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SPORTSTALK: THE JAG-OFF

The Jags got through their bye week without much in the way of scandal, besides a besotted Dwayne Gratz going to Miami, getting trashed and attempting to pay for purchases at a shop with bubble gum. That will be yet another addition to the Jags’ canon, along with Keep Choppin’ Wood and Jimmy Smith getting popped riding home from the Voodoo Lounge. But as distractions go, it isn’t much.

The biggest issue they had to deal with were the Colts, who embarrassed them on their home field earlier this season, driving Chad Henne out of the game, starting the Blake Bortles era earlier than Gus Bradley wanted. At first, they seemed determined not to let the Colts embarrass them again.

They came out strong on defense, forcing an Andrew Luck fumble, only to give it back quick with a Bortles pick. The pass rush — the Jags’ strength — initially overwhelmed the Colts’ offensive line (an area of weakness for Indy). Even the post-interception drive was a defensive win, as the Colts were held to a field goal. And then on the next drive, they forced another Luck fumble deep in Colts territory on a 37-step drop where the Colts’ line collapsed. The teams traded field goals early on, and compared to the apocalyptic first half in Jacksonville, the Jags were in good shape, nursing a 3-3 tie, having forced four sacks and a couple of fumbles in the first quarter, and holding the certain Pro Bowl QB to negative-two passing yards. It was a blitzing, swarming, nasty defense that solved a lot of the early-season assignment issues.

Neither team could get in the end zone in the first half, and the Jags had to see going into the second half down only 6-3 as a victory. Certainly it beat Vegas’ expectations.

The Jags defense alone was not going to win this game, though. The offense couldn’t get anything going in terms of downfield passing, and the 13-3 deficit they faced midway through the third quarter looked like the end of …   More

SPORTSTALK: THE JAG-OFF

By the time you read this, the latest Jaguar junket across the pond will be fading into memory, as the reflective mist of the bye week descends upon our fair city like industrial smells from a northeast breeze. But before we let it go, let’s meditate on what Shad Khan said to Hagiographer to the Stars Sam Kouvaris about the Jaguars’ need to play games in London for years to come — or, as Jerry Jones said last week, to “make a bigger commitment” to London.

“We want to do the right thing for the franchise,” said the owner of the one-win squad with the $63 million scoreboard. “We don’t have the growth in Jacksonville. We know that. How do we stabilize the team?”

Khan, whose Fulham Football Club was relegated from the English Premier League, knows a little something about franchise stability. He’s been poormouthing Jacksonville periodically, and getting away with it, because he’s a billionaire in a sea of millionaires, and he can go off script without reprisal. The current mayor rides shotgun in Shad’s Impala; the would-be mayor would be cool with riding in the middle and holding the mustache wax.

How do we stabilize the team?

If ever there were a setup for a Jags victory, it was in London against the Cowboys. Forget the San Francisco shellacking last year. The Cowboys trotted out Toradol Romo, with a safety pin holding his spine together, against a Jags squad whose strength is the defensive front rotation. This was a team primed for an upset — even with Blake Bortles chewing a straw like a hick during the national anthem.

The first cowboys drive started quickly but stalled out when Romo missed a wide-open Jason Witten on a deep route down the middle. Romo looked compromised. Could the Jags take advantage?

Yes! The short passing game set up a Denard Robinson 32-yard dash to daylight. The Jags stopped Dallas and forced a punt … which was promptly fumbled inside …   More

SPORTSTALK: THE JAG-OFF

Will Blake Bortles ever be able to avoid turnovers? Does he have some sort of problem processing the whole play in crunch time? After all, pressure mounts, the Jags QB’s decision-making only gets worse. And why does he throw against his body?

These were my questions coming into Sunday’s game. I had started to call him Blaine in conversation. And I had almost stopped, until his end-zone interception at the four-minute mark of fourth quarter.

I probably should stop again.

Harsh? Maybe. Not compared to the CBS announcer who mused aloud about how long the Jags could stay with Bortles this year — as if another round of Chad Henne would fix everything. But whereas the Times-Union said Bortles “regressed” in Cincinnati, the Jags offense in fact looked better than it ever had before this year.

Denard Robinson’s early run for 38 yards was one of those plays that can open up the whole offense. Toby Gerhart looked solid from the get-go, too. The Jags did play it safe in first half, as usual, to their detriment: They racked up a mere 34 passing yards.

