4. Scratching the surface.
We begin this post-preseason-opener Fabulous Four promising to get to the second-year quarterback while starting with what apparently is just going to keep being a subject. We’re talking about rookie punter Bryan Anger. As is the case with pretty much everything about the Jaguars’ passing game this preseason, there has been a tendency to force an immediate judgment every time Anger touches the ball. That’s understandable considering he was a third-round selection, but let’s remember he’s a rookie and while very talented it’s unrealistic to expect to expect this guy to be “Gus,” a field-goal kicking Donkey from a Disney film of my youth. Gus was money from his own goal line. Anger ain’t quite that, and he wasn’t thrilled with his performance Friday. He had a couple of what he considered mishits. He still finished the game with six punts for a 47.7-yard average, and with one exception the punts had enough hang time to be pretty close to unreturnable. There were those who were unimpressed with Anger Friday, and that’s fine, but make no mistake: the Jaguars will take six punts for a 47.7-yard average with that sort of hang time as an average performance. Coaches love this guy. The Jaguars’ front office loves this guy. Teammates stop to watch him punt and more than that, they believe he will help them win games. That’s why he’s here, and it appears that’s what he’ll do.
3. What they do.
One of the questions entering Friday’s game, in retrospect, had little business being a storyline at all. Throughout the offseason, with Maurice Jones-Drew holding out, there has been teeth gnashing from fans and observances from others that the Jaguars’ running game might suffer in his absence. While the Jaguars obviously want Jones-Drew with the team as quickly as possible, Friday showed what really isn’t a huge surprise – that if the offensive line is healthy, the Jaguars will almost certainly have an effective running game with or without Jones-Drew. This is partially due to Jennings, who has shown impressive power, speed and instincts whenever given the opportunity with the Jaguars. But it’s as much due to an offensive line and tight end group that for years has been one of the best run-blocking units in the NFL. After Friday’s game, Jennings talked extensively about the pride the group took in its performance Friday. It’s his belief that the Jaguars’ running backs as a group – a group that includes Jones-Drew – have the capability of being productive and that that’s not dependent on one player. He has been careful throughout the offseason to not talk about Jones-Drew’s absence as a positive for him, but somewhere he had to be proud and yet relieved to have rushed for 56 yards on 12 carries. He showed he can get the job done if necessary, and whatever happens with the Jones-Drew story in the coming days or weeks, that makes the offense that much stronger.
2. Building weapons.
Jaguars Head Coach Mike Mularkey spent time in his post-game remarks discussing the Jaguars’ defense, saying it indeed remains ahead of the offense. But considering the issues facing the offense last season it’s logical that it remains the main story coming out of the preseason opener. As much as Jennings and the second-year quarterback, what may have been most significant was the emergence of potential playmakers at wide receiver. Early in the game, Laurent Robinson got open for a first-down-converting pass on third down, and later on the same drive, Cecil Shorts got open in the end zone for a touchdown pass. Those are the sorts of plays those two have been making in training camp. On the same drive, Mike Thomas made a 29-yard catch that turned a third down into first, and throughout the game Thomas made the sort of plays he never made last season. Think of that – that’s three wide receivers showing signs of being able to get open and make plays, and we haven’t seen Justin Blackmon. Add to that a veteran such as Brian Robiskie and a rookie such as Kevin Elliott, and you’ve got a group of players who you can envision being productive and being reliable options in the passing game. Considering last season, to be saying that after Week 1 of the preseason is significant.
1. And finally, a word on the quarterback.
This topic has been done and done and done since the start of training camp, and if anything, the pace has increased since the preseason opener. This is sure to continue, but second-year quarterback Blaine Gabbert had exactly the sort of start that should have been expected Friday. What that means is Gabbert very much should have been expected to look better with improved coaching and an offseason to learn the mechanics of dropping back, setting up in the pocket and playing NFL quarterback. At the same time, it’s unreasonable to think that after just under three months of that coaching he miraculously at 22 was going to play perfectly and not have any negative plays. It’s very possible he’ll have many negative plays this preseason and regular season. What’s fair to also expect is for him to have drives like the one that began Friday’s game at times, to have average drives at times and to have stinkers at times. This will go on a while, particularly as the coaches learn what he does well and what his receivers around him do well. That’s the process of learning an offense and growing as a quarterback. We saw that in his three series on Friday, but let’s not overanalyze too much too soon. He looks better. This is not the finished product. It’s not supposed to be. So far this offseason, he has done everything asked and improved. That should give the team hope.