CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Garrett Gilbert was a mess.
It was 2012, and the former high school phenom had transferred from the University of Texas to SMU after going 7-7 as the Longhorns’ starting quarterback and being demoted to third string. He admittedly spent too much time listening to the boos and reading negative articles.
His childhood dream of starring for his hometown team in Austin had turned into a nightmare.
His confidence was shot. The decision-making and accuracy that had made him one of the country’s top prospects a few years earlier needed an overhaul.
“When we got him at SMU, he had been through hell, I guess is a good way to say it,” said former SMU coach June Jones, now the head coach of the CFL’s Hamilton Tiger-Cats. “So helping him through that whole situation and getting him back on track to how he was as a high school player took us a while.
“I knew he could play in the National Football League. I tried my hardest to get him there.”
It took a while, but Gilbert finally is getting a shot in the NFL. After four seasons of bouncing between practice squads and the bottom of rosters with the Rams, Patriots, Lions and Raiders, the 27-year-old is the leading candidate to be the backup to 2015 NFL MVP Cam Newton with the Carolina Panthers.
Gilbert is here because former Panthers senior executive scout Don Gregory, whose contract was recently not renewed, witnessed the comeback firsthand.
“Don saw what we were able to do with him at SMU and knew he had it inside himself to be the guy,” said Jones, who was a teammate of Gregory’s at Portland State.
That definitely was a pivotal time in Gilbert’s career.
“That was a great experience for me, as far as just figuring out how to battle through things,” Gilbert said. “To be able to bounce back and have a couple of good years at SMU certainly prepared me for this part of my career.”
Super Bowl ring
Gilbert keeps the Super Bowl ring he won while on the New England practice squad (2014) in a drawer at his parents’ home in Austin. He doesn’t know if he’ll bring it to Charlotte once the season begins, but he did share a picture of it with Newton.
For the record, it wasn’t one of those “I’ve-got-a-Super Bowl-ring-and-you-don’t joking moments.” Newton just wanted to see what it looked like.
“Most people are in awe of how big it is,” Gilbert said. “It’s just ridiculously big, not to a fault, but very, very gaudy. That’s [the] kind of comment most people have.”
Newton is the latest star quarterback Gilbert has played behind since arriving in the NFL as a sixth-round draft pick by the then-St. Louis Rams in 2014.
Others include Tom Brady and Jimmy Garoppolo with the Patriots, Sam Bradford with the Rams, Matthew Stafford with the Lions and Derek Carr with the Raiders. He also spent time with Case Keenum while with the Rams.
Gilbert learned something from all of them, preparing him for this moment.
But playing behind Newton is different because of everything he can do in the running game. No quarterback has rushed for more yards (4,320) or touchdowns (54) since Newton came into the league.
Jones said Gilbert can do many of the things Newton does out of the read-option offense if asked. He had Gilbert do some of those things early at SMU in the run ‘n’ shoot offense to help rebuild the quarterback’s confidence.
“I wanted him to have success,” Jones said.
But Gilbert warned that nobody should expect him to run the read-option like Newton, should he get the chance to take over.
“I might be able to sneak 4 yards in there every once in a while,” he said with a laugh. “Athletically, there’s maybe one or two guys that can do some of the things [Newton] does with his legs. If that’s something they ask me to do, it may not be the 60-yard runs, but I feel I can get the job done.”
The Panthers hope that’s the case. That’s why they were willing to move on from Anderson and take a chance on building a quarterback for the future.
New offensive coordinator Norv Turner was reminded of the success that backups Keenum and Philadelphia’s Nick Foles, the MVP of Super Bowl LII, had last season after being forced into duty.
“Somewhere along the way you’re probably going to play a guy that has limited experience,” Turner said.
Limited experience might be putting it kindly in Gilbert’s situation. His next snap in an NFL regular-season game will be his first.
But Gilbert doesn’t look at that as a negative. He relishes the opportunity should Newton have to miss a few snaps or even games, remembering that he has a lot of talent and veteran leadership around him to be successful.
“I feel certainly very confident if that were to happen we could get the job done,” he said.
Gilbert calls his dad almost every day on his way home from practice to discuss how things went.
“He’s a guy I feel very fortunate and blessed to be able to grow up around,” Gilbert said. “There’s not that many people that get to grow up with an NFL quarterback as a dad.”
Gale Gilbert is the only player in NFL history to have been on five consecutive teams that went to the Super Bowl — Buffalo (1990-93) and San Diego (1994) — none of which won.
Gale was a lifetime backup. He started four games out of 58 and was 0-4.
“He’s another guy that has almost been through it all as a quarterback,” Gilbert said. “So he understands how to bounce back from those games that didn’t go quite as well as you’d like.”
Gilbert also learned a lot last season from Anderson, who went from a Pro Bowl quarterback in 2007 with the Cleveland Browns to a long-served backup most of his final eight seasons. Anderson also got in hot water with Browns fans who cheered when he suffered a knee injury in 2008, saying they were “ruthless and don’t deserve a winner.”
“He has had a lot more experience on a big stage, but certainly that is something we discussed,” Gilbert said of Anderson, who had a 2-2 record as Newton’s replacement. “He talked about being able to bounce back and move on and have a short memory. Those are all things very important to playing this position.”
Jones’ latest project is former Texas A&M star Johnny Manziel, the 2012 Heisman Trophy winner and now a backup for Hamilton.
He believes the Browns’ 2014 first-round pick will someday compete for a roster spot in the NFL just like Gilbert. But Jones will always hold a fond spot for Gilbert and what he’s overcome.
“I’ll tell you this, he’s a special kind of person,” Jones said.
Last year during Carolina’s preseason, Jones saw things in his former student that made him believe Gilbert is ready for the big stage, ready for anything thrown at him — including boos.
“I think he’s over that now,” Jones said. “He looks different in the pocket. He looks different as a quarterback. He looks like he has the confidence again.
“I could tell he was getting back to how he was with us.”
Gilbert played mostly in a mop-up role in four 2017 preseason games. He completed 29 of 58 attempts for 317 yards and no touchdowns with one interception.
Average at best.
But he displayed decision-making and arm strength that showed his potential. Jones compared Gilbert to Steve Bartkowski, the quarterback he backed up from 1977-81 with the Atlanta Falcons.
“Steve didn’t go through the struggles Garrett had,” Jones said. “But I don’t know if there is anyone more physically capable of playing in the NFL than Garrett. Arm strength. Accuracy. He has all those things.”
Gilbert knows the pressure on him to succeed as Newton’s backup is higher now than perhaps any moment since he was the starter at Texas. But he’s not focused on expectations that he admittedly didn’t handle well with the Longhorns.
“I certainly think I’ve gotten a lot better as far as dealing with that,” he said. “The best way to deal with that is simply not pay attention to it. So I stay away from it as much as I possibly can and go to work every single day and focus on being the best quarterback I can be … focus on things I can control.”