Leftwich faces impossible task grooming Gabbert into legit quarterback

Imagine an NFL team drafting a quarterback with a top-ten pick twice in nine drafts.

Imagine that both of them are busts.

And imagine that one of them winds up coaching the other one.

Sounds a bit far-fetched, but that’s happening with the Arizona Cardinals this year.

Byron Leftwich, the seventh pick in the 2003 draft by the Jaguars, was hired as Arizona’s quarterbacks coach by Bruce Arians in the offseason.

Gabbert, the 10th pick by the Jaguars in the 2011 draft, was signed as a free agent to compete with Drew Stanton for the team’s backup job.

So Leftwich will be coaching Gabbert this year. At least in training camp.

Leftwich has a history with Arians, who was the offensive coordinator in Pittsburgh in 2008 when Leftwich backed up Ben Roethlisberger on a team that won the Super Bowl.

In a curious twist, they beat Arizona in that game.

Leftwich then spent a year in Tampa Bay before returning to Pittsburgh in 2010 and spending the last three years of his career there, although he missed the 2011 season with a broken arm.

Arians, who was fired by the Steelers after the 2011 season, always thought Leftwich had the potential to be a coach. But after retiring as a player, Leftwich sat out four years before Arians finally convinced him to join his staff this year.

“He’ll be a head coach early and fast,’’ Arians said, according to the team’s website.

I covered Leftwich in his four years in Jacksonville, and even though he was a bust as a player, he showed a lot of intangibles. He was a leader and well-liked by his teammates and was good at dealing with the media.

In Arizona, he’ll also coach Carson Palmer, who happened to be the first pick by Cincinnati in 2003 the same year Leftwich was drafted.

They got to know each other as top picks in the same draft, and Palmer has endorsed the move.

“I’ve been around long enough to know I need it,’’ Palmer said. “I need coaching, tips and helps and pointers. I know when someone knows it and they don’t and he knows it.’’

Noting his lack of mobility as a player, Leftwich said, “I played the game like a coach. I had to think my way through the whole time.’’

Hopefully, though, he won’t be judged on how Gabbert does.

In six years – three each with Jaguars and 49ers – Gabbert showed no signs of having the potential to be a good NFL quarterback.

I also covered him in Jacksonville, and he not only didn’t play well, but he had none of Leftwich’s intangibles. He wasn’t a leader, couldn’t handle the pass rush and had a chuck-and-duck style of play. Oh, and he was injury-prone.

But Gabbert has one thing going for him: He passes the eyeball test at 6 feet, 5 inches tall and 235 pounds. He looks like he can play the role and has a good arm.

So a coach like Arians looks at him and thinks Gabbert was a victim of playing on bad teams for six different offensive coordinators.

“He’s got velocity,’’ Arians said. “He’s got accuracy and he’s got stature. He’s had, what, six offensive coordinators?’’

At least the Cardinals didn’t give up anything to get Gabbert. The 49ers stupidly gave the Jaguars a sixth-round pick for him.

And Arizona  vice president of player personnel Terry McDonough was willing to give Gabbert another chance. McDonough was on the staff of former Jacksonville general manager Gene Smith when they drafted Gabbert on the first round.

Scouts never like to admit they made a mistake, even though Gabbert’s poor play was a factor in both McDonough and Smith getting fired.

Gabbert, of course, is happy to blame his poor play on the lack of consistency on the two teams he played for.

“So I just haven’t been fortunate enough to have that,’’ Gabbert said. “But I was always looking for it and that’s what they have here. They have a consistent staff, and [Arians] has done a great job building this team.’’

Being on a better team isn’t going to turn Gabbert into an NFL quarterback. He’s running out of excuses.

And while Leftwich may have the potential to be as good a coach as Arians thinks, he can’t be expected to turn Gabbert into a pro quarterback. That’s an impossible task for any coach.

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