In defence of Blaine Gabbert and in rejection of Tim Tebow

After Forbes magazine named Tim Tebow the most influential athlete in all of sports, which exposes the fact that they obviously restrict their scope to North America (’cause you know, I can name you five soccer players I’d pick before him), some Jacksonville lawyer named John Morgan bought advertising space to try to make Tim Tebow-to- the-Jacksonville-Jaguars happen. This took place after a petition was sent to President Obama (…unbelievable!) to “pressure” him into getting the NFL to award Tebow to the Jags. Morgan is free to buy and use advertising space as he pleases, but his sanctimonious message, as well as the petition to the President, are so preposterous that I have an inappropriate Anthony Jeselnik-type joke on the tip of my tongue.

I have criticized the previous regime of Jack Del Rio/Mike Mularkey and Gene Smith virulently, and I take none of it back, but one thing even they got right was that Tebow isn’t the answer. The new Gus Bradley/David Caldwell administration, put together by new Jags owner Shahid Khan, understands this as well. Notwithstanding the sheer imbecility of the idea that the NFL should impose a player upon one of its franchises, the very notion that Tebow should join the Jaguars by any means is almost as problematic.

The likes of Skip Bayless have said over and over again that Tebow would have dramatically improved the quarterback position for the Jaguars because the alternatives were Blaine Gabbert and Chad Henne. Bayless himself wandered into heresy territory when he said that Tebow would have won them eight or nine games last year. That’s comical. You could have taken Montana or Elway in their prime, put them on that 2012 Jags team, and they’d have returned to the bench and said, “no can do, coach. This is a minor league team we’ve got there.” But we shouldn’t take Bayless seriously on Tebow. A quarterback of such limited passing ability might run for a few game-winning touchdowns against teams that would eventually pick in the Top 5. Hell, Vince Young won offensive rookie of the year doing that, despite the fact that he threw more picks than touchdowns as a rookie. Tebow might have led them the Jags to, let’s be generous, four wins for the sole reason that he’s the kind of player who might somewhat compensate for the incredible crassness of his supporting cast because of his athleticism and his short yardage back disposition.

Now, in the interest of full disclosure, I have to say that part of the reason why I don’t want Tebow with my Jags is viscerally personal. I am a Florida State Seminole through and through. Since Tebow is a filthy heathen Florida Gator, he is responsible for many moments of frustration on my part for which I could never forgive him. It would feel about the same way as if some dude bullied me in high school, and then wound up being my son’s position coach years later. The moment Tebow winds up in Jacksonville will be the moment when I become a New York Giants fan. That being said, I’d be completely capable of putting my personal feelings aside and admit that bringing in Tebow would be a good move, were this the case. But it is not. Allow me, dear reader to elaborate on a few reasons why it would be a dreadful idea.

The problem with Tebow

Let me stomp on my personal feelings and say this: Tebow should play in the NFL. What as, you ask? From a pure footballing standpoint, Tebow would fit as a backup quarterback for a team that has option elements incorporated in its offence. The 49ers come to mind, given that they may have fooled the Chiefs into giving a second-round pick (and perhaps a third rounder next year) for Alex Smith, but they still need a viable replacement for him. It would help the Niners to have a backup who doesn’t force them to scrap parts of their gameplan if Colin Kaepernick gets injured. Tebow could help in that regard. Is he nearly the same thrower? No, but that would be why he’d be backing up.

Here’s the problem: Teams are extremely wary of signing him for such a duty because of the media and fan frenzy that comes with him. That’s why, in retrospect, the Jets’ acquisition of Tebow was such a mistake. How could anyone, including Tebow himself, not get the sense that the Jets wanted him to win their starting job, given that they were placing him behind a supremely fragile starter in Mark Sanchez? Thus, when it didn’t happen, people started getting aggravated, especially when the perception became that Rex Ryan was going out of his way to keep Tebow off the field. The popular belief is now that the Jets “sabotaged” Tebow. Such speculation would of course be dismissed as sheer nonsense were this any other player, but that’s the fanfare Tim Tebow brings with him. What really sucks for him is that I’m not sure he wants it this way. Tebow, by all accounts, is a sharp guy, and surely he understands that as much as this fanfare can help you, as it did in Denver when he was chucking dirt balls while his defence was keeping the Broncos in the game, it can hurt you.

And it’s hurting Tebow a lot right now. Every NFL coach should logically be asking himself, “could this guy help us as a backup and perhaps with some option packages we could build for him?” But with the Forbes article, and the petition to President Obama (…unbelievable!), and the Jacksonville lawyer promoting Tebow with ads, every coach is instead wondering, “Do I want every interception my starter throws to become a PR nightmare?” What this means is that, because the pressure on you as a staff and on your starting QB would be too great, not to mention the potential divisiveness of the move for locker room harmony, signing Tebow as a backup isn’t a viable option anymore. If you’re going to bring him in, it must be as a starter.

