The Athletic has live coverage of NFL Week 3 featuring Chiefs vs Bears
It is Blaine Gabbert’s first OTA practice with the Kansas City Chiefs after joining the team in April. Coach Andy Reid is empowering Patrick Mahomes, telling him to push limits and see what he can get away with on this day. Mahomes is smiling, laughing and talking smack.
Seeing Mahomes having a blast is making Gabbert have a blast.
Now Gabbert is smiling and laughing.
“Super fun,” Gabbert says. “Super fun for me to be out there and for me to be in that room. This great game gives us a lot of happiness.”
Others who have traveled similar paths did not feel what Gabbert feels. They felt bitterness, anger and disillusionment. Some wanted to cut ties and start a new life in anonymity.
The first pass Gabbert ever threw in organized football was a touchdown. He was a fifth grader in Ballwin, Mo., playing on Parkway West’s sixth-grade team.
He killed it in high school, and Rivals ranked him the No. 1 quarterback in the country, ahead of Andrew Luck. He could have gone to almost any college. He chose Missouri, where he led an upset of No. 1 Oklahoma in 2010.
NFL teams saw a quarterback who was big (6-foot-4, 234 pounds), athletic, fast (he ran a 4.66 40-yard dash) and smart (he scored a 42 on the Wonderlic), who could throw a football through drywall. Analysts called him the potential first pick in the 2011 draft. Many scouts rated him ahead of Cam Newton, who was chosen first.
“The pieces for long-term success are there,” one general manager said before the draft.
Gabbert was chosen 10th. Six years later, Mahomes was chosen 10th.
In an alternate universe, Gabbert would have walked into a situation like Mahomes did, and Gabbert’s career would have played out in another manner altogether.
In this universe, he’s a 33-year-old with 13 career wins as a starter.
He has been a backup to Luke McCown, Chad Henne, Colin Kaepernick, Carson Palmer, Marcus Mariota, Jameis Winston, Tom Brady and now Mahomes.
So where does Blaine Gabbert get off having so much fun?
The Chiefs installed a Hail Mary pass recently. To illustrate, coaches showed the play run by the Jacksonville Jaguars 12 years ago. It was Gabbert throwing a 36-yard touchdown pass to Mike Thomas as the first half expired — one of the few pleasant memories from Gabbert’s rookie season.
Without a collective bargaining agreement, NFL teams had locked out players in the 2011 offseason. When the lockout ended on July 25, Gabbert had not had a single day of professional coaching, and the situation he walked into couldn’t have been more dysfunctional.
Head coach Jack Del Rio later said he had no idea general manager Gene Smith planned to trade up from 16 to select Gabbert. And he wasn’t on board with the choice. “He wasn’t a first-rounder,” Del Rio said.
David Garrard was supposed to be the starting quarterback and the plan was for Gabbert to sit and learn, but the team cut Garrard just before the start of the season. McCown struggled through the first two games, and then it was Gabbert’s turn.
“He was the kind of guy that, because of his college experience, probably needed to sit and watch and really get comfortable with things at the beginning of his career,” McCown says of Gabbert, a college starter for two seasons who played almost exclusively in the shotgun at Missouri. “It was an unfortunate circumstance for him to have to play at that time.”
Gabbert’s primary receivers were Thomas and Jarrett Dillard, neither of whom lasted two more years in the league. In Gabbert’s fifth career start, his grit was questioned on national television by then-“Monday Night Football” analyst Jon Gruden.
At 22, Gabbert became the youngest quarterback in NFL history to start 14 games. He lost 11 of them. His passer rating of 65.4 was the worst in the league. On one December day, Del Rio was fired and Wayne Weaver sold the team.
“Yeah, it was a sh– show to be completely honest,” Gabbert says charitably.
It didn’t get much better in subsequent seasons. Six games into Year 2, he tore the labrum in his non-throwing left shoulder. Gabbert tried to play for four games before acquiescing to season-ending surgery.
By early October of his third season, he had a broken thumb, a lacerated hand that required 15 stitches and a hamstring injury. Gabbert was benched and didn’t play the final 11 games. He endured four head coaches in three years in Jacksonville, then was traded to San Francisco for a sixth-round pick.
In his second season with the 49ers, Gabbert was given the starting job by coach Jim Tomsula after Kaepernick slumped. There were scrapbook memories from that season, including a 26-20 victory against the Chicago Bears in which Gabbert ran for a 44-yard touchdown with 1:42 remaining and threw a 71-yard touchdown pass in overtime to win the game.
The following year, coach Chip Kelly named Gabbert the opening-day starter but benched him after a 1-4 start. From there, it was one year with the Arizona Cardinals and another with the Tennessee Titans.
By the time he signed with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2019, Gabbert had played in eight offenses in eight seasons. His beginnings in Tampa were promising, but a dislocated shoulder in a preseason game necessitated surgery and prevented him from playing that season. Of all the low points in Gabbert’s career, that was the lowest.
