JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Chad Henne’s top priority in the week ahead is winning a football game, not winning the starting job as quarterback of the Jacksonville Jaguars on more than a temporary basis.
Having made 37 starts over the previous four NFL seasons, first with the Miami Dolphins and then a year ago with the Jaguars, Henne knows the drill of maintaining the same level of preparation and emotional keel whether a backup or not. So he’s outwardly downplaying the significance of getting the bulk of the snaps leading up to Sunday’s game at Oakland.
But after how futile the Jaguars looked on offense against the Kansas City Chiefs under Blaine Gabbert, who threw for only 121 yards before suffering a lacerated right hand in the closing minutes, Henne’s time under center is bound to take on added meaning.
“It’s just starting this game and seeing where it goes from here,” he said. “But my job is to play as well as I can and hopefully just keep the job. That’s how I’m going to play it — play as a starter and play my best and show the coaches that I can get the job done.”
For the second year in a row, Henne replaced an injured Gabbert in the fourth quarter of the Jaguars’ home opener. When the team played at Oakland last October, Gabbert hurt his left shoulder in the second quarter and Henne ended up going 9 of 20 for 71 yards in a game the Raiders won in overtime.
And his two 300-plus-yard games over the final seven weeks of last season — one more than Gabbert has had since being a first-round selection in 2011 — were a contributing factor to the open competition new head coach Gus Bradley held at the position during training camp and the preseason.
Although Gabbert was declared the first-stringer after two preseason games, a hairline fracture to the thumb on his passing hand caused Henne to open the final two games heading into the regular season.
“I don’t think it’s a big deal because we’ve been around him so much,” wide receiver Cecil Shorts III said of Henne. “He’s played a good amount in preseason and the last six games last year. I think we’ll adjust fine.”
“Obviously you never go into a season wanting to have to use a backup quarterback that quickly,” running back Maurice Jones-Drew added. “But we’re confident in Chad.”
Shorts, who was the Jaguars’ second-leading receiver last season with 55 receptions, didn’t catch his first pass against the Chiefs until there were less than nine minutes remaining and many of those in attendance had long since left. Henne’s second pass after Gabbert needed 15 stitches across the top of his hand was a 24-yard completion to Shorts, the longest play the Jaguars managed all day.
Except for a 5-yard pass from Gabbert to recently-signed tight end Clay Harbor on the first play of the game, the Jaguars found themselves facing second-and-long and third-and-long situations for much of the first three quarters.
“We weren’t moving the ball well on first down,” Henne said. “We were setting ourselves back with negative plays and couldn’t get into a rhythm, couldn’t get into our tempo like we did in the preseason.”
According to Pro Football Reference’s database, Gabbert’s average of 3.4 yards per attempt was the seventh-lowest in a game since 1960 by a quarterback with more than 20 passes. Henne ought to find the going less difficult against the Raiders, who have an entirely new starting defense aside from end Lamarr Houston and safety Tyvon Branch.
“They have guys who have been veterans from different teams that are kind of all together,” he said. “They’re trying to find their identity, just like we are.”
Gabbert is being held out of drills in order to lessen the possibility of the stitches tearing open or the hand becoming infected through dirt or sweat. An update on his status is expected early next week.
“In the last month, I’ve had two little hiccups in the road,” he said. “But the great thing is it’s a long year. And hopefully there’s no more injuries for me personally and for anybody on this football team. We need a healthy football team from here on out.”
That includes tight end Marcedes Lewis, who sat out the 28-2 loss to the Chiefs with a calf strain and knows that having Henne replace Gabbert won’t cure all of the Jaguars’ many offensive ills.
“It’s not just on him,” Lewis said. “Everybody on the offense has to do their job.”
“A lot of guys you could see were doing things we hadn’t done throughout all of training camp,” said Jones-Drew, who carried the ball 15 times but failed to catch a pass in a regular-season game for only the fourth time since 2007. “I think you’ll see more execution in this next game, and you’ll see more younger guys get more comfortable.”
If that results in a far more productive afternoon against the Raiders, it could make the choice whether to keep Henne as the starter the following week at Seattle an intriguing one. The Jaguars averaged 263.6 total yards in Gabbert’s first nine starts last season, compared with 326.3 yards overall and 233.3 through the air under Henne in the final six weeks.
“It’s their decision,” he said. “My job is to just concentrate on this game and help this team win.”