ST. LOUIS – It's an uncomfortable question to ask, let alone to answer.
How do you ask a driven athlete and fierce competitor at sport's most alpha-dog position about being a backup? Is bringing up he's a non-starter a nonstarter?
You don't want to offend or imply he's inferior, but you've got to be honest with the question because you want an honest answer.
So, here's the answer from Tom Brady's backup.
"Taking on the role of a backup, your ultimate goal is always to be a starter. But for the time being, being a backup is my role, and I've embraced it completely ... " said Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Blaine Gabbert, a St. Louis native who starred at Missouri. "I'm going to do everything in my power to help Tom and help this football team win as many games as we can, because that's the ultimate goal – to go 16-0 and win the Super Bowl. It's going to be a lot of fun ... .
"I'll do anything that I can do to help the receivers or the tight ends pick up keys. Or help Tom in any way I can. Preparing for games is what I love to do, what I'm willing to do for this team, and I'm excited about the season."
Of course, making $1.2 million helps. But Gabbert sounds comfortable in this role. And, really, it's a realistic best-case scenario for the 30-year-old former first-round draft pick.
He has coaches who trust him, and he can contribute to a winning football team, just not likely on Sundays. When it's all over, maybe he'll be a trivia answer: Who was Brady's backup when he won his first Super Bowl in Tampa Bay? Or maybe he'll be a Matt Cassel, who valiantly filled in for an injured Brady in 2008. But if the former is going to happen, it's going to be because Gabbert mastered being a Brady asset and ally.
"It's been great, I've had the chance to be with him a few times, and you know, his reputation precedes himself," Gabbert said of Brady, the New England legend who joined the Bucs this offseason. "He's the best in the business for a reason. Everything he does is at a first-class level and you wouldn't expect anything else. But he's a great dude. He's fun to be with. And he's going to be fun to work with.
"Yes, we've had the chance to throw the ball around. Just a few times, but it's been good. Definitely going to be an exciting year here, to see him with the talent that we have – with all the guys to throw it to."
That's the thing. Tampa was talented last season, but the quarterback kept turning the ball over. So now Jameis Winston is a backup himself in New Orleans, and Brady gets a chance with Winston's old offensive arsenal. Oh, and a refreshed Rob Gronkowski has returned to the NFL – and he, too, will don the weird orange of a Tampa Bay Buccaneer.
Because of the coronavirus pandemic, NFL teams have had the oddest offseason ever. Tampa's backup quarterback has tried to help its new starter learn the offense, but most often that's not done in person.
"It's wild times," Gabbert said. "We're doing FaceTime calls. So we have our iPads, and then Microsoft surfaces, but I prefer the iPad because that's what I'm familiar with. But we'll have FaceTime calls, and there are rules that the NFL has put in place on how many hours you can do I guess, quote, virtually. So we've just been doing that a couple times a week, just going over some film stuff. But nothing too major from any standpoint, just because part of being a quarterback is doing it on the field. And we haven't been able to do that yet ... . We just try to make the best of the situation."
A quick perusal at Gabbert's stats might make some wonder why he's the best backup for Brady (or anybody). Gabbert didn't play at all last season, his first with Tampa Bay. The year before, with Tennessee, he had a pretty average passer rating (74.9) in three starts and eight games.
But the answer can be found the year before that one. It was 2017 in Arizona, where Gabbert bonded with coach Bruce Arians. The "St. Louis" Cardinal fit well in Arians' system, so the coach, now leading the Buccaneers, brought Blaine to Tampa Bay.
But Gabbert's shoulder injury ended his 2019 season before he had any game action.
While researching for this column, longtime NFL reporter Lindsay Jones texted: "May we all be so lucky to have someone believe in us the way Bruce Arians believes in Blaine Gabbert."
On the phone, Gabbert also described his closeness with Arians' offensive coordinator, Byron Leftwich. In 2003, the Jaguars drafted quarterback Leftwich with the seventh pick. Eight years later, the Jaguars used the 10th pick to draft Gabbert. They united when Leftwich was Arizona's quarterbacks coach the year Gabbert was there. Now they're all in Tampa Bay (or, as Brady called it on Twitter, "Tompa Bay").
"It's just one of those types of relationships you can't build overnight," Gabbert said. "It was something I've been looking for in my career, some type of consistency there. And they're just good dudes."
Leftwich had a couple good years with the Jaguars. But his lone Super Bowl ring is as a backup for Pittsburgh. Gabbert didn't have any good years with the Jaguars. But after three other NFL stops, he could win a Super Bowl ring as a backup for Tampa Bay.
Asked to assess his career, Gabbert said: "There have been a lot of ups and downs throughout ..., but that's football in general. That's life in general. It's been a fun ride. I got to live in some pretty awesome spots. Got to meet a lot of great people, played on some really good football teams. And you know, I wouldn't want it any other way. I'm still young in this football thing. I'm young in life. I'm only 30. So there's plenty of good years ahead, and I'm just really taking it year by year. I'll just try to put my best foot forward this upcoming season and see where it goes."
One of Gabbert's most-famous fans will be following the season from mid-Missouri.
"Blaine has a great opportunity to learn from the greatest QB that ever played the game – he can watch Brady's preparation, his practice habits and his leadership," former Mizzou coach Gary Pinkel said via email. "Blaine still has got a lot of years left and 'you never know when greatness is around the corner.' He has been around teams and franchises that have had significant challenges. This is a whole new opportunity, and I am very happy for him."