San Francisco 49ers: Can Blaine Gabbert Salvage His NFL Career?

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San Francisco 49ers: Can Blaine Gabbert Salvage His NFL Career?
Jeff Chiu/Associated Press

At the beginning of the month, we looked at similarity scores for Colin Kaepernick to try to figure out how he will improve in 2014.  However, Kaepernick isn’t the only quarterback from the class of 2011 on the San Francisco 49ers roster. While Kaepernick’s NFL future is secure, Blaine Gabbert’s is far more up in the air.

When the 49ers traded a sixth-round pick for Gabbert back in March, the general reaction was one of confusion.  The 49ers were giving up a draft pick for a quarterback with a 5-22 record as a starter?  A quarterback who throws an interception every 3.1 percent of his pass attempts?  Someone with 5.61 yards per attempt, which is the lowest number among qualified quarterbacks since 2011? 

Surely, someone with that track record could be had without giving up draft capital.

Jeff Chiu/Associated Press
Gabbert has been showing off in camp, but practice isn't a game situation.

However, Jim Harbaugh and Company feel there’s still something to be salvaged in the former 10th overall pick.  Harbaugh and general manager Trent Baalke considered drafting Gabbert in 2011, attending his pro day, but ultimately passed.  It’s hard to argue that the combination of Aldon Smith and Colin Kaepernick hasn’t been much better than taking Gabbert would have been.

“We were not going to draft a quarterback with the No. 7 pick,” Harbaugh said at the NFL owners meetings. “That was something we’d talked about as an organization and, really, personally made that promise to Alex Smith that we weren’t going to draft a quarterback at No. 7."

But now, Harbaugh has the opportunity to work with Gabbert on a daily basis and see if there is some gold to be mined out of what has been a disaster of a career so far.  Up to this point in training camp, at least, the news has all been positive for Gabbert.

In a press conference on Thursday, Harbaugh had nothing but praise for Gabbert:

Really, really good. He's showing all the signs of developing quite rapidly and executing very well, sharp in all mental facets, in terms of knowing all the plays, and he's come along….Blaine's coming along. I've always said, six months later you're going to be very far along in this system but not as far along as you will be after a year, and after two years you'll most likely be an expert in this system.

Gabbert’s also been getting praise from the beat writers—Matt Barrows of The Sacramento Bee has noted that Gabbert has looked sharp over the first few days of training camp, and Kevin Lynch has said Gabbert looks “exceedingly cool," far above where Colt McCoy was at this point last season.

Of course, that may not be a surprise.  ESPN.com’s Michael DiRocco points out Gabbert has always looked good in practice but hasn’t been able to translate it to the field on game days.  His poor performance on the field speaks for itself.

John Raoux/Associated Press
Gabbert could never put it all together in Jacksonville.

That got me wondering—has there been any quarterback who has looked as bad as Gabbert has in his first three seasons who has managed to turn things around to have a productive NFL career?

To answer that question, I’m going to use a modified version of Football Outsiders’ similarity scores, similar to what I used with Colin Kaepernick.  In this case, I’m going to look at the total performance for quarterbacks over their first three seasons combined, see which ones come closest to Gabbert’s performance and see which, if any, went on to productive careers.

Here are the 12 quarterbacks who came the closest to Gabbert’s numbers in their first three seasons in the league:

Quarterbacks Similar to Blaine Gabbert
Player Year Team Cmp Att Cmp% Yds TD INT
Blaine Gabbert 2011-13 JAX 414 777 53.3% 4,357 22 24
JaMarcus Russell 2007-09 OAK 354 680 52.1% 4,083 18 23
John Friesz 1990-93 SD 401 747 53.7% 4,396 19 20
Randy Johnson 1966-68 ATL 344 739 46.6% 4,307 24 52
Alex Smith 2005-07 SFO 435 800 54.4% 4,679 19 31
Joe Pisarcik 1977-79 NYG 289 650 44.5% 3,979 18 43
J.P. Losman 2004-06 BUF 384 662 58.0% 4,423 27 23
David Klingler 1992-94 CIN 368 672 54.8% 3,792 15 20
Bobby Layne 1948-50 3TM 323 687 47.0% 4,351 28 38
Colt McCoy 2010-12 CLE 409 702 58.3% 4,388 21 20
Bert Jones 1973-75 BAL 387 722 53.9% 4,632 30 32
Dan Fouts 1973-75 SDG 308 626 49.2% 4,254 16 36
Butch Songin 1960-62 2TM 327 694 47.1% 4,347 38 31
Average N/A N/A 361 698 51.7% 4,303 23 31

Source: Pro Football Reference

There are two Hall of Famers in that data set, though they come from very different eras.  Bobby Layne’s 47 percent completion percentage looks horrible to modern eyes, but the NFL’s completion percentage back then was only 46.6 percent, so Layne was actually above average.  

