Coach Jack Del Rio named Gabbert the starter Wednesday, switching signal callers three days after Luke McCown threw four interceptions against the New York Jets. The move comes a little more than a week after Del Rio released veteran starter David Garrard following a poor preseason and a three-interception practice.
Gabbert will make his first start Sunday at Carolina.
“He’s a big strong kid whose really been kind of a star quarterback his whole life,” Del Rio said. “We think he has a chance to be a franchise-type quarterback. He’s getting a chance now to be our starting quarterback and become that guy.”
The transition was inevitable since the Jaguars selected Gabbert with the 10th pick in April’s draft. Del Rio had hoped to take it slow with the former Missouri standout, even planning to give him a year to watch and learn behind Garrard. But Garrard struggled in the preseason and was outplayed by McCown, a career backup.
Del Rio named McCown the starter five days before the season opener. McCown did enough to win the opener against Tennessee, but his ninth start in eight seasons was a debacle. He was picked off four times, could have thrown a couple more and was sacked for a safety — all in just three quarters
McCown wanted a chance to redeem himself, but understood the decision.
“Who’s to say what one deserves,” McCown said. “It would do me or this team zero good to sit and say I deserve another chance. I didn’t perform last week and that’s just the blunt fact of it. I didn’t play well enough to give our team a chance to win. I’m big enough to stand up here and say that.”
McCown completed 6 of 19 passes for 59 yards against the Jets, finishing with a 1.8 quarterback rating.
The Jets won 32-3, the second worst loss in Del Rio’s nine-year tenure. And since he’s widely considered to be coaching for his future — team owner Wayne Weaver said the Jaguars need to make the playoffs for Del Rio to stick around another year — it was reasonable to wonder whether he would put his fate in the hands of a rookie quarterback.
Del Rio chuckled when asked whether he went to Weaver to see if playing 14 games with a first-year quarterback would change expectations.
“I don’t look at life like that,” Del Rio said. “I’m a competitive guy. We expect to be a good football team. That will not change. Absolutely not would be a better way to say it. The furthest thing from my mind.”
Gabbert threw 40 touchdown passes and 18 interceptions as a two-year starter at Missouri. Because of the NFL lockout, he missed minicamp, organized team activities and dozens of meetings with offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter.
Nonetheless, he impressed coaches and teammates with his arm strength, pocket presence, situational awareness and speed.
Del Rio said he considered going with Gabbert after opting to part ways with Garrard. But chose to give McCown a chance. He said Gabbert has shown progress in two weeks.
“We’re excited,” Del Rio said. “There’s a little freshness to it. There’s big upside potential.”
Gabbert’s teammates rave about his confidence. Guard Uche Nwaneri recalled Gabbert’s first live huddle, at New England in the preseason opener. Gabbert stared everyone in the eyes, then yelled, “Let’s (expletive) go, guys,” Nwaneri said.
“He’s got all the confidence in the world,” Nwaneri said. “He’s got a good swagger about him. He knows what the challenge is going to be. I think he’ll thrive against the challenge. He was drafted high and he’s itching for an opportunity to get in and make an impact, and now he’s getting an opportunity to do that.”
Gabbert has wanted to be a starting quarterback in the NFL since he first played football at age 11, so he’s looking forward to it and expecting a few jitters.
“You’re always going to have butterflies,” Gabbert said. “When you’re doing something you love, that you care so much about and you put so much time and effort in throughout the week, you’re going to have butterflies. I think something’s wrong if you don’t have them. That just means the adrenaline’s going and you’re ready to go.”