Tuesday (Wee) Morning Thoughts on Blaine Gabbert

One of the few times Blaine Gabbert stepped into a throw this year like he used to. Photo by Kegelthedog.

Scared. That’s how most will characterize Blaine Gabbert’s performance from the pocket on Monday Night Football. It’s how I see it.

It’s hard not to see it this way after watching several of Gabbert’s rookie performances. When the rookie throws the ball, even from a reasonably clean pocket, he doesn’t follow through by shifting his weight forward. Instead he’s veering away from the direction of the defensive pressure and never really placing full weight on his front foot.

A lot of writers on Twitter that I know say they saw this before with Gabbert at Missouri. I studied numerous games of Gabbert’s and while I observed a quarterback that would sometimes break the pocket too quickly against the blitz, I never saw this leaning tower of throwing form that he’s displayed this year. Against Nevada and Illinois I watched Gabbert throw the ball down field and play aggressive football.

What Gabbert is doing in Jacksonville is scary and disheartening and I have to agree with Jon Gruden that the idea of teaching a quarterback to step into pressure doesn’t really jibe. You either have courage or you don’t with the exception that it is possible to lose courage and regain it. This is what I’m hoping we will see from Gabbert.

However, in Gabbert’s defense I will say that I watched Matt Ryan lose his balance while in the act of throwing against the Texans Sunday afternoon. Ryan ruined his own pass attempt because he anticipated pressure coming from his right side and veered so far to his left while delivering the ball that he lost his balance while following through and the Texans defender wasn’t even within a yard of the Falcons’ quarterback. This is not the only instance I’ve seen this from him, either.

Matty Ice might be Ryan’s nickname, but one of the significant reasons Atlanta’s starting quarterback will struggle to become “the next” big-time quarterback is the fact he perceives pressure in every game and overreacts to elude it. To Ryan’s credit, he has more often than not shown the tendency to stand tough in the pocket and deliver a pass he knows he can make if he takes the hit. However, he also creates a lot of his own negative plays because he lacks the dimension of pocket presence to navigate tight spaces as effectively as Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady, or Peyton Manning.

Gabbert’s offensive line is a turnstile of players, the receivers are young and making as many mistakes with routes as the quarterback delivering the ball to them, and the Jaguars coaching staff seems content with using a short passing game. There’s even a conspiracy theorist portion in the deep recesses of my imagination that wonders if Gabbert has been playing with a knee injury and that brace to his left knee that he uses to plant isn’t actually a precaution. I’d like it to be a valid explanation as to why Gabbert is leaning to one side as he delivers the ball, but I can’t buy it.

Gabbert flashed similar issues at the college level we’re seeing now, but I think they are exacerbated and exaggerated by something other than the speed-athleticism of the NFL game. Photo by Daaka 2.

I also want to believe that Jack Del Rio undermined Gabbert’s confidence by making him wear a knee brace. By citing the injuries to Carson Palmer and Tom Brady as a reason to wear a brace on a healthy knee, isn’t Del Rio undermining a young player’s confidence?  It’s like telling a six-year-old new to swimming that he needs to watch out for the sharks in the pool.

I’d like to believe that train of thought, but I can’t go that far, either.

The only things I can count on are facts: Gabbert is the youngest quarterback in the league. His surrounding talent is Maurice Jones Drew and little else. There are a lot of quality starting quarterbacks that endured tough rookie seasons:

Last Name First Name Year Team G Comp Att Pct Pyds PTds INT Ryds Ratt RTds
Bledsoe Drew 1993 nwe 13 214 429 49.88% 2494 15 15 82 32 0
Sanchez Mark 2009 nyj 15 196 364 53.85% 2444 12 20 106 36 3
Stafford Matthew 2009 det 10 201 377 53.32% 2267 13 20 108 20 2
Namath Joe 1965 nyj 13 164 340 48.24% 2220 18 15 19 8 0
Plunkett Jim 1971 nwe 14 158 328 48.17% 2158 19 16 210 45 0
Aikman Troy 1989 dal 11 155 293 52.90% 1749 9 18 302 38 0
Simms Phil 1979 nyg 12 134 265 50.57% 1743 13 14 166 29 1
Elway John 1983 den 11 123 259 47.49% 1663 7 14 146 28 1
Bartkowski Steve 1975 atl 11 115 255 45.10% 1662 13 15 15 14 2
Chandler Chris 1988 clt 15 129 233 55.36% 1619 8 12 139 46 3
Lomax Neil 1981 crd 14 119 236 50.42% 1575 4 10 104 19 2
Gabbert Blaine 2011 Jax 11 147 297 49.50% 1566 8 7 95 39 0
Bradshaw Terry 1970 pit 13 83 218 38.07% 1410 6 24 233 32 1
Fouts Dan 1973 sdg 10 87 194 44.85% 1126 6 13 32 7 0
Manning Eli 2004 nyg 9 95 197 48.22% 1043 6 9 35 6 0
Everett Jim 1986 ram 6 73 147 49.66% 1018 8 8 46 16 1
McNabb Donovan 1999 phi 12 106 216 49.07% 948 8 7 313 47 0
Sipe Brian 1974 cle 10 59 108 54.63% 603 1 7 44 16 4
Cunningham Randall 1985 phi 6 34 81 41.98% 548 1 8 205 29 0

I didn’t include the likes of Johnny Unitas, Bob Waterfield, Norm Van Brocklin, and several other great passers from the older era. However, I think you can see that there are some horrific seasons on this list – Gabbert isn’t alone.

