Yesterday broke a lot of hearts, but it’s good to be back in the saddle and there are many encouraging signs from yesterday that bode for a brighter 2012 for Jaguar fans. I’m not here to mitigate how much the end to yesterday’s contest hurt, I just don’t think it’s something worth dwelling on. Despite being an emotional roller coaster, the downfall was relatively simple and to me at least, doesn’t dictate a lot of analysis. We were trailing in cruchtime, Gabbert got the ball moving and made a big play to Cecil Shorts to usurp the lead, the defense coughed it up quicker than you can say “Michael Lombardi is a putz”, goes to overtime and the defense again just could not make positive plays. This one is on their shoulders. And Poz knows it.
Onto my thoughts…
1. This Gabbert kid can ball. And he ain’t scared. We’ve all done our fair share of huffing and puffing about how far out of the hand the national media has gotten with their criticism of Gabbert, but anyone with a pair of functioning eyeballs saw a different guy wearing the #11 jersey yesterday than the one we saw last season. No more chuck and duck. No more “seated throws”. No more looking lost and squirming around in the pocket. It’s a combination of things, really…he’s finally got receivers who are getting open, which leads to less “dead time” in the pocket and allows him to be decisive. Mularkey’s done a heck of a job reinforcing his fundamentals and giving him plays and a gameplan that he can execute with speed and confidence. In addition, he’s one year older, feels more comfortable in the pro game, and has by all written account approached the offseason like a man on a mission – improving his mechanics and knowledge of the Jaguars offense. There were still a few signs of growing pains – missing a wide open Justin Blackmon in the end zone on the opening drive certainly hurt and if you’re gonna go for the deep ball on 4th-and-short, you gotta put it where the receiver can make a play. But these are correct mistakes and overall, Gabbert’s game appears to be much more refined this year and devoid of the macro-problems that were plaguing the passing attack. It was ridiculous to think that a guy many critics tabbed as the #1 overall pick last year could suddenly be devoid of talent and too wrought with fear to play the pro game. Yesterday, we got a good look at what Gabbert can be and will hopefully keep growing into – confident, collected, accurate, and capable of making the big play when we need it.
2. Mike Mularkey’s offensive gameplan and game management proves he knows his players capabilities and how to use them. This point is tough to quantify, but throughout the game there was a pervasive feeling that the best players were on the field for the given play (there was a whole lot of substitution packages going in and out) and no player was overwhelmed or asked to do more than his abilities allowed. High-dollar free agent acquisition Laurent Robinson, almost completely absent from the preseason stat sheet, was Gabbert’s most targeted receiver and made plays on both long and short routes, Cecil Shorts doubled his 2011 receptions total catching two 3rd-down conversions and the big last-minute TD pass, and Marcedes Lewis was heavily involved and making big plays again. When we had three of our five O-linemen go down during the game, the offense took an obvious downturn, but the pressure was minimized by switching to a very quick-rhythm passing game. Many of us believe the mantra “Players, not Plays”, but it’s nice to see a coach that obviously has a better knack for allowing his offense to succeed and seeing the talent on our roster maximized, rather than underperforming.
3. Maurice Jones-Drew still adds a lot to this offense…but not enough to warrant a new contract. I’m not gonna lie, Mojo looked much better than I thought he would considering he had no training camp or preseason carries to get him back to “game shape”. He’s still shifty and powerful and runs with his whole heart and that adds a big element to our offense, but the business arguments for standing pat on his contract remain the same. He’s definitely lost some burst and as much as it hurts to say, his age and style of play mean he is on the decline – a depreciating asset – and you simply don’t pay more money for diminishing performance. And despite Christian Ponder’s zero TD passes and Adrian Peterson’s mind-boggling performance considering the degree of injury he suffered a mere eight months ago, yesterday proved that even in a contest of two teams whose offenses are supposedly defined by the ground game, it was a dual of passers. Gabbert and Ponder both played pretty well and if either of them had faltered, the running game wasn’t gonna keep them in the game. Big passes when they mattered most kept the Jags in it and big passes when they mattered most won it for the Vikings. As a lifelong Jaguars fan, I’m prone to love smashmouth football, and watching MJD and All-Day Adrian Peterson on the same field is and always will be a real treat. But it ain’t how you win games or championships in 2012 and you can’t keep throwing big contracts at a position that keeps moving down the pecking order.
4. Gene Smith’s 1st Rounders are starting to look pretty solid. We’re all plenty excited about Justin Blackmon after his electric preseason and it appears he’s more refined than many thought he would be in his rookie season and may even have that extra gear that makes him one of the league’s best some day soon. Blaine Gabbert has stepped up and shown impressive growth throughout the preseason and lo-and-behold, showed that same command and playmaking ability in a full regular-season match. Tyson Alualu continues to be an unheralded but impactful presence in the middle of the D-line and registered one sack and one QB hit. But the real gold star of yesterday goes to Eugene Monroe, who had his hands full right off the bat with a hungry Jared Allen licking his chops (and jumping offsides) to get after Jacksonville’s notoriously “fearful” quarterback. Not only did Eugene Monroe keep the league’s leading pass rusher of last year (with 22 sacks) from taking down Gabbert, Allen did even register A SINGLE QB PRESSURE and was completely absent from the stat sheet – 0 tackles, 0 sacks, 0 passes defensed, 0 QB hits, and 0 QB pressures. That is what you want to see from your franchise left tackle and those four players are what Gene Smith’s talking about when he harps on his philosophy of getting “base hits” in the 1st round.
5. The Jaguars have a full blown injury epidemic on their hands and will have to dig deep to get through. For those not keeping a close eye on the jerseys on the field or John Oehser’s Live Game blog on Jaguars.com, the only two offensive linemen who stayed on the field for the entire game were Monroe and center Brad Meester. Those who did notice this probably were busy having panic attacks and PTSD flashbacks of the 2008 opener that saw guards Vince Manuwai and Chris Naeole lost for the season before halftime had even arrived. There’s no getting around how important the offensive line is for the running game and pass protection and the Jags are already thin behind the starters on the line. We are awaiting test results to know more, but Uche Nwaneri, Eben Britton, and Cam Bradfield were all spotted wearing protective boots in the locker room after the game. We need them back quickly and in a bad way. In addition to defensive starters Daryl Smith, Clint Session, and Derek Cox missing the game due to injury, Rashean Mathis played in a limited role as he continues to recover from an ACL injury last year and Rashad Jennings suffered a (hopefully minor) knee injury in the first half. Injuries are a part of the game, but Jag Nation should keep their fingers crossed that as many of these guys get back on the field as possible for a big division contest against the Texans next week at Everbank.
That’s what I got for this week, folks. This one stings, but with a little luck from the Injury Fairy, good things should still await the Jaguars in 2012.What are your big takeaways from yesterday’s game?
– Andrew Hofheimer