Blaine Gabbert's short career has resembled that of another current NFL quarterback. Alex Smith of the San Francisco 49ers. They both were picked in the first round of the draft (Smith No. 1 overall and Gabbert 10th overall) have experienced turnovers in the front office and are trying to shed the bust label.
To be picked in the first round comes with lofty expectations. If you are the first or second player picked at your position it means that you are better than all the others picked after you. First rounders who are not able to play to these standards can quickly become busts.
Gabbert, the third quarterback picked in the 2011 draft, will always be compared with the quarterbacks in his draft class. The two most noteworthy rookie quarterbacks this season are Cam Newton who has had a statistically phenomenal rookie campaign (28 total touchdowns) and Andy Dalton who has exceeded expectations after being picked in the first round. They have set the bar high for the quarterback class of 2011.
Alex Smith will always be judged against Aaron Rodgers who slipped to the 24th overall selection to the Green Bay Packers. The 49ers will always regret the day they passed on Rodgers (a future Hall of Famer).
Given Newton's unprecedented athletic ability, it is unfair to assume that Gabbert could match his production. A better comparison is Dalton, who the Jacksonville Jaguars passed on in the first round, and to a lesser extent, Tim Tebow who they passed on in the 2010 draft (despite the fact that he was already immensely popular in Florida). If Gabbert does not improve his play in the near future, the city of Jacksonville will always be haunted by the quarterbacks they could of had.
Whether or not Gabbert is able to live up to expectations depends on the future decisions the franchise makes. Some of Smith’s faults can be blamed on the poor decisions made by the 49ers' front office.
The season before Smith was drafted, the 49ers' general manager Terry Donahue and head coach Dennis Erikson were fired and Mike Nolan was named the new head coach. Mike Singletary replaced Nolan as head coach in 2009. Both Mikes were defensive-minded and spent little time trying to improve Smith’s play. In fact, they did more to deter his progress than help it by bringing in a new offensive coordinator every season.
To add to this, Smith has played with only one consistent offensive playmaker in his career, Frank Gore. Smith's favorite target, Vernon Davis, hardly contributed until his fourth season in San Francisco. Michael Crabtree was supposed to be Smith's go-to receiver, but has only caught 10 touchdowns since being drafted 10th overall in 2009.
It was not until this season that Smith has begun to shake the bust label (although he still has a long way to go). It took the guidance of first year head coach Jim Harbaugh to transform Smith into something resembling a legitimate starting quarterback.
Right now people are beginning to doubt that Gabbert will ever be a good quarterback. Although it is unfair to label him a bust after one season, Gabbert's uneasiness and bad decision making in the pocket has him looking more like a career backup instead of a perennial Pro Bowler.
Like Smith, Gabbert has witnessed drastic changes to Jacksonville’s front office in his first year with the team. Head coach Jack Del Rio was replaced midseason by defensive coordinator Mel Tucker. On the same day Del Rio was fired, owner Wayne Weaver announced that he was selling the franchise.
The coaching decisions Jacksonville makes this offseason will be crucial in determining the rest of Gabbert's career.
More than likely, Tucker will be replaced as the head coach this offseason. Jacksonville must find a coach who is capable of harnessing Gabbert's full potential. The organization must also commit to finding offensive playmakers (other than Maurice Jones-Drew) who can help Gabbert in the passing game.
The 49ers waited six seasons before bringing in a coach who was able to turn Smith into a winning quarterback. Even now, he is a few Pro Bowls short of shedding the bust label.
Gabbert is young and malleable. There is still a chance for him to develop into a solid quarterback.
The Jaguars' franchise is in limbo right now. This is not necessarily a bad thing because it gives them the opportunity to rebuild. The head coach they find this offseason will play a crucial role in determining how quickly the team sinks or swims.
If they find a coach who can do for Gabbert what Harbaugh did for Smith, the young signal-caller will start to perform like the player who rivaled Newton as the No. 1 quarterback entering the draft.
However, if the Jaguars bring in a coach who takes a passive role in developing Gabbert (like Nolan and Singletary to Smith) the franchise will always regret the day they picked the long locked blond.