Before I dig too far into my thoughts on Blaine Gabbert, I’d like to expound on what I look for when evaluating quarterbacks. This is not a unique criteria applied solely to Gabbert – these are the same traits I look at in every quarterback I study.
First, we all know that television broadcast angles make it incredibly difficult to see all route combinations and coverages in their entirety – in effect, we cannot see things as the quarterback is seeing them. As such, I try to make my focus on things that I can see on every play. The following list is in a general but not steadfast order. Understand that all quarterbacks have overlapping strengths and weaknesses and that no two quarterbacks are the same. Instead of looking at these traits in a zero-sum “has it or doesn’t have it” mentality, think of it like a scale or spectrum, where the strengths and weaknesses balance out to make a unique player.
1. Arm strength – People might scoff at this being number one, but there is a baseline arm strength requirement to playing at a consistently high level in the NFL. If a guy can only make throws to the outside when it’s under 15 yards and to the boundary (short side of the field), or when he’s allowed drive off his back foot and get his entire body into the throw, there is little margin for error in your passing game. You must hope that the quarterback is nearly perfect in all other facets of his game – and still, all coaching and gameplanning efforts will revolve around managing his throwing limitations.
Looking at how far or hard a quarterback can throw the football is looking at arm strength the wrong way. All good offenses find ways of spacing the defense in the pass game. In the NFL, players are faster, the man coverage is better, the hash marks are closer together, the field is compressed, and the quarterback is often asked to release the ball in less than ideal situations. Having a quarterback that can attack the outside quadrants and all three horizontal planes (short, intermediate, and deep) spaces the defense out, making everything easier for your offense – whether you’re hitting the bombs or not.
2. Eye-level – It’s impossible to aim at something you aren’t looking at. Where determining how well a quarterback throws an intermediate-to-deep outbreaking route (if he is even willing to attempt those types of throws) serves as a baseline test to quickly ascertain whether or not I’m looking at an NFL caliber talent, eye-level, in my opinion, is the most consistent indicator of future NFL success. Passing windows open and close incredibly quickly in the NFL – a quick peek at the pass rush can immediately throw off a quarterback’s progression and make him miss a receiver that breaks open. It sounds patronizingly obvious, but when the quarterback looks at the rush, he is no longer a passer in the structure of the offense – you react to what you look at, and if your focus is on avoiding defenders while the ball is in your hands, then you’re running. Not throwing.
Pay close attention to where Eli Manning’s attention is throughout the David Tyree “Helmet Catch” catch play. Other than the few seconds where New England defensive linemen are climbing on his back, Manning’s focus is on finding somebody downfield (and he’s even trying to sneak peaks while they’re twisting him around). I don’t expect quarterbacks to perform superhuman feats to break the grasp of a surefire sack on every play, but I’m trying to illustrate the point that the quarterback must have a relentless determination to keep his eyes downfield to in order to find their targets in the passing game.
3. Managing Space/Reaction to Pressure – This goes hand in hand with eye-level. While the quarterback’s focus should stay downfield for as long as possible, you will notice the varied reactions different players have when they’re uncomfortable with what they see. Consistently great passers at the NFL level will react with subtle movements (a short shuffle up into the pocket or a quick lateral slide) that buys them time, yet keeps them within the rhythm and structure of the play. Quarterbacks who are uncomfortable with what they’re seeing coverage-wise and/or perceive a threat to their space in the pocket generally react (either through coaching or natural inclination) by dropping their eyes and turning into runners. Those without the athletic ability to improvise can become frenetic, which throws their mechanics off and causes them to miss throws they’re otherwise capable of making when feeling comfortable.
Athletic ability and improvisational skill are not the same thing. Improvising should be used as a last resort and executed with purpose and decisiveness. When a quarterback is facing zone coverage, with all eleven defenders watching and reacting to him, it makes more sense to scramble laterally to the line of scrimmage and force the interior zone defenders to expand towards the sideline – if they don’t, the zones will become distorted and windows will open up. The quarterback can also put an underneath zone defender in a bind where he must choose between staying with the receiver and closing on the quarterback. Versus man coverage, the quarterback can look to scramble vertically and get upfield, as defenders on the second and third levels will either be playing with their backs turned to him or will be too far away to react and close before he has picked up yardage.