Down 19-3 in the third, Bortles went deep to Allen Hurns — where was this derring-do early on? The playbook is buttoned up until garbage time approaches. This mode works with teams that have personnel advantages. The Jags, however, have to create and exploit mismatches to win.

When they go deep, especially to Hurns, good things happen. Hurns was the star of the game, making every catch, fulfilling every bit of the potential he flashed in the season opener. The Jags were in the game, looking credible, and Allen Hurns was the X-factor.

The turning point: The Jags were within three when Bengals backup running back Jeremy Hill took it to the house. Safety Josh Evans was hurt on a play where no one in Jags secondary really wanted to tackle Hill, least of all Evans. That should have been it, but Bortles had one more drive.

Then came the seemingly inevitable pick in …   More

SPORTSTALK: THE JAG-OFF

Another home game for the Jacksonville Jaguars, another chance for Blake Bortles to make the leap. This game was the biggest start in his young career.

Why? Because the Dolphins are arguably the Jaguars’ biggest rivals, if for no other reason than proximity. And Dolphins QB Ryan Tannehill, in many ways, is an analog for Bortles: a young, up-and-down quarterback who can run if he needs to (both were top-five QB rushers coming in). Tannehill has looked increasingly sharp this year, but the jury was out on both of them coming into Sunday’s clash.

And it still is afterward. Tannehill was yet another quarterback who floundered in the face of an initially opportunistic Jags D (just 56 yards allowed in the first half). And Bortles? A dumpster fire. Yes, he threw two long touchdown passes. Both, however, went to Dolphins defenders.

Some missed opportunities for Jags’ offense were not on Bortles, such as the bomb Allen Robinson dropped on the first drive that should have been caught. For every one of those, though, there were things like the two pick-sixes — Bortles’ 11th and 12th of the year, even though he didn’t start until Week 4 — and the fumble in the second quarter. At times, especially on third down, he looked Gabbertesque. Except Gabbert never had a running back like Denard (apologies to MJD apologists).

The Jags opened up the route tree in the third quarter, going deep, which only exposed Bortles as the Dolphins stopped respecting the run and blitzed.

As the game progressed, Gus Bradley looked less and less like an NFL coach. More Tom Arnold than Tom Landry, Gus’ team once again looked outmatched in the second half. What was a winnable game at intermission was over long before the third quarter ended. Tannehill sharpened up as the fourth quarter commenced, one-liners and fart wafts filled the press box, and a “Let’s Go Dolphins” chant pervaded the cleaner air outside it.

On a day …   More

SPORTSTALK: THE JAG-OFF

On a clear day, you can see forever. And things like a “This Is Hoyer Country” banner, and a crowd full of more orange tops than a Road Crew convention. And so the question of the day was this: Could the Jaguars take back their house?

The first quarter offered some encouragement. The Jags defense got Brian Hoyer off the field before the Browns got to midfield. This week’s starting back, Denard Robinson, tore for 14 yards on an off-tackle rush on the Jags’ very first offensive play, the beginning of the best day by any Jags running back this year (62 first-quarter yards, 122 yards and a TD on the day).

The Jags kept eight in the box early, stalling Ben Tate and forcing the Browns into third-and-longs aplenty. Then the first Blake Bortles pick, returned into the Jags’ red zone. The defense, tougher with each passing week, especially the front seven, held them to three downs and a field goal.

Early in the second quarter, all looked swell (except for Bortles), despite the 3-0 deficit. Bortles got some short passes going, but lacked the line protection to go deep reliably. Blitzes are still a problem for the Jags’ overmatched line.

Bortles threw his second pick in Jaguars territory, with the Browns already up 6-0, but the Jags’ defense held, setting up a two-minute drill. Quick strikes to Robinson and Clay Harbor and a timely defensive penalty set up a 41-yard catch-and-run TD to Robinson and gave the Jags a halftime lead. Hoyer Country? Not so much.

After a dynamite halftime performance by the Bethune-Cookman marching band, the second half was on — the Jags with the ball and the lead going into the final 30. A huge Hoyer fumble recovery gave way to the Jags taking over inside the Browns’ 30, setting up a Josh Scobee chip shot. Armed with the lead, the defense was amped and Hoyer was shaken.

