Could it have been any busier in Jacksonville on Tuesday? There were five moves that, by themselves, would have merited big headlines:
Now that is a busy day.
The news of Del Rio came as no surprise. His nine-year tenure in Jacksonville was tenuous at best for the past three seasons. He was not able to get the team to an elite level or make them a viable playoff team every year. Fans quickly lost interest -- the offense was boring to watch and the team had no real identity.
Wyche: Gabbert at a crossroads
The Del Rio era was rough for players and coaches. Spend 10 minutes around the Jaguars facility and you learned there were not many happy coaches. He hired and fired assistant coaches at a rapid rate and the longer he became a head coach, the less coaching he did. Some of the personnel decisions were not his fault, but looking back, failing to solve the long-term problem at quarterback was his undoing.
But that all changed when the Jaguars moved up in the draft to pick Gabbert and build this team around him. Once that card was turned in and NFL commissioner Roger Goodell announced the trade and the pick, Del Rio's time in Jacksonville was limited. How can a coach save his job with a rookie quarterback who never played under center? That's pretty hard to do, as Del Rio just found out.
The most critical news was the announcement of Gabbert as the starter. Once Smith, the man responsible for picking Gabbert, was extended, it was easy to predict the next move. And this will be the one that determines how quickly new owner Shahid Khan will experience playoff football. Every move forward will be to help Gabbert become successful. Smith will make sure that the offense has the talent around Gabbert so that he can prove the pick worthy. And that is the right thing to do. The Jags have no choice but to go all-in with Gabbert.
Based on Gabbert's play so far, however, some of the people in Jacksonville have to be a little nervous. I was a Gabbert fan when he came out. I thought he was smart, accurate with the football and used his athletic skills effectively. He has demonstrated some of those qualities in his first nine starts, although not always consistently. But what alarms me, and should alarm the Jaguars, is Gabbert's nervousness in the pocket, his unwillingness to take a hit or wait until the final seconds to make a tight throw. He plays scared. Now sometimes being scared comes from being unsure, so give him the benefit of the doubt, but realize there is ample reason to be concerned.
By going all-in for Gabbert, Smith must improve the offensive talent base and hire the right coach to develop his young QB. Smith, not Kahn or anyone else, must make the right pick. He must hire someone who understands and coach the position, as well as develop an offense around the skill set of Gabbert. This will be the hardest decision Smith will have to make in his career. It is hard to pick players, but even harder to pick the right coach.
The most important quality the next coach must have is a sincere belief in Gabbert. Smith must guard against some prospective new coach who claims during the interview process that he loves Gabbert, but the minute he gets the job he tries to replace him. Some people are willing to say anything to get a job, and Smith must be smart enough to see through this. He also must have an offensive system in mind that he knows can highlight the talents of Gabbert. Understanding personnel is a must for a GM, but understanding what system would best highlight a player separates the great talent evaluators from the bad. It also separates the great organizations from the bad.
Smith also cannot hire a defensive coach, then hope that new coach can hire an offensive coordinator who can develop Gabbert. That way is extremely risky and has the potential to be a huge disaster. The game must run through the offense and it must run through Gabbert, and Smith must make sure he understands that his next hire can make all that possible. (Some might say that Atlanta's Mike Smith is a defensive coach who developed Matt Ryan and that is true. But Smith was a part of the Ryan selection and did not inherit Ryan. Huge, huge difference.)
After defining what Gene Smith needs, he now must go out and find the right man. If he is wrong about Gabbert and hires the wrong coach, then Kahn will clean house two years from now. If he is right and gets the right coach, the Jags are back. Only time and the next hire will tell.