Scott Fowler

Panthers' most important backup has never taken a regular-season snap. Is he ready?

Garrett Gilbert talks about being Panthers backup quarterback

Garrett Gilbert is the leader to become Cam Newton’s primary backup at quarterback for the Carolina Panthers this season.
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Garrett Gilbert is the leader to become Cam Newton’s primary backup at quarterback for the Carolina Panthers this season.

It's time for a one-question Carolina Panthers quiz.

What do these former or current Panthers — wide receiver Keyshawn Johnson, defensive tackle Dontari Poe, punter Todd Sauerbrun and fullback William Floyd — have in common with each other but not with quarterback Garrett Gilbert?

Give up?

The first four players have thrown at least one pass in a real NFL game.

Garrett — the most likely candidate to become Cam Newton’s primary backup this season — never has. In fact, he's never taken a regular-season snap.

It has not been for lack of trying. Gilbert, 26, is a Texan who has crisscrossed the country looking for his opportunity. The Panthers are his fifth NFL team since he finished college at SMU in 2013, but they are the first team to see enough in him that they may actually install Gilbert as their No. 2 quarterback after deciding not to re-sign Derek Anderson.

In other words, Gilbert could be one Newton injury away from having the offensive fate of the Panthers in his hands this season.

“That’s not something I can control,” Gilbert said of the competition for the No. 2 spot. “I feel like if that’s something I try to worry about, then I’ll be getting in the way of my development on a daily basis as a quarterback. That’s why one of the reasons why my goal is every day to improve and be the best quarterback I can possibly be.”

Son of former NFL QB

Gilbert is the son of former NFL quarterback Gale Gilbert — who is the answer to this trivia question: What player played for five straight teams who lost in the Super Bowl in the 1990s?

Certainly the father could counsel the son on the value of patience. Gale Gilbert never played a down in those first four Super Bowl losses with Buffalo. But at least he did get into the game as the backup quarterback in loss No. 5 (he was a member of the San Diego Chargers by then).

Garrett Gilbert has bounced around the league, mostly from one practice squad to another. Teams have been entranced by his strong arm but never quite entranced enough to actually put him into a game. He does have a Super Bowl ring, though, unlike practically everyone on the Panthers team. Gilbert joined the New England Patriots late in 2014 during one of their title runs.

“I was extremely fortunate to get to join the Pats during Week 16 of my rookie year and ride some coattails on to a Super Bowl championship,” Gilbert said. “That was a lot of fun.”

His Super Bowl ring stays back in Austin, Texas, mostly where Gilbert grew up. He was a five-star quarterback who set all sorts of high school passing records in a football-crazy state, so it wasn’t a big surprise when he committed to the University of Texas.

Gilbert actually got to play in the national championship game in January 2010 as a freshman, replacing an injured Colt McCoy after Texas had played only five offensive snaps against Alabama. It did not go particularly well, but it wasn’t a total disaster. Gilbert threw for 186 yards and two touchdowns but also had four interceptions as the Crimson Tide beat Texas 37-21.

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Carolina Panthers quarterback Garrett Gilbert (4) is the leader in the clubhouse to be Cam Newton's primary backup this season. Gilbert, 26, has yet to take a snap in a regular-season NFL game. David T. Foster III dtfoster@charlotteobserver.com

Brady, Stafford and Cam

Gilbert ultimately would lose the starting job at Texas, get injured and transfer to SMU, where he rolled up very good stats in June Jones’ pass-happy offense. That led to him being drafted in the sixth round in 2014 by the St. Louis Rams.

Since then he has been with the Patriots, the Detroit Lions and the Oakland Raiders — usually as a practice-squad quarterback.

As for the other NFL quarterbacks he has worked alongside in practice, I asked Gilbert to give me a laundry list. He quickly reeled off 13 names. Those included Tom Brady, Matt Stafford, Derek Carr, Newton, Sam Bradford, Case Keenum and Jimmy Garoppolo.

“I’ve been fortunate in this relatively short amount of time to be able to learn from some really good players,” Gilbert said.

Could Gilbert be a good NFL player himself? If Newton stays healthy — and every Panthers fan hopes the former NFL Most Valuable Player will — we will never know.

Newton is durable — he has started 96.4 percent of the Panthers’ regular-season games since joining the team in 2011, and one of the four starts he has missed in seven seasons came not because of injury but "Tie-Gate." Anderson was a trusted security blanket for Carolina who had one Pro Bowl season in Cleveland, and he played decently when called upon.

The backup quarterback can be hugely important when the starter gets hurt — and every NFL quarterback ultimately gets hurt. Gilbert will first have to win the No. 2 role, of course, and the preseason games will have a lot to do with that. Head coach Ron Rivera said in May that Gilbert was the “leader in the clubhouse” for the No. 2 job, but recent pickup Taylor Heinicke has the advantage of having worked in new offensive coordinator Norv Turner’s system before, in Minnesota.

Said Rivera: “I like both those guys. ... (Gilbert) makes good decisions and delivers a good ball. He’s got good arm strength — that’s probably the biggest thing he has going for him. ... Taylor has a good feel because he’s been with Norv before. He’s got great anticipation. If you watch his throws, he’s anticipating a little bit better than all the quarterbacks because, again, he’s been in this position before.”

'Feet ... need to get quicker'

When I asked Gilbert what he needed to work on the most, he replied quickly.

“My feet,” he said. “They need to get quicker every single day. I feel like I’ve got my arm in a good spot where I want it to be, and I feel like mentally I’m in a good position.”

So Gilbert believes he can think about where the ball should go and then get enough on it to get it there. That’s fine. Every athlete should believe in himself.

But will we ever find out for sure?

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