The Jags got a great third-quarter drive, highlighted by a couple Bortles runs. Jedd Fisch’s offense …   More

SPORTSTALK: THE JAG-OFF

There’s a recurring theme for Jags fans: watching former Jags depart and become the players that the Jags hoped they’d be when they picked them up. Reggie “The Eraser” Nelson. Terrance “Pot Roast” Knighton. Jeremy Mincey. All of these guys moved on and became integral to winning operations.

Did they just suck when they were here? Did they just dog it, like Aaron Ross and Hugh Douglas? Not necessarily, says Mincey, now a member of the Dallas Cowboys, who went to 5-1 after upsetting the Seahawks this week. He says the problems former Jags had here had a lot to do with the organization itself.

“The organization will do you wrong,” Mincey told me last weekend. The biggest issue is that the Jags destroy their players’ passion. “Some people’s ability makes a team better, but the man with the passion makes you a winner.”

Manufacturing passion has been an issue for the Jags in recent years, and the solution of the current regime has been to go young.

This week’s game pitted two rookie running backs against each other — the Jags’ Storm Johnson and the Titans’ Bishop Sankey. Both of these guys waited their turn behind plowhorses, with coaches taking their time pushing them out there. Going into the game, a reasonable expectation was that the team with the best running game would win. The local media hyped Storm, who found time to follow seemingly everyone in Jacksonville on Twitter over the last couple of weeks.

A shame that Storm’s Twitter followers couldn’t block for him. He could’ve used the help.

The game started out, improbably, with the best five minutes of Jaguar football this year. Bortles marched the Jags down the field, using Harbor and Hurns on key plays, drawing a pass interference with A-Rob in the end zone, and Johnson got the score on a one-yard plunge. The defense stepped up on the next drive, and it looked real out there. Like …   More

SPORTSTALK: THE JAG-OFF

Another week for our beloved Jaguars, another loss. For the first time in a while, though, the Jags were in the game into the fourth quarter — an unavoidable contrast from the coda of the Chad Henne era, just two short weeks ago. For a lot of Jags fans, that was probably enough — an exhibition of workmanlike competence on both sides of the ball that we haven’t seen in these parts since the days of David Garrard and Jack Del Rio.

We can pick apart the plays that led to the defeat. That pick-six Blake Bortles threw early in the fourth quarter didn’t help, and it was pretty easy to see it coming, as Bortles likes that short, quick out pattern and he likes to throw it to Allen Hurns. Another decision that likewise didn’t help happened a few minutes later, when the Jags punted on fourth and one at midfield.

Bortles and Coach Gus Bradley said all the right things in the post-game pressers. Bradley said, correctly, that “the arrow is up,” that the team “did better in all three phases of the game,” pointing to the Jags’ four sacks on Roethlisberger, along with a forced fumble. And Bortles was, as ever, a class act, crediting Henne with mentoring him, deflecting blame from Hurns for the backbreaking interception, and saying — surprisingly given that they totaled a meager 52 yards — that the “running backs all did a good job.”

It’s easy enough, at 0-5, to take the view that a loss is a loss is a loss. But longtime Jags fans likely are reassured by the poise Bortles exhibits both on and off the field. He lacks the thin skin of the departed Blaine Gabbert, remembered best for yelling “whoa there motherfucker” after getting chased out of bounds a couple of years back, and for blocking his multitude of critics on Twitter. It’s telling that, even with a fanbase that still rocks the throwback Matt Jones jerseys, there is no retroactive love for Gabbert, who is …   More

SPORTSTALK: THE JAG-OFF

And so begins the next New Era in Jacksonville Jaguars football, with Blake Bortles getting his first NFL start. Irrational exuberance is the watchword: I know of at least one person who benched Aaron Rodgers for Das Wunderkind in fantasy football, in what was an exercise in wish fulfillment writ large. (If that’s a money league, buddy, I want in next year).

The start of the game, despite a Toby Gerhart fumble 12 seconds in, was encouraging. Bortles’ passes were crisper than fresh celery, taking advantage of strong line play in the first couple dozen plays. He had the time to make reads, which resulted in a nine-completion, 83-yard first quarter; also, Denard Robinson looks to be learning the running back position, even taking over some inside runs (which may be preferable to leaving that duty to the motorless Gerhart). The defense had yet to be exposed, yet.

Small victories, right?

