JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Although the Jacksonville Jaguars are another day closer to opening their season at home against the Kansas City Chiefs, they remain no closer to deciding if Blaine Gabbert is healthy enough to start at quarterback.
Coach Gus Bradley said Friday that Gabbert took most of the snaps with the first-team offense but remained limited in some areas by a fracture to the thumb on his passing hand sustained during a preseason game three weeks ago.
A decision might not be made until an hour or two before kickoff Sunday whether to go with the third-year pro, who is entering what’s regarded as a make-or-break year for him, or Chad Henne, who started the final six games of the 2012 season.
“We’re doing more and more every day,” said Gabbert, the most notable of three Jaguars listed as questionable. “It’s responded well. But at the same time, we don’t want to have any setbacks between now and Sunday.”
“We’re encouraged with what we saw from Blaine,” Bradley said. “I thought he took steps in the right direction. But it is too early, and it may go all the way up until Sunday pregame until we get a chance to see him and how he does in that.”
While he described the pain in his thumb as “pretty consistent,” Gabbert said he is getting “more and more comfortable throwing the ball.” He met Thursday night with a team doctor who, according to Bradley, said Gabbert was not at 100 percent and still may have some soreness.
Henne started the last two preseason games in place of Gabbert, who didn’t return to practice until Monday. Should Gabbert be unable to start, Bradley said the Jaguars are leaning toward deactivating him, which would leave Ricky Stanzi — who was claimed Aug. 27 off waivers from the Chiefs — as the only backup on the 53-man active roster to Henne.
“It’s just one of those deals,” Gabbert said. “I don’t know. I really can’t tell my bone to grow any faster than it is right now.”
Whoever starts against the Chiefs will be without two of the Jaguars’ top three receivers from a year ago. Already dealing with an NFL-imposed four-game suspension of wide receiver Justin Blackmon, the Jaguars won’t have tight end Marcedes Lewis, who came down Wednesday with a recurrence of the calf injury that forced him to sit out the final three preseason games.
Lewis has missed only three regular-season games in his seven previous years with the Jaguars. His absence leaves Bradley with second-year pro Allen Reisner and D.J. Williams and Clay Harbor — both of whom were claimed off waivers this past Sunday — to choose from at the position.
“It just sucks that I’m going to miss the opener,” Lewis said. “I’ve never done this before. My family’s coming out here, and this was supposed to be the start to a great year. So you can imagine what’s going on in my mind right now.”
While there remains an air of uncertainty at quarterback, the Jaguars are confident that running back Maurice Jones-Drew can return to the workload and level of performance he had before a season-ending injury to his left foot last October. Jones-Drew carried the ball only 10 times and had one reception in limited preseason action.
When asked earlier in the week about how many carries he’s capable of having against the Chiefs, he replied, “As many as it takes.”
Bradley wouldn’t specify an ideal number of touches for him either.
“I’d like to see him carry the ball,” he said. “He’s ready to go.”
Gabbert and Henne were sacked a total of 50 times last season. But in addition to first-round pick Luke Joeckel at right tackle, the Jaguars’ offensive line should include left guard Will Rackley, who missed all of 2012 with an injury to his right ankle and sprained his left ankle early in their third preseason game.
Rackley is listed as questionable but, like Gabbert, took part in limited participation Friday.
“He feels more and more confident every day,” Bradley said. “So we’ve got our fingers crossed on him.”
The Jaguars have 26 players who weren’t with them when the team posted a franchise-worst 2-14 record last season. As high as that rate of turnover is, the Chiefs have undergone an even more radical facelift after finishing with an identical record, adding 30 new players and hiring Andy Reid after his 14-year stint as the coach of the Philadelphia Eagles came to an end.
Bradley’s only previous head coaching experience consisted of a four-month offseason stretch during the mid-1990s at Division II Fort Lewis College in Colorado. While the former defensive coordinator of the Seattle Seahawks is looking forward to his regular-season coaching debut, he’s more eager to see Jones-Drew’s return and how rookie safety Johnathan Cyprien handles his first start.
“I’m excited to see them play,” he said. “That’s who I’m excited for. Not for me, but for them.”