JACKSONVILLE – What happened at quarterback shouldn't be overlooked.
That's the view of offensive coordinator Jedd Fisch, who said when it came to the Jaguars' offense during the second half of the 2013 season, quarterback was key. The offense made strides during that time even as injuries and uncertainty reigned at skill positions and along the offensive line.
One of the few constants? Quarterback Chad Henne.
Henne took over as the starter permanently in Week Eight. Fisch, in his first season as the Jaguars' offensive coordinator, said what Henne brought was just what the team needed at the time.
"As the season progressed, he calmed the offensive room," Fisch said recently in an interview with jaguars.com for this series on the Jaguars' position groups, a series that begins today focusing on the quarterback position.
The Jaguars through the first seven games started third-year veteran Blaine Gabbert three times – in the regular-season opener against Kansas City, in Week Four against Indianapolis and in Week Five against St. Louis.
Gabbert, the No. 10 overall selection in the 2011 NFL Draft, completed 42 of 66 passes for 481 yards and a touchdown with seven interceptions. Henne replaced an injured Gabbert against the Rams, and when Gabbert returned to full health three weeks later, Head Coach Gus Bradley opted to remain with Henne.
An offense that struggled in September and October improved in November and December, and Fisch said Henne – a sixth-year veteran – provided a stabilizing presence.
"There was a sense of maturity," Fisch said. "There was a sense of leadership, and a sense of, 'We'll be all right.'"
Fisch said that was particularly important as the team dealt with changes throughout the offense, particularly at receiver. The team not only played the second half of the season without suspended second-year veteran Justin Blackmon, it finished the season with Cecil Shorts III, Stephen Miller, Stephen Burton and Jeremy Ebert on injured reserve.
The Jaguars ended the season with Mike Brown, Ace Sanders, Lamaar Thomas and Kerry Taylor at wide receiver. None had caught an NFL pass before the 2013 season.
"There was a sense (with Henne) of, 'I know you're new, but I'll help you,'" Fisch said. "Or, 'Lamaar, I know this is your first game, but I'm not going be afraid to throw it to you.' … I think the guys responded well to his confidence."
Their response not only helped the offense, it helped turn around the Jaguars' season. After starting the season 0-8 with eight double-digit losses, the Jaguars won four of their first five games.
"If you look at the way the last eight games went, we were in position in at least six of the eight to come out successfully," Fisch said. "We were in those games, and I think it was because of Chad's presence. I think he put us position to succeed."
As much as any position on the roster, quarterback enters the offseason under scrutiny and in a state of uncertainty.
Henne is scheduled to become a free agent March 11. Jaguars General Manager David Caldwell said re-signing Henne before that is a possibility, and Henne a day after the season said he would like to return.
If so, that could be as a backup. Many expect the Jaguars to either sign a free agent, trade for a veteran or draft a quarterback early in the draft. Henne, too, said he expects the team to acquire a quarterback and that he has no problem competing for a role.
"I really respect the way he handled this season," Fisch said. "What I've challenged him to do is, 'Now, take it to the next level.' I've challenged him. I hate the term, 'Game Manager' – I don't even know what that means – but I've told him, 'Don't be the quarterback who puts us in position in those games; be the quarterback who seals the deal. Be the quarterback that makes sure these plays are executed at the highest level.'
Asked if Henne could be that sort of quarterback, Fisch said, "As the year went on, I learned a lot about Chad. One of the things I learned is there was a lot for room for improvement and that he was ceilinged off, that he was not capped off."
Henne's passer rating consistently improved in the second half of the season. He threw for 300 yards three times, and finished the season completing 305 of 503 passes for 3,241 yards and 13 touchdowns with 14 interceptions. He threw two or more touchdowns in four of the last five games.
"I did see a lot of growth, and that's where I'm most encouraged," Fisch said. "I feel like it will benefit him to be in the same system. I think growth will come there."
Fisch said at the same time Gabbert improved, too, agreeing with Caldwell and Bradley in being impressed with the third-year veteran's approach in the second half of the season.
"I don't know if he ever had been able to sit back and watch as the No. 2 – I mean really sit back as the backup quarterback," Fisch said of Gabbert. "When you're the backup quarterback, you get certain responsibilities: 'Hey, watch this film for us and tell us what you think about their pressure package. Put this cut-up together and let's talk about their zone drops. You tell us about their defensive backs.' The pressure goes away and the study of the game can come in. I believe that will have benefitted him."
Fisch said that showed up in practice in the second half of the season.
"I feel like you certainly see a nice evolution," Fisch said. "Of course, it's different playing games, but I do think his maturity level showed through. We could have been a storyline and we weren't. When you make a change in the starting quarterback, that can happen. He handled himself in such a professional manner that maybe there was growth from a maturity standpoint for him."
Gabbert has a year remaining on his contract, and speculation has been that he will be released or traded before next season. Caldwell said he has told Gabbert he wants him to return, and Gabbert has said he wants to return.
And Fisch disagrees with anyone who believes Gabbert doesn't have a future in the NFL.
"I don't know how you can say that," Fisch said. "There were guys who are in the Pro Bowl who never had taken a snap in the NFL at 24. You start giving names and now it sounds like you're comparing him to those guys. I'm not saying that.
"But I can't say it's over for someone who hasn't hit his 25th birthday yet."