4. Ball Placement and Mechanics – You cannot have one without the other. The two main things I look for are balance through the drop and throw, proper weight transfer and trunk rotation, and the quarterback’s ability to throw the ball from multiple release platforms with accuracy. Do the wide receivers catch the ball in stride, or are they constantly adjusting to passes? Is he only attempting safe passes when he has a clearly defined window that leaves plenty of room for error? For lack of a better way to explain it, I’m looking for consistency, purpose, and balance with his movement and throwing motion.
While every quarterback is built differently and is unique in how he moves, there are still some very basic, biomechanical principles to throwing the football with accuracy. Here are two in-depth articles that I always like to read and refresh myself on concerning overall mechanics and the biomechanics of a quarterback’s release.
5. Style – Like C. Cordell Horn says, you have “passers and throwers,” with passers being more reliant on mechanics, rhythm, timing, and anticipation and throwers being more reliant on their ability to crease the ball into tight spaces and threaten all levels of the defense. Again, this isn’t a “one or the other” trait, it’s a spectrum – all quarterbacks in the NFL are required to play make difficult throws, and they all must play with some degree of anticipation.
When I’m looking at a quarterback’s style of play, I don’t necessarily care about the outcome of a play in the context of a win or loss. I want to see if the quarterback can straddle the line between making good decisions and attempting difficult throws when the time calls for it – I don’t necessarily care whether or not the pass is dropped, caught, or picked off.
The Graph and Blaine Gabbert
I like to add another layer to the “spectrum” I keep talking about that ties in what I went over in the “eye-level” section: when the quarterback is uncomfortable with what he sees early in the progression, does he do what he can to stay within the structure of the play or does he tend to improvise? Remember, improvisation is not necessarily a bad thing, provided it is done out of necessity and is executed with purpose)
I created this graph as a quick and dirty visual aide as to where certain quarterbacks lie along the spectrum (Please don’t kill me on where a quarterback is on here, I’m just trying to convey the general idea). As you can see, you can win with almost any type of quarterback, provided he has the baseline physical requirements necessary to play the position.
Placing Gabbert on the above graph is difficult – his skillset fits guys like Roethlisberger and Cutler, but the problem is that his playing style (whether it’s due to the way he was coached or his natural inclination) more closely resembles a player in Mike Vick’s area. He’s a big armed thrower with the athletic ability to buy himself time, but that doesn’t mean he’s an improviser - he has no business abandoning structure as often as he does. When he does make the effort to stick through his progressions and stick in the pocket, his decision making improves drastically (whether or not the pass gets completed comes back to his mechanics and/or deficient receiving talent at Missouri and in Jacksonville). As it stands, these good plays did happen. To his detractors, they were either were too few and far in-between and are nothing more than a flash in the pan in comparison to his overall body of work. To his supporters, those flashes are evidence of a bright future that got temporarily submarined by circumstances beyond his control. There have been a number of assertions and explanations as to why the Jaguars’ passing game struggled so much in Gabbert’s rookie season – poor coaching/lack of development, surrounding cast, bad mechanics, offensive system, a shortened offseason, pocket presence, and eye-level. There is a degree of truth to all of those, and they’re overlapping issues. When you’re dead last in passing in the NFL, it’s likely that the offense is deficient in multiple areas in regards to talent, preparation, and execution.
I’ve rambled on enough without actually getting into the pertinent question at hand: what (if anything) can be done to make Blaine Gabbert into a) a quarterback you can win with at the NFL level and/or b) a quarterback who can carry a passing game.
If you’ve got more questions than answers at this point, grab a ticket and get in line behind me. While I don’t pretend to have all the answers, I’ll get into specifics on how the above-mentioned traits pertain to Gabbert (with fancy pictures and play breakdowns). I’m working on it, I promise.
Part Two Coming Soon
In case you missed it previously, click here for cutups of Gabbert’s games.