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What they wanted to see

Posted Aug 10, 2012

Editorial: Jaguars, Gabbert show what they needed to show in 2012 preseason opener

Overall, this wasn’t a bad start. Not even close.

Are there concerns after the Jaguars’ 2012 preseason opener? Must work be done? We’ll answer yes and yes to those questions, but here’s what’s important to remember following the Jaguars’ 32-31 victory over the defending Super Bowl champion New York Giants Friday.

This wasn’t *supposed* to be a finished product but it was a good way to start.

It was a snapshot, a first semi-official, sort-of-real chance to see if the Jaguars were making strides with a young quarterback, a new coaching staff, a new direction.

And you know what? During a significant amount of Friday’s game at EverBank Field, we saw just that. There was some pretty cool stuff early. The Prowl, a pregame walk through the crowd to the field; and a crowd that started rowdy and pretty much stayed that way.

And once the game began? Well, for the first five minutes the Jaguars hardly could have shown more of what they needed to show. First, the defense figured out a way to get Eli Manning and the Giants off the field, then Blaine Gabbert walked onto the field with the starting offense.

Mike Mularkey, in his first season as the Jaguars’ head coach, is hardly a dim guy, and he was certainly smart enough to know this situation.

“No one had more pressure, more on him than anyone in the entire stadium at that moment,” Mularkey said of Gabbert.

Mularkey’s smile as he spoke said a lot about what happened next.

The Jaguars turned in a 13-play, 89-yard drive. Gabbert, maligned last season for not standing in the pocket under pressure, did just that on the first play of the game. That was an incomplete pass to Marcedes Lewis, and through the rest of the drive, Gabbert stood as tall.

And he played well.

He completed 5 of his 7 passes for 62 yards. Four times he completed passes that converted third downs. One of those passes came on 3rd-and-7 and went for 29 yards to Mike Thomas, the Jaguars’ veteran receiver who had been criticized early in camp and who led the team with 89 yards receiving Friday. Another of Gabbert’s third-down completions went to Cecil Shorts for eight yards and a touchdown that capped the drive.

Shorts, like Gabbert, was criticized roundly last season. Shorts, like Gabbert, had looked good in camp. Each looked good early Friday, and though each downplayed the significance of that, it wasn’t insignificant.

Gabbert’s development obviously is crucial, and it appears Shorts has a chance to be the third or fourth receiver. Those two looking solid early was important.

Mularkey, too, liked what happened nearly three and a half hours later, at the end of a long, hot August night. The Jaguars trailed 24-7 late in the first half, but with most of the starters out of the game, the backups and reserves rallied and with just over two minutes remaining, the Giants led 31-24.

A 32-yard run by Keith Toston started a late drive, and a nine-yard run by the reserve running back ended it with two minutes remaining. When reserve quarterback Jordan Palmer completed a two-point conversion pass to free agent tight end Matt Veldman, the Jaguars had a one-point lead.

Minutes later, after a defensive stop, they had a victory that Mularkey said was important no matter what the standings and pundits might say.

“Even at halftime, we said, ‘Hey, this is a good time right now trying to define ourselves as a football team – nothing would be better than to come back and win this game,’ ’’ Mularkey said. “They did. I just think this will go a long way. Tonight, I saw a bunch of guys that believe in each other. They believe it is a 60-minute game like it says on the door when we walk out.

“I have just been around players long enough to know it will go a long way.”

Players afterward gave Mularkey the game ball. These were the same players who expressed surprise this past week when told of NFL Network analyst Heath Evans’ speculation that Mularkey was creating a distance between him and players because he hadn’t reached out enough to holdout running back Maurice Jones-Drew.

Jaguars players will tell you such thoughts are ridiculous, and they’ll tell you that what has been going on at EverBank in recent months goes beyond one player holding out, and that the storyline around this camp in fact isn’t about the absence of the NFL’s leading rusher at all.

“He’s a great man,” Jaguars cornerback Rashean Mathis, who presented Mularkey the game ball, said. “We are all striving for the same goal. It’s a lot to be said about that; players don’t normally buy into changes but kudos to him.”

What’s going on at EverBank is about building something solid, about doing things right, about taking steps toward long-term contention. Toward that end, there were good things throughout Friday’s game.

Yes, there was a fumble by Shorts on a reverse you can’t have, and yes, the first-team offensive line allowed too much pressure in the first half. That led to a sack/fumble by Gabbert on the second-year quarterback’s final play.

There will be criticism for that play. There will be those who use it as evidence that he’s still not doing what he must do in the pocket. Gabbert said he must protect the ball better in that situation, but when you look at the entire night for Gabbert, you have to say it was a step.

And you know what? That’s what the whole night was, really. Throughout the game, I kept reading comments on our live blog and having media types approach me in the press box with the same question. What do you think? Where are they? Here’s where they are two and a half weeks into camp, and one preseason game into the Mularkey era:

It wasn’t all great, but it was better, and when you looked the offense, you saw one that looked very good at times. There was progress. There were good things, a lot more good than bad, and there were glimpses of a bright future.

And on a hot August night that in a lot of ways was really pretty cool, that’s exactly what the Jaguars and their fans wanted to see.

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