The last time the Jacksonville Jaguars played a regular-season game at Lambeau Field, a quarterback they drafted with the seventh overall pick the previous year led them to an upset of the Packers in a nationally televised game on a viciously cold December night. This Sunday, the 10thoverall pick of the 2011 draft will lead the Jaguars into a game at Lambeau Field that will likely be the Packers' lowest profile contest of the season.
Byron Leftwich was that "franchise" quarterback that scored a 28-25 win over Brett Favre and the Packers in 2004. Three years later, Leftwich was gone, replaced by David Garrard following a stellar performance at Lambeau Field in a 2007 preseason game. Last year, Garrard was pushed out by Blaine Gabbert.
"Being a high draft pick, especially at the quarterback position, you come in knowing you're going to play at some point in time. It's your job to catch up, learn the system, get acclimated to the game and produce. Those are the rigors of the game and you have to do it at a fast pace," Gabbert told Packers media on Wednesday.
The pace at which Gabbert has had to learn his craft has probably been too rapid, especially considering the circumstances that have made his progress even more difficult than normal.
"I watched a lot of film leading up to the interview here, because I knew that would be one of the questions, based on everything I heard," new Head Coach Mike Mularkey said. The question to which he was referring, of course, is: Do you think Gabbert can be a successful NFL quarterback?
Obviously, Mularkey answered in the affirmative, or he likely wouldn't have wanted the job. Another candidate, Bill O'Brien, is said to have declined interest in the Jaguars job to become the coach at Penn State, reportedly because O'Brien wasn't sold on Gabbert.
"I think he had a tough situation when I got here, not having an offseason and then not being the starter in training camp, so getting limited reps, and then by default being thrown in there as a 21-year-old, three-year quarterback out of Missouri," Mularkey said of Gabbert. "I think there were a lot of things going against him, on top of a lot of things in the organization – ownership change, coaching changes – never gave him a chance to establish himself or progress as a quarterback.
"I think I see steady progress with Blaine. I think we have a lot of room to still grow. I thought he was one of our most improved players in training camp. He's a different player in the pocket. The starts are invaluable for him."
At the root of Gabbert's tough circumstances are charges from some, most pointedly from NFL Network analyst Mike Lombardi, that Gabbert shrinks in the pocket. It is the most biting criticism a football player can face, that he lacks toughness.
Gabbert would seem to be determined to prove his toughness this week, as he gave every indication on Wednesday he will play in Sunday's game, despite having suffered a torn labrum in his non-throwing shoulder in last Sunday's overtime loss in Oakland.
"I'll be practicing today and going from there. You've got to do your best not to think about it. It's just mind over matter," he said.
Statistically, Gabbert is improved in 2012, but not significantly. He's thrown six touchdown passes and just three interceptions, but his 77.1 passer rating is largely the result of a lack of passing yardage, just 906 yards in six games.
"We can help him if we can protect him a little better and do a better job on the outside of catching the ball. Right now, after six games we have 20 drops. That's not good," Mularkey said.
No young "franchise" quarterback, not even Leftwich when he replaced the ultra-popular Mark Brunell, could've stepped into a tougher spot. On top of all of that, Gabbert is also bearing the burden of saving the franchise, which is always mentioned in connection with Los Angeles rumors, and just agreed to play a game in London in each of the next four years.
"We've got plans here. We're doing a lot of things here. We just agreed to go over to London for the next four years. We're doing a lot of things in this community I'm excited about. We just have to put some wins up. I don't see it going anywhere," Mularkey said.
It's a daunting challenge Gabbert faces. It's like playing a game in Lambeau Field against a red-hot Packers team. Additional coverage - Oct. 24