That’s not Gabbert’s situation at all; quarterbacks now complete more than 60 percent of their passes.  If Gabbert put up identical numbers in the 1940s, he would be well on pace to have a great career, but to say the game has changed a bit since then is an understatement.  Layne’s not the best comparison.

Dan Fouts, on the other hand, is a more interesting best-case scenario.  Fouts struggled as a part-time starter with the San Diego Chargers his first three seasons, putting together a 5-20-1 record as a starter.  Much like Gabbert in Jacksonville, Fouts had almost no talent around him on offense to work with, and his career sputtered at the beginning. 

However, the arrival of a new coach—Don Coryell in 1978—and an influx of new talent around him saw Fouts’ career take off.

Fouts was a third-round pick, however, and wasn’t expected to take off right away.  He also did well enough to keep the starting job before Coryell came in.  His situation isn’t the most comparable to Gabbert’s.

Tom Gannam/Associated Press
With Harbaugh behind him, Alex Smith's career turned around.

The most similar scenario on the list is Alex Smith, and that’s why 49ers fans have some license to be optimistic about Gabbert’s future potential.  Jim Harbaugh and his staff have already shown they can take a quarterback with absolutely horrid stats and turn him into a competent NFL quarterback—a Pro Bowler even. 

Smith’s first numbers were just as bad as Gabbert’s, but given Harbaugh’s coaching techniques and the significant boost of talent between 2005 and 2011, Smith was able to revive his career.

Of course, that doesn’t mean Harbaugh has the Midas touch here—Colt McCoy is also on this list, and Harbaugh wasn’t able to turn him into anything in his season in San Francisco.  Six of the 12 comparables became journeymen backup quarterbacks.  Two more, JaMarcus Russell and Butch Songin, never played another NFL game after their first three seasons.

Gabbert's Comparisons After their First Three Seasons
Player Yrs Starts Cmp Cmp % Yds TD INT Status
Dan Fouts 12 145 4,978 60.0% 38,786 238 206 Hall of Fame
Bobby Layne 12 120 3,013 49.5% 22,417 168 205 Hall of Fame
Bert Jones 7 69 1,829 56.9% 13,558 94 69 All-Pro
Alex Smith 5 60 1,885 61.7% 12,914 85 39 Pro Bowler
Randy Johnson 7 16 547 55.4% 4,022 27 38 Backup
John Friesz 7 15 344 55.8% 4,303 26 22 Backup
J.P. Losman 4 9 180 62.1% 1,848 6 11 Backup
Joe Pisarcik 5 3 136 54.8% 1,573 6 5 Backup
David Klingler 3 0 21 45.7% 202 1 2 Backup
Colt McCoy 1 0 1 100.0% 13 0 0 Backup
JaMarcus Russell 0 0 0 N/A 0 0 0 Cut
Butch Songin 0 0 0 N/A 0 0 0 Cut
Average 5 36 639 57.0% 8,303 54 50 Backup

Source: Pro Football Reference

Songin’s another outlier, as he actually played in the 1950s in the Canadian Rugby Union, the predecessor to today’s CFL.  He was dusted off and brought out of retirement for the AFL’s first few seasons and was quickly left behind as the league got actual professional-quality talent.

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The other comparisons are fairer and not very flattering.  JaMarcus Russell might well be the biggest draft bust in NFL history.  He’s received a few tryouts after leaving the Oakland Raiders, but he hasn’t received a contract since then.  Players like Pisarcik, Klingler and Losman were never given the keys to a team again after flaming out as young starters.

Fouts and Layne, as significant outliers, bring that average unfairly high.  It’s much more likely Gabbert’s raw talent is somewhat salvageable but as a veteran option off the bench.  A realistic goal for him, at this point, is to be a player who a coach is comfortable starting for a game or two in a pinch.  Any true NFL stardom would be surprising considering his first three seasons in the league.

Harbaugh and his staff were able to spin straw into gold once with Alex Smith.  Asking them to do it again with Gabbert might be asking too much.

 

Bryan Knowles is a featured columnist for Bleacher Report, covering the San Francisco 49ers.  Follow him @BryKno on twitter.

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