Unfortunately, stats can’t cover up Gabbert’s behavior throwing the ball in the face of pressure. He may always perceive pressure too soon – Matt Ryan and Mike Vick do – but these fade away throws are a new issue. I’d be more skeptical if I had seen this behavior before, but I think it’s worth having an open mind heading into next year to see if there was more to this issue than meets the eye.

At the very least, these issues make Blaine Gabbert one of the more compelling young players to monitor as an evaluator. There will be valuable lessons to learn either way Gabbert’s career plays out.

4 responses to “Tuesday (Wee) Morning Thoughts on Blaine Gabbert”

  1. The way I see it: same problem, different form. There were many many examples of Gabbert panicking in the pocket in college and while they may not have manifested themselves in the same way as they are now, that doesn’t mean they didn’t exist.

    As an example I’d point to this Youtube video of Gabbert vs. Illinois: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q5nGYHLeB2g

    :22- Gabbert panics two seconds into the play on a 3 man rush that is well blocked (he also comes very close to heaving a pass off his back foot at :26)
    :49- Once again he panics two seconds into a well blocked 3 man rush
    1:28- Cuts back for no gain upon seeing incoming defender on the edge rather than letting himself be hit in order to execute the option pitch
    1:39- Overreacts to incoming cornerback causing him to try and turn away resulting in the exposed ball and ensuing forced fumble
    2:25- Panics two seconds in again (this was a five man rush but was well blocked) and ends up throwing off his back foot (although to be fair it was still a pretty decent throw)
    3:05- Gabbert makes a decent throw in the face of pressure here but it’s worth noting that he makes the most basic read on this play (i.e. throw it to the receiver who was being covered by the blitzing cornerback) and if the safety’s first step is forward rather than back this could very well be a pick six.
    4:01- Gabbert spots the defensive end coming up the middle on a stunt and takes a panic step (and drops his head) to the left before hitting his dumpoff option in the flat. The thing is, the left guard is able to recover in time to push the end away from his path to the quarterback meaning all Gabbert had to do was slide his feet over to the left and keep his eyes downfield.
    5:19- Gabbert panics one second in on a three man rush sprinting to his left and nearly heaving it down field before he is tackled for a big loss (after losing unnecessary yardage by running backwards). The thing is, the defensive tackle was triple teamed on the play and neither tackle had been beat so he could have simply stepped up in the pocket and continued looking downfield.
    6:58- Gabbert actually does a nice job scrambling to his left and finding the receiver on this one but if you watch his footwork in the pocket before he takes off (at 7:01) he’s already moving backwards before the defensive tackle gets penetration.
    7:25- 3 man rush, well blocked play, nice big pocket, Gabbert panics 3 seconds in before recovering to find the open receiver. Even the announcers commentated on his attempt to abandon a great pocket.
    7:39- After faking a handoff (rather unconvincingly), Gabbert goes through his reads on a well blocked play against a three man rush (with 6 in protection). Yet his initial steps here are once again backwards rather than holding his ground and then after 4 seconds he once again unnecessarily scrambles to his right and is forced to make the throw on the move rather than with his feet set
    8:39- Gabbert spots an approaching defensive end after faking the handoff and proceeds to backpedal before launching the throw. Now, this was probably the sensible play in this situation as Gabbert bought time for his pulling guard to reach the end but what is less enthralling is how he abandons his progressions to watch the defensive end before turning downfield and launching it immediately. Even if the receiver hadn’t had the defender beat, it is likely that Gabbert would have launched the throw anyway
    9:15- 3 man rush, well blocked play, Gabbert scrambles to his left after two seconds- we’ve seen this one before. He does do a nice job of finding a receiver on the move but there is no reason for him to be leaving the pocket here.
    10:10- The left tackle fails to execute a chip block on the defensive end here giving him a free path to the quarterback but Gabbert panics again sprinting 7 yards backwards before underthrowing the screen pass on what could have gone for a big play. Again this one wasn’t really on Gabbert but nonetheless he doesn’t show a desired level of poise under pressure
    10:35- 3 man rush, well blocked, Gabbert scrambles to his right two seconds in. This one probably doesn’t qualify as panicking but it’s still an unnecessary movement by Gabbert demonstrating his discomfort in the pocket
    11:00- Illinois brings 3, Missouri blocks it well, Gabbert tries to scramble to his left 3 seconds in with no pressure on him and is then forced to scramble right and ends up having to execute an incredibly difficult 20+ yard throw downfield while falling backward. It was an impressive throw but again there was no reason for him to be in that situation (the announcers even indicated he’d had a man open in the middle of the field early in the play).
    11:43- One of the better decisions under pressure exhibited by Gabbert in the game. He sees his man get beat and begin scrambling to his right to escape (although he hesitates for a second after he starts moving) and ends up throwing it away.
    12:10- Gabbert takes the snap and tries a quarterback draw but after making a few cuts around the line of scrimmage he’s brought down for a loss. This play is similar to all the other Gabbert runs in this game in that he’s tentative, appears to be actively avoiding being hit or having any contact, shows zero decisiveness, and is unsuccessful.

    No doubt Gabbert has a lot of positives to his game including a gift for throwing on the move and when he doesn’t have time to set his feet but these abilities should not be mistaken for pocket presence or a knack for extending the play. On the contrary, Gabbert often got himself into these situations by reacting to phantom pressure or overreacting to penetration and even though he bailed himself out a few times, it isn’t a stretch to see where his struggles as a Jaguar are emerging from.

  2. Also a Mizzou fan, I for one saw this as a huge negative about Gabbert’s game. It constantly got him into unnecessarily difficult situations, and I was never a fan of his throwing on the run – usually bad things happened. Having watched Gabbert for two years as a starter and seeing him constantly escape imaginary pressure makes me enormously thankful for the poise James Franklin shows in the pocket.

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