But who wants to do that? If your team is crap, you might give it a thought. But since Tebow can’t throw, what you’re guaranteeing is that while he might, maybe, keep you out of the absolute bottom of the NFL’s cellar, he is a guy you’ll instantly look to improve upon the millisecond your team has the potential to finish over .500.  Smashing! And guess who’ll be on the wrong end of that PR disaster.  Hell, Denver’s Johns, that would be Fox and Elway, caught tremendous flack for replacing Tebow with Peyton Manning.

Let me give you a moment to think about this…

PEYTON! FRICKIN’ ! MANNING!

Sure, he was coming off the surgery and we didn’t know how he’d perform. But there were lots of people who objected to it on principle. They objected to replacing the kid who can’t throw with Peyton Manning, the greatest quarterback of the past 15 years (yes, better than Brady). The guy so cerebral he picks apart defences like a serial killer dismembering a body before our very eyes. The guy who got so many experts and fans to overlook the fact that the Colts never really had a defence during the whole time he played for them. The guy who got said experts and fans to overlook the fact that the Colts O-Line, during Manning’s last few years in Indy, was comprised mostly of undrafted free agents. For 15 years, he practically single-handedly got us to take the Colts seriously.

So you have a shot at that guy, but you’d keep Tebow instead. Even your grandmother knows that makes you a complete nutter. But that’s the irrational obsession Tebow creates. No team wants any part of it, and I can’t say I blame these coaches and GMs.

Not quite the time to give up on Blaine Gabbert

OK, but do the Jags not fit to a “t” my description of a bad team Tebow might help a bit? Well, yes. But here it helps to look at the specifics of this Jags team. In a post in which I commended the Jags for taking Texas A&M OT Luke Joeckel despite the popular perception that they didn’t need him, I said that playing behind that offensive line was the quarterbacking equivalent of being sentenced to death by firing squad. The Jags haven’t had consistent pass protection since Tony Boselli was playing left tackle for them. Now that they have both Joeckel and former Top 10 pick Eugene Monroe at the tackle spots, this might change. Which brings me to my next point.

The team’s starter, Blaine Gabbert, is entering his third year in the league. The widespread belief that he should already be considered a bust is one that I meant to challenge months ago, but couldn’t find the time. Well, here goes. The Jags drafted Gabbert in the first round two years ago. He is not some talent-deprived scrub you start because you have nobody else. There’s a reason why he got drafted so early. Am I saying he’s a Pro Bowler in the making? No, but what I am saying is that the sample we have to evaluate him in the NFL is flawed and insufficient and that should the Jags give up on him now, they risk giving up on a player who can be very successful but just wound up at the wrong place at the wrong time.

First and most obviously, Gabbert will be playing for his third head coach and offensive coordinator in three years. Ouch! Look at the bulk of first-round QBs who became great, or even good. They had some kind of continuity in terms of scheme and coaching style. Peyton Manning had Tom Moore, Brady had Charlie Weis (and then all the others who worked under him), Aaron Rodgers had Mike McCarthy and co., Eli has Kevin Gilbride, the list goes on. You can’t expect any young QB, bright and talented though he may be, to excel when the staff goes table rase every year. Some young quarterbacks get less-than-ideal situations to start their career. This isn’t less-than-ideal, it’s worse-than-awful.

Then comes the issue of the supporting cast. Let’s not even waste time analyzing the sheer dreadfulness of the squad he stepped into for Jack Del Rio’s last year in the Jax. Instead, let’s just look at last season, or as I call it, Mike Mularkey’s in-and-out.  Jags fans were treated to a mix of inadequacy and bad luck that a great fiction writer wouldn’t dare come up with. I’ve already talked a little bit about the offensive line. The only reliable long term fixture there is left tackle Eugene Monroe (and even that’s pushing it). The year they drafted Monroe, they used a second-round pick on another OT, Arizona’s Eben Britton, a good player who was, however, so injury-prone that he never settled into the lineup and is now in Chicago. The result is that the right tackle position has been filled, for some time now, by a committee of journeymen who would look like revolving doors against opposing pass rushers (did I mention I LOVE the Joeckel pick?). The centre is one of my personal favourites, Brad Meester, but he’s entering his 14th season in the league, and age is catching up. Meester was always smarter than he was overpowering, but now he’s become more injury-prone as well. The guard position symbolizes the terrible personnel decisions that have plagued this team over the years. So many reserve players have played left guard that I’ve lost count, while the right guard spot is manned by Uche Nwaneri, a fringe player making 5 million a year for reasons that only the previous administration can understand. These inside guys were beaten by more stunts than bad drug dealers and were a health hazard to whomever was playing quarterback back there.

