4. A basic reason. We begin this pre-Dolphins Fabulous Four on a topic that has gained momentum as the season draws to a close – that is, the status of players such as linebacker Daryl Smith, running back Maurice Jones-Drew and even wide receiver Cecil Shorts. All missed Sunday’s game against the New York Jets, with Shorts having missed one game with a concussion, Jones-Drew having missed seven with a foot sprain and Smith having missed the entire season with a groin injury. Yet, Shorts is practicing this week, Jones-Drew remains on the roster and Smith still can come back onto the roster for the final two games because he is on the injured reserve/designated to return list. Why play those players? Well, from the team’s perspective the idea is to win games, and despite being 2-11, that still matters, but from the players’ side there also is motivation to play. A player such as Shorts is still trying to establish himself, and a chance to finish a breakout season well is strong motivation. For players such as Smith and Jones-Drew, with Smith’s contract expiring at the end of the season and Jones-Drew having one year remaining, proving to the Jaguars and other teams they can still play is important. But talk to players and you also hear a more basic motivation. Smith several weeks ago said that he simply wanted to play because it’s what he had prepared to do, and teammates relate to that. “A guy like Daryl – you prepare all offseason to play,” Jaguars middle linebacker Paul Posluszny said. “When you don’t get the chance to do the thing you love to do the most, the frustrating part is sitting and watching. Regardless of the record or where we’re at, you want to go out and compete. That’s the fun part – that competitive environment. The game – that’s the world. That’ what you prepare for. You want to compete. You want to play. You can’t do this forever. We get 16 shots to do well.”
3. Sudden impact. The Jaguars have struggled this season to create a pass rush, with their 14 sacks last in the NFL – three behind Oakland at No. 31. Jeremy Mincey, Tyson Alualu, C.J. Mosley, Austen Lane and Terrance Knighton are tied for the lead with two sacks each, and for several of those players, that number’s not what they expected entering the season. “I don’t think it’s just one thing that you can point to, but we’re just not good enough in that category overall,” defensive coordinator Mel Tucker said this week. But in the last two weeks, newly acquired end Jason Babin has emerged as a potential bright spot. That’s not a shock, considering Babin had 5.5 sacks with Philadelphia this season and 30.5 in two seasons before that, but Babin in two games since being acquired off waivers from the Eagles has shown more suddenness and quickness to the quarterback than has been seen from a Jaguars defensive lineman in the last two years. On Sunday, Babin registered a sack/forced fumble and recovery that personified elite pass-rushing, beating D’Brickashaw Ferguson around the outside and hitting Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez before he had a chance to see the rush. “With speed off the edge he dipped, he can turn the corner and he finished at the quarterback and that’s something that we really need,” Tucker said. “He’s a pro, he’s relentless in practice. He does a great job with his practice tempo, he’s a veteran guy, he knows what’s going on in there and the guys love him. I think it’s a good fit for us.” If Babin can do that consistently, he could be a rare waiver wire pickup that provides significant long-term benefit.
2. Earning his chance. It’s rare in the NFL that a seventh-year veteran has an opportunity to change how he is perceived. But Jaguars running back Montell Owens has that opportunity, and on Sunday, he took advantage. Owens, a two-time Pro Bowl selection as a special teams player, made his first NFL start against the Jets, and ran for 91 yards on 14 carries. He played effectively enough that his absence was notable and in fact, the only time in the game when the NFL’s 31st-ranked offense was completely ineffective was in the third quarter, when Owens was out of the game with cramps. Aside from that, while the Jaguars scored just 10 points, they were able to move effectively and put themselves in legitimate scoring situations. Owens may not be making people in the NFL think he can be a starter, but he did run effectively enough to be a viable option as a backup. Still, Owens said, “It’s not about me. It’s not about individual efforts. It’s all about collectively as a team winning ballgames. Regardless of the individual performances, when you don’t win, everybody loses.” Owens, asked if he took pride in showing he could handle the role full time, said, “My mindset is that when I evaluate myself, I usually do it when the season’s over with. That’s when I say, ‘Job well done here, but man, over here I need to improve.’ During the season, it’s a one-track mind. It’s about guys in here. During the offseason is when I focus on what I did and what I need to do to get better.” Owens said that’s the approach that got him in the NFL – being consistent and being reliable – and even if he’s the starter the final three games, he wouldn’t know how to change. “If I personally can continue to put a winning effort on the field consistently, that’s going to give this team the best chance to win,” he said.
1. And finally, a word on the quarterback. Popular one week, target the next. That’s the nature of the job for many NFL quarterbacks outside of a select few, and that has become the story for Chad Henne. Following his first two games as the full-time quarterback at Houston and home against Tennessee, many fans and observers penciled him in as the starter for next season, with the idea that perhaps he could be a long-term solution. In each of the last two weeks, many fans have felt differently, enough so that attention from many fans has turned back to the idea of a quarterback competition next season between he and Blaine Gabbert. The reality is when a team is 2-11, a team is almost certain to enter the following offseason with a lot of questions, including and perhaps particularly at quarterback. With so many questions, there are by necessity many moving parts, which makes the question – who will be the Jaguars’ starting quarterback? – currently unanswerable. But Mike Mularkey said several weeks ago that if Henne plays well he has a chance to enter next season as the starter, and Mularkey said Wednesday that remains the case. Until Cecil Shorts was injured, the passing offense was more consistent with Henne than it had been in the first nine games, perhaps not dramatically, but at least noticeably. And consider this: Henne this season has thrown 182 passes. He has been sacked 18 times. That’s nearly one out of 10. And it’s not as if Henne has displayed a habit of holding the ball an extraordinarily long time. Henne may nor may not be the elite quarterback you need to be a perennial Super Bowl franchise, but he has played well enough under adverse conditions to merit a chance to start.