Historically, that has not been a good thing. In 2011, Gabbert ranked dead last in Football Outsider’s DYAR stat with minus-1,009 points, more than doubling that of the next worst player. He improved to “only” minus-268 in 2012, arguably outplaying teammate Chad Henne, but then fell all the way back down to minus-429 in 2013, on only 98 passes.
Gabbert’s traditional statistics aren’t much better. He throws an interception on 3.1 percent of his pass attempts. His quarterback rating has never peaked above 77.4. His 5.61 yards per attempt ranks last among qualifying quarterbacks over the past three seasons, as does his completion percentage of 53.28 percent. The last quarterback to put up worse numbers than Gabbert was Ryan Leaf, one of the all-time busts.
The 49ers knew all this coming in, of course, and still elected to sign him. Furthermore, they didn’t draft a quarterback to compete with him for the backup role, instead bringing in a number of players who are looking more at earning the third quarterback spot.
The 49ers obviously feel they have a chance to rehabilitate Gabbert’s NFL career; after all, he was a top-10 pick in the 2011 draft. Jim Harbaugh has stated he has high hopes for Gabbert’s future in San Francisco.
“I think he’s a very talented player and his career so far hasn’t gone on to be what he expected, and maybe others expected it to be,” Harbaugh said, via CSN Bay Area. “But I believe it can be a really powerful opportunity, powerful motivator for a player to say, ‘It wasn’t me, it was my situation.’ And now he has that opportunity.”
It’s the preseason, the time for optimism to run wild. So, let’s put on the rose-colored glasses and try to see what San Francisco sees in Gabbert. Is there any evidence at the NFL level that Gabbert can become a solid starting quarterback? Let’s take a look.
Gabbert actually has solid accuracy on his short passes. On passes thrown from zero to 10 yards downfield, Gabbert is 233-of-384 for 1,947 yards. Admittedly, those numbers aren’t going to blow anyone out of the water, but it’s an area of strength to build on.
Gabbert excels the most when asked to find quick hitters and underneath routes, rather than sitting and watching plays develop. As the receivers go further and further downfield, his accuracy begins to flounder. His ideal receiver is a possession player on a quick crossing route, rather than a burner on a vertical route toward the end zone.
His accuracy also falls off a cliff when he’s pressured, which is a bigger concern behind Jacksonville’s offensive line than it is behind San Francisco’s.
In 2012, his last full season as a starter, Gabbert earned a plus-2.0 grade from Pro Football Focus when not under pressure, throwing for 6.1 yards per attempt. When pressure got to him, however, his grade dropped all the way to minus-4.1, and his yards per attempt fell to 5.5, not to mention the 22 sacks he ended up taking.
Every quarterback does worse under pressure than he does when he has all day to throw, but it’s particularly pronounced in Gabbert’s case. That’s another reason to stick with short, predefined passes—the defense can’t get pressure if the ball is out of Gabbert’s hand immediately.
Gabbert’s arm strength is adequate, if not spectacular. He loses a bit of velocity because he doesn’t set his feet and step into passes as well as he could. This could be a reaction to the porous nature of Jacksonville’s offensive line—a defense mechanism caused by seeing pass-rushers come free so often. He fades away from the line of scrimmage because he doesn’t trust that it’s going to stay intact.
It reminds me a lot of David Carr, actually. Early in his career in Houston, Carr suffered an inordinate number of sacks trying to work behind an expansion offensive line. That seriously hampered his career development; he began running from pressure before pressure even formed, so sure he was of getting sacked again.
Gabbert is young enough at 24 that he could be trained out of some of the bad habits he’s developed running for his life in Jacksonville.
Gabbert looks flummoxed sometimes by the speed of the pass rush, but when he gets time, he’s actually not bad. Jacksonville’s statistical analysis team determined that Gabbert is in the “top-third” of quarterbacks in the league when given 2.6 seconds before throwing, via ProFootballTalk's Mike Wilkening.
Top third is really, really stretching it. ESPN’s Stats & Info department tore into Jacksonville’s analysis based on its own scouting and Total QBR stat. There’s an indication of improvement when given time, but not starting-caliber talent.
But the 49ers don’t need Gabbert to be a starter, they need him to be able to come off the bench for a game or two if Colin Kaepernick gets hurt. If Harbaugh and company can correct some of Gabbert’s ingrained mechanical flaws, and if Gabbert can get used to the speed of an NFL pass rush by going against the 49ers defense every day in practice, there might be something salvageable here.
Gabbert has had exactly one significantly positive game, according to Pro Football Focus: the 2012 season opener at Minnesota.
In that game, Gabbert was 23-of-39 for 260 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions. In the fourth quarter, Gabbert and the Jaguars took over with 1:18 left in the game, trailing by five. It was time to throw like crazy, and Gabbert, on six consecutive shotgun throws, converted a crucial 4th-and-3 and then threw a deep pass to Cecil Shorts for the go-ahead touchdown.
That pass shows what Gabbert can do when he has time. He stepped up in the pocket, scanned the field and found a relatively tight window to hit Shorts in. He was cool under pressure, considering the situation of the game, made the right read and completed a great play.
Then, in overtime, Gabbert missed all three of his pass attempts as the Vikings won the game.
There’s a spark of talent left here. Gabbert is big and athletic with a solid arm. He needs to be able to put it all together on game day, and he hasn’t on a consistent basis in the NFL. He needs to learn to slow the game down. Perhaps moving to a more stable franchise will help—Gabbert’s had to adjust to new offensive coordinators in each of his first three seasons.
There was another quarterback who had to adjust to new offensive coordinators fairly often at the beginning of his career—Alex Smith. Smith didn’t get a chance to see the same offensive coordinator in back-to-back years until 2009-2010, four years after he entered the league. A quarterback is going to have a hard enough time adjusting to the NFL in a stable situation; in a situation constantly in flux, the task is herculean.
Jim Harbaugh was able to take the broken pieces of Alex Smith’s career and develop them into a solid NFL starting quarterback. Is there any reason to believe that he can’t do it with Gabbert?
Putting Gabbert in a more solid situation, without the expectations from being a top draft pick and the expected starter, is the best thing that can happen to his career. There’s absolutely no guarantee that Gabbert will develop into anything, and he could be cut after this season. However, if anything is going to come out of Gabbert’s career, he’s in the right place to make it work.
All charting statistics in this article come from Pro Football Focus (subscription required).
Bryan Knowles is a featured columnist for Bleacher Report, covering the San Francisco 49ers. Follow him @BryKno on Twitter.