Blaine Gabbert announced on Monday that he would forgo his final year of eligibility at Missouri and enter the NFL Draft, ending a peculiar era in Missouri football.
Gabbert came to the Tigers with all the promise in the world, and he left with that same promise. Gabbert’s legacy will not be one of disappointment, but rather one of incompleteness.
His final game as a Missouri Tiger was a microcosm of his college career. When he was playing at his best, as he was for the majority of the Insight Bowl, Gabbert was nothing short of brilliant. As I watched him pick apart a strong Iowa defense in Tempe, Ariz., I thought that I was watching the best quarterback in the country.
But Gabbert always left something to be desired. Against Iowa, 50 minutes of brilliance was undone by a broken play and a “greedy” decision. The memories of huge games in wins against Texas A&M and Oklahoma were washed away after a dreadful game against Texas Tech.
Gabbert was Missouri’s starting quarterback for two years. In that period he won 18 of 26 games — a good, but not great, record that left as many questions as answers.
The Tigers were building toward the 2011 season. A young Tigers team won 10 games in 2010, and if Gabbert was at the helm for the year-older, year-wiser Tigers in 2011, Missouri would be a preseason top-10 team and a contender for its first Big 12 title.
But Gabbert is not a traitor or a coward for leaving Missouri early. As Washington quarterback Jake Locker can attest, when you have a chance to be a top pick in the NFL draft, take it. Locker would have been one of, if not the, top pick in the 2010 NFL Draft if he had left Washington after his junior season. Instead, Locker returned for his senior season, and while he will still likely be drafted in the first round this year, he likely passed up millions of dollars by returning.
Sam Bradford, draft-eligible and fresh from winning the Heisman Trophy, opted to return to Oklahoma in 2009. In the Sooners’ first game of the 2009 season, Bradford was sacked hard and injured his right shoulder. He returned to action a few weeks later, only to re-injure the shoulder against Texas. The injury required surgery that ended Bradford’s college career and left his high-pick status in jeopardy.
After successful surgery and rehabilitation, Bradford was able to reacquire his arm strength, and in the end, he was still the best of a quarterback-weak 2010 draft class that only saw three signal callers selected among the top 84 picks.
The quarterback class of 2011 is anything but weak. As many as five quarterbacks could go in the top 12 picks of April’s draft. Gabbert, with all of his talent and promise, will be one of those five early selections.
Implementing a rookie salary cap is a major dispute that could lead to a lockout for the 2011 NFL season. Currently, there is no rookie salary cap, which has lead to top picks signing larger contracts, with more guaranteed money, than the player taken with the same pick the year before. The owners want a cap; the players association doesn’t.
The likelihood is high that the rookie salary cap will be installed before the next NFL season, whenever that might be, but the draft class of 2011 has a chance to be the last class to make more money than the class before it. If Gabbert were to stay at Missouri in 2011, he could be passing up tens of millions of dollars, even if he became the first selection of the 2012 draft.
Gabbert has the NFL arm, NFL size and is as dry as Peyton Manning when it comes to dealing with the media. Another year with him as Missouri’s quarterback might have brought unprecedented success to the Tigers, but it would do nothing to help Gabbert’s chances at being an NFL quarterback. He already is one.
Those asking Gabbert to stay are asking him to risk his NFL livelihood for the Tigers. They are asking him to essentially pay millions of dollars to stay at Missouri.
There is a positive spin to Gabbert’s early exit — it’s a sign of the progress of the Missouri program. Jeremy Maclin was the first Gary Pinkel recruit to leave school early to be a first-round pick. Gabbert will be the second. Pepper in the successes of other Tigers in the NFL, and Missouri is looking like a program that could soon be an institution for developing NFL players.
James Franklin or the younger Gabbert, Tyler, will start as the Tigers’ quarterback in 2011, hoping to be the player that Blaine was. That will be a tall task, even though Gabbert left things to be desired in his 26 games. Gabbert’s legacy for Missouri will be made in the NFL. Chase Daniel might be the most successful quarterback as a Missouri Tiger, but Blaine Gabbert will eventually put it all together, and he will become the most successful Missouri Tiger quarterback.
Dieter Kurtenbach recently graduated from the Missouri School of Journalism. He covered MU football for the Missourian this season.