Gabbert has done much to make his father, Chuck, proud. He has become the kind of husband to Behkah and father to Leyton that Chuck hoped he would be.
Last December, Blaine and his brothers, Tyler and Brett, were riding two jet skis about a mile off the south end of Davis Island in Tampa, where Blaine lives, when he heard something that sounded like a pop in the distance. He saw the rotor of a helicopter sticking out of the water.
They motored to the area where they came upon an oil slick and hydraulic fluid in the water and four people — the pilot, a father, a mother and their son — covered in oil, shivering and trying to stay afloat.
Some would have feared an explosion — reasonably so — and turned around. Blaine and his brothers motored to the crash scene, helped the survivors onto their jet skis and probably saved their lives.
Chuck is proud of Blaine, Brett and Tyler for the way they responded. But he’s also proud — really proud — of Blaine’s resolve and the way he has built a career from the ashes.
“He’s always approached things positively and given it 110 percent,” Chuck says. “It’s how he’s persevered through the good times and challenging times.”
For every Alex Smith who stumbles out of the gate but eventually finds his stride, 10 first-round quarterbacks fall and never get up — players such as Jake Locker, Ryan Leaf, JaMarcus Russell, Rick Mirer, Joey Harrington, Tim Couch, Cade McNown, Matt Leinart, Josh Freeman and Johnny Manziel.
The NFL had told Gabbert repeatedly he wasn’t as good as he was supposed to be.
He should have believed it.
He should have lost the sometimes unreasonable self-assurance that convinces quarterback heroes to zip laser passes into tight windows with games, seasons, contracts and careers on the line.
He should have been scarred.
Back to that rookie year — that awful rookie year, that vital rookie year.
Gabbert is the starter, but McCown isn’t coasting.
In the Jaguars’ weight room, Gabbert takes a medicine ball between his legs, then throws it behind him and over his head against a wall. Then McCown does it. It’s a “Granny Toss” competition to see who can throw the ball higher.
Then, on the field, they compete in an accuracy contest to make throws through a target with a net attached to it from different spots on the field.
Finally, they race from sideline to sideline.
McCown was competing with Gabbert because it was enjoyable. But he also wanted to show him how a backup could maintain his edge.
McCown worked and prepared as if he were the starter even though he wasn’t.
“Luke showed me early on you can never really let your mind slip into the mentality of, ‘I’m just a backup and that’s all my role is,’” Gabbert says.
Fortunately for Gabbert, McCown was a better teacher than a quarterback. By the time they came together, McCown had been a No. 2 for the Browns, Bucs and Jaguars and was the ideal blend of wisdom and kindness.
Many have struggled with the incongruity of being forced into a game after only running the scout team in practice. McCown showed Gabbert how to benefit from practices even when he wasn’t getting reps with the offense. McCown would stand behind the starter and think about what he would do in each situation. Then, when he ran the scout team, he used his own offense’s verbiage to describe the opponent’s plays.
McCown helped prepare Gabbert for the rough waters to come, making him understand it’s easier to swim with the tide even if you prefer to go in another direction.
“Luke told me that year that if you play this game long enough, you’re going to be cut, traded, released, put on IR,” Gabbert says. “Things will happen you wish didn’t happen. But it’s how you keep pushing forward and maintain confidence in yourself. That’s how you get through those tough times.”
One day, Gabbert may tell his grandchildren about sharing a meeting room with Mahomes and Brady. And he also will tell them about McCown because no teammate was more critical to his development, really to his career.
Through McCown, Gabbert came to understand the art of the backup.
The backup, McCown taught Gabbert, must live in the space between confidence and humility, between competitiveness and acceptance, between contribution and sacrifice.
The bookend to Gabbert’s quarterback education came in Tampa. It’s where, with help from Brady, everything Gabbert had learned from McCown was reinforced and validated.
Brady was on a plane above everyone, but two days before every game, Gabbert had a chance to prove what he was about in competitions that were “epic,” according to then-Bucs quarterbacks coach Clyde Christensen. They started with tests of accuracy, in which Christensen graded every throw. There would be a bonus round, maybe throws at a blocking dummy on a golf cart flashing across the back of the end zone.
The weekly winner took possession of a gaudy red belt with the inscription “Top Gun Champion” and featured a photo of Tom Cruise.
Gabbert often got the better of Brady, who was well into his 40s by then. The younger pushed the older in agility and speed drills as well.
And then there were meetings and tape sessions.
“What do you think of this play’s chances?” Gabbert would ask him.
“Why don’t you like this?”
“Why is this better?”
“What is our plan if this happens?”
Gabbert was helping Brady. And there is no question Brady was helping Gabbert.
Brady, more than any other quarterback Gabbert had known, prepared purposefully. From watching and listening to him, Gabbert learned to do everything on the practice field with intention, discipline and detail.