And what of the skill positions? Running back Maurice Jones-Drew, the only proven playmaker on the team, was lost for the season early, and none of his backups could come close to matching his productivity. Tight end Marcedes Lewis, whom the Jags decided to pay Rob Gronkowski money after one 10-touchdown season though his career had been uneventful until that point, can’t stretch the seam and is a relative non-factor in the passing game until the Jags get to the red zone, which doesn’t happen very often. The team also made the imbecilic decision to sign Laurent Robinson, whose resumé basically included tons of injuries and one good 3/4 of a season replacing Miles Austin in Dallas, to a 6-year, $32.5 million contract.

Timeout… Words are inadequate to describe how incredibly stupid that signing was. What did they give him that money for? So he could start his own space program? Actually, they didn’t give him all that money, because after a single season in Jacksonville, of which the highlight was a key fumble against Houston that allowed the Texans to survive a scare, the Jags released Robinson.

Now, where were we? Right, the skill positions. They drafted Justin Blackmon fifth overall. I was very happy with the pick. However, just about two days after the draft, Blackmon got busted for DUI and spent the first half of the season unable to separate from any defensive back. (Don’t get me started on the fact that he might be suspended for the first four games of the coming season). Gabbert got injured and was placed on IR in the middle of the season. It was only after Gabbert’s injury that Blackmon was nice enough to get his head out of his ass and start playing like a first rounder. If not for Cecil Shorts, who pulled off a Victor Cruz and emerged out of virtually nowhere, the Jags would not have had a single potent offensive weapon for the entire time Gabbert was quarterbacking them last year.

And then, people have the gall to say Gabbert holds onto the ball too long and takes too many sacks. How surprising! Who was he supposed to throw to? The guys wearing the different-coloured jerseys? No protection, no MoJo Drew, no Blackmon, Lewis a non-factor, Laurent Robinson is terrible; Broadway Joe would have wound up Broadway Hoe playing with this lot.

To put it more elegantly, you cannot expect a guy to succeed when the means to do so just aren’t there. This has been Blaine Gabbert’s reality so far in Jacksonville. I do not think that we can surmise, based on the problematic evidence we have up to this point, that he can’t get it done in the NFL. Is it possible that he was overrated coming out of college? Yes. Is it possible that he, as did the likes of David Carr, has picked up so many bad habits that he is now “beyond saving”? Absolutely. But two years on a team that was beyond terrible represents a sample that is both insufficient and potentially unrepresentative when it comes to judging Gabbert’s ability to be the Jags’ franchise quarterback. Here’s another thing that keeps me hopeful about Gabbert: he doesn’t compulsively turn the ball over like so many quarterback busts typically do. He’ll eat it rather than get picked. Give him protection and receivers who might get open once in a while and I wouldn’t be surprised to see a metamorphosis from Gabbert.

Fast forward to this year. They get MoJo back. They drafted Luke Joeckel to help with the offensive line. They have Cecil Shorts, and they’ll get at least 12 games out of Blackmon, which would be 12 times more than Gabbert got from him last year. And the X-Factor could be another rookie, Denard Robinson, whose playmaking skills could be used in many different ways. They are starting to put together something interesting on offence. This is why I’ll be the first person to suggest that they cut Gabbert loose if we don’t see marked improvement from him this year. But those who call him a bust right now are jumping the gun. He isn’t JaMarcus Russell. Gabbert has none of the self-destructive traits that ruined the careers of the likes of Russell and Ryan Leaf, and failing that, the Jags simply cannot afford to give up on him so early.

There are so many quarterback busts who become victims of circumstances that it amazes me that few so-called experts ever seem to pause to give this reality a second look. Not every bust at quarterback is a Russell or a Leaf; in fact, few of them are. Usually, quarterbacks who don’t work out either:

  1. Come in a little overrated and/or mentally fragile and can’t live up to the enormous expectations placed on them (see Sanchez, Mark), or…
  2. just never manage to overcome the incredibly crappy rosters they are expected to revitalize.

I’m thrilled that the new Jags administration seems determined to cut Blaine Gabbert only if he proves to belong in group 1, not group 2. If they find out that they can win with Gabbert provided they surround him with enough pieces on offence and put together a defence that can stop the other team every once in a blue moon, it makes sense that they would go that route. If that’s the case, Gabbert would be more of an answer for the Jags than Tim Tebow could ever hope to be.

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