Jags fans sat and waited for the collapse, but Bortles kept them in the game until the second half. Deep to Allen Hurns, then a TD toss to a dude they just picked up from the Saints practice squad. If it were up to Bortles and our scrapheap wideouts, the Jags would have won. But the outcome this week was determined by that festering wound we call a pass defense.

The secondary, with or without the concussed Dwayne Gratz, is not NFL caliber. Probably, with some coaching and acclimation, they could function reasonably well in the Canadian Football League. Maybe not. The issue, after all, is coverage, and Canadian fields are even bigger, with even more open space.

Down 10, the Chargers began to jump Bortles' routes. The second half was ugly, yes, with Keenan Allen looking like J-Smooth in his big game against the Ravens —catching bombs from the Chargers QB. 

Despite the obliteration of the third quarter, the Jags were only down 13. Compare that to the Colts catastrophe or the can of whoopass the Washington Racistnames opened on them, and it does …   More

SPORTSTALK

In the last two decades, Jaguars fans have seen plenty of quarterback changes. Brunell for the ineffective Beuerlein, which no one mourned. Leftwich for Brunell, in Del Rio's first year, which occasioned racially-coded disses of B-Left the whole time he was here. Garrard for Leftwich, which happened with all of the smoothness of an Arab Spring revolution. Gabbert in, Gabbert out.

And now, hopefully, the last one for a while: Bortles for Henne.

Bortles took over in the second half, the team down 30-love, after one of the worst halves of football in franchise history, and the fans (most of whom stuck around through halftime, remarkably) cheered him as loudly as they booed the doomed Henne. He looked decisive and — in garbage time especially — competent. Not on that Kirk-Cousins-against-the-Jaguars way, maybe, but he made his reads, evaded pressure, and did all of the things a fan would want him to do. And hey, it's worth noting that the Jags won the second half 17-14, if you’re into moral victories. 

Bortles is the team's third attempt in two decades at drafting a franchise quarterback. He is singular, in that he has the smarts and toughness Leftwich had, but (unlike Leftwich) he is guaranteed to be beloved in this market unless he is a Gabbert-level flop. He will be allowed to make his mistakes. And so too will Coach Gus, who starts the second straight year in an 0-3 hole.

The offensive line, an embarrassment all year, seemed to hold a little better for the rookie … at least this outing. The open question though is what happens to all of this good feeling when the novelty wears off. There were times in the first half, for example, when the defense appeared at times to have quit, or at least to lack the conditioning to play all out on a warm September afternoon. 

During a tightly scheduled post-game press conference, Gus Bradley sounded very enthusiastic. And why wouldn't he? Despite being stomped on the field, the …   More

SPORTSTALK: THE JAG-OFF

It’s true that any player on an NFL field is among the best in the world at the game of football. That includes Chad Henne. The Jags quarterback is in his seventh year now, having been drafted by the Miami Dolphins in the second round, and he’s always looked almost good enough.

The Jags thought so when they brought him back this year to be a veteran bridge between the dumpster fire that was Blaine Gabbert and the certain Valhalla that the Blake Bortles epoch will be. But no one has really been sold on Henne since he got here — and Sunday’s loss in Washington won’t silence the doubters.

The Jaguars managed to put together a full half of competence in Philadelphia, but all they managed to do in the first half against the Washington Racistnames — yes, the team’s official name is a racial slur; no, we will not print it — was injure a couple of superstars. Get well soon, RGIII and D-Jax. The funny thing was that when RGIII was in, struggling with this year’s offense, Washington looked almost as bad as the Jags. Once he was replaced by Kirk Cousins, however, and the offense was executed more efficiently, the Jaguars went from being exposed on offense to being exposed on both sides of the ball.

Given the 10 sacks the Jags allowed, there clearly were plenty of occasions when Henne didn’t have any time in the pocket. The interior line has been a liability since the preseason, and likely will be 14 more times to come. Even when Henne did have time in the pocket, however, he looked tentative making reads downfield. He tends, even this late in his career, to lock in on receivers — and he made the Washington defense look like a top-five unit. Which it isn’t. At all.

Well before halftime, the Jags looked like a beaten team — worn out and demoralized on a 68-degree day in Landover. There were a couple of nice moments in the second half, but overall the Jags looked ragged and ragtag. Which …   More

 
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