When Brady was about 31 — the same age Gabbert was when they were together — he altered his training methods with an eye on preservation. Through long conversations and demonstrations, he shared his approach, which Gabbert adopted. Now Gabbert is a disciple of TB12, wholly bought into the body work, massages, pliability and muscle activation that helped Brady go longer better than anyone ever.
Brady worked and worked, and Gabbert was by his side almost always, absorbing and elevating. Their time together was mostly about football, but there was more — they hit the golf course, the beach and a pool. Gabbert says he spent more time with Brady over three years than anyone else, including his wife, and still considers Brady his dear friend.
The high point of all these NFL years for Gabbert was winning Super Bowl LV as Brady’s backup and knowing he played a role. Before the Bucs began practicing for the Chiefs, Gabbert, Brady and practice squad quarterback Ryan Griffin watched tape at Brady’s and came up with plays to recommend to the coaches.
What they suggested was implemented, and what was implemented worked.
The chemistry between Brady — the sixth-round pick who exceeded expectations — and Gabbert — the 10th pick of the draft who failed to meet expectations — was sublime.
It wasn’t because Gabbert was resigned. It was because he was determined.
“You know, I think Blaine Gabbert believes that if somehow he had to play 17 games this year, they’d still win the Super Bowl,” Christensen says. “He would have that kind of confidence. And he should. I think he could have been a really good starter in the league. He has that kind of talent. He’s athletic, as tough as could be, and he works.”
The result is what Christensen calls an “elite” backup. And an elite backup, he will tell you, is rare.
“Sometimes you get a backup and he doesn’t get it,” says Christensen, who has coached offense for the better part of 43 years. “He talks too much. He talks at the wrong time. He says the wrong thing. He doesn’t know when to just be quiet and let things be. You know, you can get a backup who’s undercutting everything. Blaine has a feel.”
What Gabbert did on his jet ski last December was selfless. What he did for the Bucs was selfless.
Reid recognized an elite backup when he saw one.
In the offseason, Reid identified the free agent as the ideal successor to the retiring Chad Henne.
The Buffalo Bills, Green Bay Packers and Las Vegas Raiders also expressed interest. The Chiefs, money aside, had more to offer — one of the NFL’s most talented rosters, proximity to family and the opportunity to work with a coach and quarterback well on their way to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Gabbert has lasting affection for many of his head coaches, especially Mike Mularkey, Jim Harbaugh, Tomsula, Bruce Arians, Mike Vrabel and Todd Bowles.
And now there is Reid. He has been impressed with Reid’s warmth and style, to say nothing of his resume.
“He loves the input from the quarterback,” Gabbert says of his 10th NFL head coach. “He lets you play free, lets you play your game. And that’s ultimately what quarterbacks love. He’s just a rock star.”
Mahomes reminds him of Brady because both are meticulous about how they want plays run.
“There are a lot of similarities between him and Tom when you’re dealing with the timing of man breaks, route depths, where he wants guys to be in certain coverages, things like that,” Gabbert says.
Mahomes asks him questions about what Brady thought or what he would have done in certain circumstances. Chiefs teammates treat Gabbert with reverence and call him “O.G.” as in Original Gangster. He is recognized now as someone who has lived many quarterback lifetimes.
It is a new role for him, big brother instead of little.
Gabbert might have had better opportunities to play if he had signed with other teams. But in Kansas City, he has an opportunity to enhance Mahomes.
He doesn’t need this — doesn’t need the pressure of running onto the field to replace an injured starter in a desperate moment as hope drains from a sideline, doesn’t need the stress of watching a hungry, no-name quarterback cheered as he attempts to take his job, doesn’t need to be playing in the third quarter of a preseason game, doesn’t need to risk his mobility and his mind.
In addition to a Super Bowl ring, Gabbert has earned nearly $30 million in his career. A house on the water and a life without clocks is waiting.
But there is this. “I love the game of football,” Gabbert says.
Maybe a completely different story would have been written if Gabbert had been drafted by a model organization with a Hall of Fame head coach and a lineup filled with playmakers.
Maybe he would have turned patience and stability into touchdowns and playoff wins.
The well-meaning will often ask if he’s disappointed by how his career has gone.
“That’s almost an insult,” he says. “I’m going into Year 13 in the National Football League. I think that’s pretty f—— awesome. There have been a lot of ups and downs and arounds, and I don’t think some people would have persevered the way I did. There always are things you wish you could have changed. But I sleep damn well at night knowing I tried to put my best foot forward every day. And you know, everything happens for a reason. If things didn’t happen the way they did, I wouldn’t be where I am today.”
Gabbert is in Kansas City.
He’s an elite backup and the O.G.
And he’s having a blast.
(Illustration: Sean Reilly / The Athletic; photos: David Eulitt and Norm Hall / Getty Images)
“The Football 100,” the definitive ranking of the NFL’s best 100 players of all time, goes on sale this fall. Preorder it here.