4. Overcoming doubt. We lead this Opening Week 2013 Regular Season Fabulous Four with running back Maurice Jones-Drew. The three-time Pro Bowl selection was overlooked among Jaguars observers this week with the focus on Blaine Gabbert’s injured thumb, but the NFL’s leading rusher in 2011 did reveal his training camp was tougher than he originally indicated. Jones-Drew spent the offseason rehabilitating a foot injury that cost him the final 10 games of last season, and he reported to camp saying the foot was fine, that he needed to play his way into shape. The long process of preparing for a season was particularly hard this season, Jones-Drew said Wednesday. “The main part is just staying positive,” he said. “There were a couple days during camp where I was like, ‘I don’t know if I can do this anymore.’ Once the pain subsides and the soreness goes away you’re ready to roll again and you fought through those first couple weeks. You were all saying I felt great, and I had to lie to myself too and say that as well. Now I feel good and I’m just ready to get out there and play.” That quote – the part about not knowing if he could to it anymore – got traction Wednesday on Twitter and with reason: they were candid words from one of the NFL’s best running backs. But Jones-Drew also emphasized several times in the same meeting with media that he feels great, and that he is ready for however many carries he gets against the Chiefs Sunday. Jones-Drew may have had some moments of doubt in August, but now that it’s September he sounds very much ready.
3. Will to win – and make a roster. The release of fullback Lonnie Pryor over the weekend surprised many, and though the rookie was re-signed to the practice squad, the Jaguars somewhat unexpectedly will open the season with Will Ta’ufo’ou at the position. But that development only surprised people who weren’t paying attention. Ta’ufo’ou worked with the first team throughout much of training camp, and clearly established himself as the best “fullback” on the roster – and an easy decision to make the roster. He was the highest-rated overall fullback in the NFL according to Pro Football Focus, and he was by far the NFL’s highest-rated blocking fullback in four preseason games. That’s good news for Jones-Drew, who may not experience the drop-off in blocking fullbacks some anticipated when the team opted to not re-sign Greg Jones this offseason. Jaguars coaches and personnel officials like Pryor, particularly his ability to play tight end and carry the ball, and he’ll likely be active at some point this season, but if the team was going to keep a blocking fullback, Ta’ufo’ou made sense.
2. The Great Unknown. Any regular-season opener is fascinating, representing the first real chance to observe and analyze for real what has been speculated upon for seven months. And any opener is difficult to predict because of the unknown. But for the Jaguars, this regular-season opener is particularly intriguing. Not only has offensive coordinator Jedd Fisch never called an NFL game as coordinator, defensive coordinator Bob Babich never has called a game in Head Coach Gus Bradley’s scheme. Fisch was asked about philosophy this week, and was pressed for specifics on how much he might run or pass. Fisch was understandably vague. “Obviously, it’s going to be fun to go out there and put our plan together and then go watch it go,” he said. “More importantly and I’ve said this to our guys and I’ve felt this way as a position coach when I started off as a quality control coach that game day is for the players, it’s not for the coaches. If I can really sit back and help guide them with plays then that’s great, but it’s really their opportunity to go out and execute.” Fisch showed some wrinkles in the preseason, but almost certainly didn’t show anything close to the entirety of the scheme. The Jaguars were relatively vanilla defensively, and Jaguars Head Coach Gus Bradley said when it comes to pressuring the quarterback, at least, there may be multiple flavors. “It’s a process for us and every week we’re just going to get better and better,” he said. “If there’s a point in time where we don’t feel like we’re getting a rush we might have to get creative. . . . It could be creative blitzing, it could be creative rushes, it could be how the guys rush in. We’ve got to find a way to get pressure on the quarterback.” Watching the creativity develop will be one of the fascinating early storylines for this team.
1. And finally, a word on the quarterback. We’ll review the whole position, because that’s what you do entering the regular-season opener. Gabbert will start if healthy, and Chad Henne will start if not. Those two have been the top two quarterbacks throughout the offseason and training camp, and any thought that Mike Kafka or Matt Scott would push for a starting or backup role was wishful thinking by fans/observers wanting change for the sake of change. Scott showed playmaking ability, athleticism and a powerful arm, but wasn’t ready to play immediately and is a fit for the practice squad. Kafka never showed enough in preseason action, and when Ricky Stanzi became available off waivers, General Manager David Caldwell quickly claimed the third-year veteran. Stanzi is worth devoting a roster spot and time, and the guess here is Gabbert, Henne and Stanzi remain on the active roster for the foreseeable future. As for Sunday, we’re probably not getting an answer until close to game time. The Jaguars aren’t hiding anything. It may just be that close whether his thumb enables him to play or not. The Jaguars won’t push Gabbert to play. If he can throw effectively, take snaps and make the necessary plays late in the week – maybe even in warmups – he’ll play. If not, he won’t. It’s that uncertain and simple at the same time.