The dreadlocks are back.
I note that because to the best of my knowledge — I was the only commentator to note that Maurice Jones-Drew cut his dreads within days after being drafted by the Jaguars in 2006. My theory then (and now): Jones-Drew was making a naked grab for endorsement dollars in a market that's never been wholly receptive to the stylistic flourishes of Jaguar players. Despite cutting his dreads, Jones-Drew overcame my initial concerns about his lack of size and mid-career questions about his ability to come back from injury to become one of the best running backs of his generation (despite whatever happened at the recent Reggae Sunday at St. Augustine's Conch House).
Problem is, that generation is about over. Jones-Drew is 28 years old — young for politicians and grandmothers; old for ballet dancers and NFL running backs. His age is especially significant when one considers how many on the Jaguars offense ran through him during Jack Del Rio's time as coach (seems an epoch ago, even though Del Rio's been gone only one season). Jones-Drew had a lot of work in that offense, which focused on the running game in a quarterback-driven league that stacked the rules in favor of passing offenses. As we know, the results of that work have been awesome on the stat sheet, but not so much in terms of that all-important win-loss column.
The Jaguars have only won one playoff game in Jones-Drew's career with them, after the 2007 season. Referees assisted on that 31-29 victory over the Steelers, I'd argue, by missing holding calls on what turned into the best highlight-reel scramble of David Garrard's career. Even in that game, with a reduced role at tailback, Jones-Drew tallied almost 200 all-purpose yards and earned co-MVP honors along with Garrard. The future seemed so bright, we had to wear shades. Since then, though, nothing in terms of playoff victories and national relevance.
And no one's forecasting much better for the upcoming season, either. We've heard the word "rebuilding" from local commentators more this year than we did from national observers in the wake of Katrina — and we can't blame the Jaguars' issues on George W. Bush, unfortunately. Rather, the blame falls at the feet of the former coach and former owner, and so it is that new head coach Gus Bradley and owner/demigod Shad Khan have a bit of breathing room to right the course of the franchise.
And they'll need it. In the AFC South alone, the Texans are always among NFL elite, and the Colts have one of the most exciting quarterbacks in the game (never mind the Titans). What does this mean for the Jaguars? Even getting a wildcard berth might be a problem this year … or next … or even the year after. Which raises the question: How much juice can we reasonably expect in the remainder of Jones-Drew's career?
Can we expect more from him than we could from Shaun Alexander, the do-everything Seahawks running back who led the league in several stats categories, then was washed up by 30? A running back's tenure is short and sweet, dazzling and ephemeral. The longevity of nice guy Emmitt Smith, former Gator and Dallas Cowboy legend, is the exception, not the rule.
Jones-Drew is still recovering from his painful Lisfranc injury, while working out in South Florida in the tradition of Fred Taylor, and the results so far might concern Jaguars fans who believe Jones-Drew is the whole offense. He still can't run full speed, and even when he can, questions will linger in everyone's mind but his. So far, MJD has overcome all odds, but his luck will run out.
I am higher on Justin Forsett than a lot of other sports pundits, but the speedy and versatile Forsett has yet to prove himself as an NFL every-down back. Until he does, he won't boost the confidence of Jaguars fans. Denard Robinson — the Michigan quarterback Gus Bradley seems to be using in a slash role — likewise provides matchup issues for defenders. Who'll get those tough yards on third-and-short? On fourth-and-1? Is that guy on the roster if Jones-Drew isn't ready to go?
If not, he needs to be. I expect the Jaguars to do their due diligence and to bring in some backs in this preseason. (And, of course, there's next year's draft.) For the 2013 season, though, it may be too late.