Insider: What A Difference A Year Makes In Jacksonville
In the grand scheme of all things NFL, the Jaguars perfect 2-0 preseason start means very little. In three weeks when they open up the regular season at Minnesota, it will mean even less. But if you’re going to keep score you might as well win and the Jaguars have done that twice this preseason, over the defending Super Bowl champion New York Giants and defending NFC South champion New Orleans Saints.
”It’s the preseason, but it’s always good to see things happening and see us moving in a positive direction,” Jaguars veteran guard Uche Nwaneri said. ”You don’t want to get too far ahead of yourself. We’ve accomplished some things, but we haven’t achieved anything yet. We want to keep working and carrying this momentum into the regular season.”
The biggest necessary surprise has been the development of quarterback Blaine Gabbert. 2011’s 10th-overall draft pick was thrust into the lineup early last year and started 14 games with mostly disastrous results. Gabbert’s 65.4 quarterback rating last season was a league worst, and the team won just four games under his helm while having the sixth-ranked defense in the league and the NFL’s leading rusher.
A few pundits jumped on the Gabbert can’t play bandwagon and seemingly thousands followed. There was even talk that the team brought veteran Chad Henne in not to back Gabbert up, but replace him.
“I think that’s part of our job description: Deal with the crap,” Gabbert told Yahoo Sports Michael Silver last week.
Any excuses Gabbert may have reasonably had with unfamiliarity with the offense and playbook were quickly wiped away by the successes of Cam Newton and Andy Dalton, both rookies who also had no offseason training with their teams.
Gabbert’s situation was much different, and much worse.
The Jaguars embattled rookie had an offensive line which started an FCS rookie and was missing it’s starting right tackle. The wide receiver position was a virtual who’s who of soon-to-be ex NFL football players and Mike Thomas, a slot receiver masquerading as a number one.
To top it all off, Gabbert was playing for a lame duck coaching staff who were more concerned with where they were going to find employment after the season rather than developing a rookie who they wouldn’t coach in a few months.
”There’s circumstances last year that I won’t talk about, but there was a lot of things that were not in his favor to have a chance to step up and throw the ball like he is (doing) today,” new head coach Mike Mularkey said.
When Mularkey was hired, the franchise made a decision to give their starting quarterback, their franchise quarterback every possible weapon to try and succeed. They renovated the wide receiving corps by adding Laurent Robinson and drafting Justin Blackmon. They spent an entire offseason devising an offense that catered around Gabbert’s skills, instead of trying to shoehorn him into an offense which really never worked for any of their quarterbacks.
“I think Blaine is really gonna impress a lot of people this year, ’cause he’s come back strong,” Jaguars linebacker Paul Posluszny told Silver. “He’s got new weapons to throw to, and a lot of confidence in himself. Now that he’s in his second year I think he’ll be more comfortable, and I think people will see that early on – the poise in the pocket, him standing in the pocket and throwing the ball downfield. That’s what he’s been doing in training camp so far, and it’s great to see. We’ve seen the progression. He’s starting to come along. Now that he has opportunities to do that against other competition, I think that’ll come out.”
The results from two preseason games have been tremendous. Gabbert has completed 18 of his 26 throws for 174 yards with three touchdowns and no interceptions. His quarterback rating of 126.1 nearly doubles his 2011 rating while facing nothing but starting defenses in preseason.
”He’s one of our most improved guys in training camp,” Mularkey said. ”We all knew he was capable of it, but we needed to see it happen in these games against good defenses. These are two good defenses we’ve faced.”
Gabbert’s early success will be erased when the real bullets fly on September 9th. If he struggles again he will hear more than whispers about how his game doesn’t work in the National Football League. We know that the current Jaguars administration has Blaine Gabbert’s back and Gabbert himself isn’t afraid of any pass rush, much less criticism.
Charlie Bernstein is the NFL Insider for SportsTalkFlorida.com and ESPN 1080 and 1040 in Orlando/Tampa and Editor-in-Chief of Sports Media Interactive, covering the National Football League, NCAA, and National Basketball Association. Charlie covers the Jacksonville Jaguars for FoxSports and has been featured on the NFL Network and Sirius NFL Radio. Charlie is also a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. You can follow Charlie on Twitter @nflcharlie