 1980, your tightend had become timid and shied from contact, your running game was depleted/injured, your defense lost six starters from the previous season, you had an inept & inexperience head coach combined with an equally inept offensive coordinator, and yet you can't support your own starting QB only a few seasons removed from said Super Bowl. Excuse me, wasn't it said that Kaepernick needed to be a part of a Chip Kelly system and not be confined to the pocket. A system comparable to the one he ran at Nevada. So now that you've brought those things to bear Blaine Gabbert is your presumptive starter???
    Jul 27, 2016 at 11:28 AM
    Response: Here's my thing...Kaepernick was bad in Harbaugh's last season (and half of 2013 for that matter)but it was Greg Roman's fault. He was terrible last year but it was the team around him. When do the excuses stop? In my opinion Kapernick is an athlete playing quarterback who struggles with the nuances of the position. He doesn't see the field, breaks the pocket too early, can't (or won't) throw receivers open, etc. In Kelly's offense, a QB needs to make quick decisions. Kaepernick doesn't do that well. I hope he can prove me wrong, Ladale, but I don't think he's the answer.
  • Marvin
    When you have a team around you, it is easier. He was in Jacksonville. No offensive line was beat on like a red headed step child. Ask Alex Smith how it feels to be beat on by opposing defenses. The offensive line when alex was drafted by Mike Nolan, was awful. They could hold a bucket of water. The offensive line was ok last year but not good. Blaine and Colin were beat on badly, It is hard to see defenses when you are running for you life or are being driven into the grass. Blaine is the better and smarter qb between the two. I hope he shows it. 49ers are my team win lose or draw, Go niners
    Jul 27, 2016 at 11:27 AM
  • Joe
    Steal 5 wins? What games were stolen? They beat Minnesota in the 1st week. Week 1 games are often weird anyway and they had a healthy Carlos Hyde. But was it a shock they beat 5-11 Baltimore? Or an 8-8 Atlanta team in the midst of a 6 game losing streak? Or 6-10 Chicago? Or 7-9 St. Louis (led by Case Keenum)? We lost to Cleveland. Lost to Detroit. Lost to New York. Lost to Cincy with AJ McCarron starting. Our schedule turned out to be pretty darn easy. A better coaching job and we would have been 8-8 at least.
    Jul 27, 2016 at 11:25 AM
    Response: Anytime the won a game last year I shocked. Worst coached team I've seen in a long time.
  • MT9er
    Thank you! I have been waiting to hear someone at least acknowledge this as a possibility. If you look at his stats compared with Osweiler's last year, they are almost identical. Osweiler, playing on one of the most talented rosters in the NFL, is seen as a possible rising star, a potential franchise quarterback, and signs an absurd contract with the Texans. Gabbert meanwhile, playing on one of the least talented rosters and under one most over matched coaching staffs in the NFL, is still widely written off as the same "bust" he was in Jacksonville. Not saying he will be great (or even all that good), but I think he has at least earned himself a chance to show what he can do now, and not be consistently pinned down by where and how he started (Rich Gannon anyone?).
    Jul 27, 2016 at 10:35 AM
  • Shawn
    I do get a kick out of how none of the "staff" writers wrote that Kap was medically cleared piece. I'm all for the best qb winning this competition but the bias this site has built up for a 3-5 QB is peculiar.
    Jul 27, 2016 at 10:29 AM
  • Steve
    I'm playing devil's advocate here (not picking a fight, I want to see the best QB out of Gab and Kap leading this team), but at the beginning of the article you talk about how Russell Wilson thrived with a dominant defence and running game. Kap's first few years were similar, the difference is that you look at Wilson in the pocket and he is calm, he sees the defence. Kap on the other hand has looked lost for periods in 2014 and '15, he's bereft of confidence and his mechanics are still poor. This brings me to Gabbert. He seems to have all of the tools to make it as a pro bowl calibre QB, but lacks the confidence in his team mates to make a play, and like Alex Smith will look too early for check downs. You mention his ypg last season, which is a massive improvement, but the 3rd down conversions weren't there when needed. I put a lot of this down to the worst offensive game plan this side of Jimmy Raye, but both Gab and Kap didn't look like the answer last year. I hope Kelly can turn either or both around, but I'm also looking forward to a less ponderous offence than we've had for the past couple of years.
    Jul 27, 2016 at 9:59 AM
  • Mr. P
    Any quarterback that comes off the bench, mid-season, and does good, is over-achieving. Back-up QBs just don't get many reps with the 1st offense, and the full attention of the coaching staff. So I see a lot of upside to Blaine, and it will be interesting to watch this year when he is given his best chance to succeed.
    Jul 27, 2016 at 8:47 AM

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