4. Emerging force? We begin this Thanksgiving Fabulous Four with a word on rookie wide receiver Justin Blackmon, who this past week reminded us indeed how quickly perceptions can change in the NFL. A week ago, Blackmon was being discussed by many observers as a bust after he struggled throughout the first nine games of the season. Then came this past weekend’s seven-reception, 236-yard performance – the third-highest yardage total ever for an NFL rookie wide receiver. Which Blackmon is the real Blackmon? For now, the answer is probably something in between bust and (Canton) Bust, but it was significant this past Sunday that Blackmon seemed to begin to find a way to utilize the strengths that made him the No. 5 overall selection in the 2012 NFL Draft. Blackmon caught passes of 81 and 63 yards Sunday, and while he may not consistently catch passes behind the defense as he did on the 63-yarder, the catch he made on the 81-yarder showed the two things that made him worthy of such a high selection: otherworldly hands and an ability to use his body to produce yards after the catch. After the first quarter Sunday, Blackmon seemed to catch the ball with the confidence and the aggressiveness that made him a two-time Biletnikoff Award winner at Oklahoma State. Some wondered if because Blackmon lacked elite speed and NFL-prototypical size if he would be able to get in position well enough to use his body control and hands at the professional level. On Sunday he did, and if he can continue figuring that out, it’s a huge asset for a team trying to find an offensive identity.
3. Getting his chance. Talk about a career-altering opportunity. A week ago, Chad Henne was a backup quarterback and the most recent significant memory many had of him was a 9-for-20 performance against Oakland. Fast forward a month, and Henne has what some NFL quarterbacks never get – a second chance. Jaguars Head Coach Mike Mularkey early this week named Henne the starter for this week over Blaine Gabbert, making it clear the move wasn’t because of health, but performance. Two days later, in the wake of Gabbert being placed on injured reserve, Mularkey said Henne had a chance to win the job on a permanent basis if he played well over the final six games. That guarantees nothing, but it’s a significantly better situation than Henne had in the off-season, when his role was as the clear backup to Gabbert, who at the time was being given every opportunity to solidify himself as the franchise quarterback. It’s too early to know the end game in Jacksonville for Henne. He absolutely played well enough for much of Sunday’s game to merit the opportunity. The offense showed life, and his 354-yard, four-touchdown performance was more production than the Jaguars had gotten from the position in a long, long time. On the other hand, he struggled in the final quarter and overtime Sunday, completing four of his last 17 passes. He’ll get the next six games to show which version is the long-term version, but he’s getting a chance to show he can be a starter of at least some length at his second NFL stop, something that’s not guaranteed every quarterback.
2. A secondary issue. We’re covering a lot of offensive areas in Fabulous Four this week, but a key issue entering Sunday’s game for the Jaguars is the other side of the ball. The offense had one of its best games in recent memory against the Texans, and a major focus going forward will be whether Blackmon and Cecil Shorts can develop into a solid tandem. Right now, the sense is they have a chance. Defensively, the story is more concerning. Injuries have kept safety Dwight Lowery out the last five weeks and cornerback Rashean Mathis out the last four. Cornerback Derek Cox also hasn’t appeared to play at as high a level in the last three weeks after returning from a back injury as he did for several games in September and October, when he seemed on the verge of developing into an elite corner. The secondary had been struggling in recent weeks, and this past Sunday, Texans quarterback Matt Schaub took advantage in a big way to pass for 527 yards, the second-highest total in NFL history. Titans running back Chris Johnson is Tennessee’s most dangerous weapon, and the Jaguars more often than not this season have fared OK against elite running backs, but right now, a struggling secondary combined with a pass rush that has consistently struggled to get pressure must improve or any quarterback/receiver combination is a risky matchup.
1. And finally, a word on the quarterback. We’ve closed this feature for more than a year by discussing Gabbert, and while we’re far from done discussing him, it’s safe to say we won’t be doing it on a weekly basis – for the short-term, anyway. What do the events of this week mean for Gabbert, the No. 10 overall selection in the 2011 NFL Draft? As much as that question has been asked, analyzed and reviewed in recent days – and as much as the topic will be regurgitated and picked apart in the coming weeks – the answer as of Thanksgiving 2012 is there simply is not yet an answer. While it appears that Henne has every chance now to secure the starting role entering next season, it’s not beyond logic that Gabbert could improve and reestablish himself as the starter. Mularkey this week made it clear that Henne will have a chance to start if he plays well, but he in no way ruled out Gabbert as a possible starter again, and said the chance to observe could benefit Gabbert. “I think when he comes back and has a chance to watch from afar, from everything when you walk in the building to everything in the practice, I think there’s going to be some plusses that he can actually get out of those by watching Chad Henne, who’s got a number of starts,” Mularkey said. “I think there’s going to be some plusses that come out of this as well.” The obvious issue around Gabbert is the need for game experience. If there was anything he lacked during 24 games as a starter, it was the field sense and vision that come with time behind center. If he’s not playing, it’s hard to see where Gabbert gains that critical time, but if history tells us anything, it’s that when it comes to developing a starting quarterback, there’s no one way and it’s too early to say for certain Gabbert’s time in Jacksonville is nearing an end.