The guys in the two-tone helmets will be more than a two-win team this fall.
That might be damning the Jacksonville Jaguars with faint praise. After all, the arrival of coach Gus Bradley and the radically overhauled roster assembled by general manager Dave Caldwell has brought about a more positive outlook. But while optimism is up, so are the tarps which will again cover part of the upper deck and north end zone stands at EverBank field for all seven home games. (That’s seven, not eight, because the Jaguars are beginning a four-year plan of having one of their home games being held in London.)
The new helmets and uniforms have been largely panned and no one has been bold or crazy enough to predict the Jaguars will blossom from a 2-14 finisher into a playoff contender. That’s not to say there is a lack of intrigue going into the opener Sunday against the Kansas City Chiefs in a battle of teams which tied for the NFL’s worst record a year ago.
Will Blaine Gabbert finish the season as the starting quarterback?
At some point, Gabbert will lose his starting job. He has yet to play all 16 games in a season since being a first-round pick in 2011, so it’s not as if he’s a Brett Favre or Peyton Manning in terms of durability. After a hairline fracture of his right thumb in the Jaguars’ second preseason game, there remains an air of uncertainty about how effective he’ll even be in Week 1.
If Gabbert has to step aside because of injury, that wouldn’t be a catastrophe. If poor performance on his part results in Chad Henne taking over for him, that would be a greater cause for concern and could spell the end of Gabbert’s time in Jacksonville come January.
The worst-case scenario: Both Gabbert and Henne start off so badly that new life is breathed into the petition to get the Jaguars to sign Tim Tebow.
Does Maurice Jones-Drew have another 1,600-yard season in him?
Whoa, there. Only two players went over that mark last season, Adrian Peterson of the Minnesota Vikings and Alfred Morris of the Washington Redskins. A more realistic goal for Jones-Drew coming off foot surgery would be somewhere between 1,200 and 1,500 yards. If he can average close to the 24 touches a game he averaged in the last of his three Pro Bowl years, the Jaguars would be delighted.
Bradley and his staff took a cautious approach with him during the preseason. But running backs can sometimes be like pitchers in baseball in that no matter how careful an organization’s philosophy is, things can still go horribly wrong. And while Jordan Todman was a revelation the past four weeks, remember that similar praise was being heaped upon Rashad Jennings as Jones-Drew’s backup at this time a year ago.
Jones-Drew might not have the worst reputation when it comes to fumbling, but consider this: Of the top 40 rushers in the NFL in 2012, only one had more fumbles than the six he coughed up in 2011. And that was a quarterback — Robert Griffin III, with nine. Is the defense really that much better from a year ago?
Middle linebacker Paul Posluszny, defensive end Tyson Alualu, outside linebacker Russell Allen and free safety Dwight Lowery are the only current starters who were so much as with the Jaguars when last season began. Even Alualu’s role has changed after he was moved from tackle to make room for free agents Roy Miller and Sen’Derrick Marks.
The statistics from a year ago don’t lie: 30th in total yardage, 30th in rushing defense, 28th in preventing third-down conversions, 32nd in sacks. A change in personnel and the arrival of a coach with a background in defense represent positive steps. But as was painfully obvious when the starters came out during the preseason, the Jaguars aren’t very deep. They could be an injury or two away from a repeat of those same numbers.
Secrets to success
* Gabbert has yet to average as much as 167 yards passing per game in a season. If the offense which new coordinator Jedd Fisch has installed is truly tailored to his skills, he’ll need to improve on that as well his touchdown-to-interception ratio.
* At wide receiver, rookie Ace Sanders or unproven veteran Mike Brown will have to divert some of the attention opponents are bound to give to Cecil Shorts III while Justin Blackmon serves a four-game suspension. Without Blackmon, the pressure will be intensified on an offensive line which gave up 50 sacks in 2012 but now has first-round pick Luke Joeckel at right tackle.
* NFL teams averaged more than 36 sacks and 14 interceptions a game last season. The Jaguars had 20 and 12, which led to a poor ranking in time of possession. The defense needs more three-and-outs. Road to failure
* Opening with Kansas City and Oakland ought to mean no worse than a split of the first two games. So heaven forbid if the Jaguars start 0-2. Plus, playing at Oakland serves as a reminder that the Jaguars are 1-6 dating back to 2001 in games on the west coast.
* Center Brad Meester, defensive end Jason Babin and kicker Josh Scobee are the only players 30 or older. Where will the leadership come from if Blackmon strays from the straight and narrow or players start picking sides when it comes to Gabbert and Henne?
* Enthusiasm and drive in a first-year coach only goes so far at times. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers struggled to a 3-13 record in 2009 under Raheem Morris, who was sent packing after three seasons. How will Bradley handle the adversity that is bound to come his way?
5-11. Given the strength of the AFC South, the Jaguars need to go no worse than 3-5 when they play seven times outside their division during the first half of the season. Anything more than five victories would be a bonus in a year where the foundation for the franchise’s future is expected to be established.