1. The right signs. We begin this final 2012 regular-season Fabulous Four with Justin Blackmon, and specifically, the rookie wide receiver’s recent improvement. That we’re talking about Blackmon’s improvement is significant considering the circumstances the No. 5 overall selection in the 2012 NFL Draft faced this season. Many observers throughout the first half of the season speculated that he might be a bust, and indeed he struggled during that time with drops, and what appeared at times to be sloppy route running. Some even questioned his desire and effort level. But throughout that stretch, Head Coach Mike Mularkey reiterated that he liked Blackmon’s approach, and in the second half of the season, Blackmon has shown why. Blackmon hasn’t been dominant in many games other than a seven-reception, 236-yard day against Houston, but he consistently has shown in recent weeks the ability to get open on short and intermediate patterns, and has dropped fewer passes in the second half of the season. That’s what you want to see from rookie receivers. They rarely enter the NFL as finished products and often take multiple seasons – and as importantly, multiple offseasons – to develop. Therefore, you want to see production in the first year that makes you think if he adds elements to his game, he will become gradually harder to defend. You’ve seen that from Blackmon, and the fact that you haven’t just seen it once or twice is significant. “With experience, you learn a lot more,” Blackmon said. “Me going through this year will just help me next year. Hopefully, we’ll keep everything rolling.” Blackmon currently leads all NFL rookie wide receivers with 58 receptions for 786 yards and also has four touchdowns.
3. Difference-maker. The Jaguars this past week played perhaps their best defensive game of the season, and there’s an obvious reason: the return of linebacker Daryl Smith. “That was a Christmas present for all of us to have him back,” Jaguars middle linebacker Paul Posluszny said. “He’s our best defender, and to have him back on the field makes a huge difference for us.” It may be overstating it to say Smith’s return was the sole reason the 31st-ranked defense in the NFL held the No. 1 offense 13 points below its season average, but it’s not overstating that Smith has a huge impact on the defense. He not only is the franchise’s all-time leading tackler, he set a franchise record last season for tackles for losses. He also is generally considered the team’s best run defender and its best blitzer from a standup position. But when Posluszny talks about Smith, he not only routinely uses the phrase, “our best player,” he talks of being able to rely on Smith to be exactly where is supposed to be, and how that enables everyone around Smith to play significantly better. “He’s a guy that can make game-changing plays,” Posluszny said. “He has done that for us in the past and he’s going to do that for us now. It’s great to have a guy like him that you know you can depend on, he’s highly reliable and he’s going to make big plays for us.”
2. Bracing for change. The Jaguars enter Sunday 2-13, and because of that, a major theme among players this week is expected change following the season. “Any time you have a season like this, you know changes could easily happen,” Posluszny said. “It’s not where we want to be, so we just have to block all of that out and finish the season strong.” Focus outside the team this week has been on the possibility of front-office and even coaching-staff changes, with Owner Shad Khan saying at midseason he wouldn’t make quick-trigger moves in such areas, preferring to let the season play out. At the same time, as Posluszny and other players said this week, whatever staff changes do or do not occur it’s likely multiple significant players won’t return. Not only is Daryl Smith scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent, running back Rashad Jennings, fullback Greg Jones, cornerback Derek Cox, offensive lineman Eben Britton, cornerback Rashean Mathis and defensive tackle Terrance Knighton also are playing under contracts that expire after the season. “Obviously, when you get drafted somewhere you want to be there for the rest of your career,” said Knighton, a third-round selection in the 2009 NFL Draft. “They’re familiar with you, but it’s a business, so you never know what’s going to happen. Hopefully, something works out here. If not, these last few games have been an audition. Usually, if something was going to work out, it has worked out already. I want to be here, but I have to keep moving forward.”
1. And, finally, a word on the quarterback. We close this final regular-season Fabulous Four with a final regular-season word on the quarterback position. While there are certainly bigger short-term issues, once the overall franchise direction is determined, quarterback will return to the center of the discussion. While Chad Henne flashed in his first two games after replacing Blaine Gabbert in the 10th game of the season, he has completed 141 of 267 passes for 1,786 yards and nine touchdowns with eight interceptions for a rating of 72.7. Gabbert in 10 starts completed 162 of 278 passes for 1,662 yards and nine touchdowns with six interceptions, so there is a negligible difference in performance. Mularkey said this week a better determination about the state of the position entering the offseason will be determined in early January when coaches and staff review the season. “We look at every player on every play,” Mularkey said, “I’m not just talking about him, but I ‘m talking about all of the players. Then it will be a clearer evaluation. You’ve seen him. He has made some throws and he’s done some he hasn’t, and so has Blaine (Gabbert). Those are all the things we will evaluate when the year’s over with.” While Mularkey said upon Henne moving into the starting role that the five-year veteran could solidify himself as the starter entering next season, nothing that happens Sunday is likely to clear the picture much before the end of the season. That means the Jaguars enter the offseason with major uncertainty at the position. Will it be Henne? Will it be Gabbert? Will it be either? Stay tuned, and the answer may not come for quite a while.