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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

SPORTSTALK

Every industry has its performance review season. Most of us who spend our waking lives in cubicles had performance reviews at year's end. Those whose jobs are in college basketball, however, face ongoing performance reviews, and one of the best locally just had his performance deemed lacking.

Cliff Warren was fired as Jacksonville University's head basketball coach — in a way, a predictable move. A 12-18 season; before that, two seasons averaging 20 losses between them, prompting the athletic director to act.

But was firing Warren the right move? Even after three losing seasons, it's important to be mindful of what else the former Georgia Tech assistant coach did in almost a decade at the helm of the Dolphins program. He got JU to the NIT twice (and beat the No. 1 seed one year), led the team to a victory over Billy Donovan's Florida Gators, and built up the program after Hugh Durham's departure.

His record over nine years — 126-150 — isn't great, but if the one-win season in 2005 is factored out, that's eight years of .500 ball. How much more can JU really expect in D-1 basketball in the 21st century?

JU's athletic director, Brad Edwards, came from Newberry in 2012 to take this job (missing the good years Warren had). He hasn't leveled with the media about why he dumped the coach. "It's not just won-loss record," he told the Times-Union. "The institution wants to move in a new direction. That's all I want to say, and can say. These decisions are never easy."

True. Live long enough, and you will fire someone (and be fired). Still, in this case, it's hard for me to imagine a new direction that will be appreciably better than the one taken throughout the Warren era.

We don't usually think of JU's NCAA Atlantic Sun conference as a powerhouse. However, it's a Division I conference, and has some schools with significant student bodies. Kennesaw State has about 25,000 students, and quite a few others have more than 10,000 students. JU, with about …   More

SPORTSTALK

People often discuss the idea of Old Florida — the time before suburban sprawl and superhighways, when roads like U.S. 1 were the main thoroughfares into the cracker boroughs of Northeast Florida. That Old Florida ethos — of Rebel flags and casual violence against varmints — is a thing of the past … for the most part. Some vestiges, however, live on.

In Glen St. Mary, on a lovely late-winter Sunday afternoon the first week of March, the cops busted a cockfighting ring. The police found 19 men and women and nine children, some as young as 3, watching or participating 
in the action. Six people were arrested; 10 others face charges.

There's no doubt that cockfighting is a vicious sport (if you want to call it that): roosters peck at each other, ripping at eyes and organs, drawing blood, while a mob surrounds them in a perverse pastiche of family values. Show that to the kids — build a bridge over the generation gap from feathers and viscera.

But in some ways, there's an honesty to that — though probably not one appreciated outside cockfighting circles.

I reached out to Lauren Trad — a local activist who did as much as anyone to ensure that Duval County residents have the right to have hens in their yards — to get her take on the bust. She was unsurprisingly horrified. "I only advocate for hens," she says. "Eggs. Not fighting. Backyard hens are treated like pets, and their lives are filled with love and caring. Cockfighting is barbaric and cruel."

She's right. So, too, was Mark Twain, when he called it an "inhuman sort of entertainment."

Nonetheless, we must admit there is a strong case that cockfighting is part of a larger tradition of entertainment for rural people with little else to do beyond imposing violence on the natural world by setting animals athwart each other in a life-and-death struggle. After all, it's taken place in North America for centuries — as late as the late 1930s, in fact, Florida was a nationwide hub — …   More

SPORTSTALK

Time was, I was really excited about NFL free agency (which began this week), the way fans are. That led to some columns that are, in retrospect, hilarious, like this absolute gem from 2008:

"I know deep down within that the decision to sign Jerry Porter was the right move. Matt Jones and Reggie Williams have flashed real potential, to be sure. But Jerry Porter has a different gear than either of those guys is capable of delivering. And a different rep; he will draw double coverage, and David Garrard will take advantage of it."

LOL? LOL!

The only thing Jerry Porter drew was a check from the Weavers — great observation there, in a column that also gushed about the signing of Drayton Florence. So when it comes to free agency, I've learned that, sometimes, the best way forward is to avoid the big splashy moves. This year's free agency pool illustrates that all too well. Those who expect silver bullets are better off taking their chances with a can of Coors.

One thing I've noticed about the current class is that so many of the most attractive candidates are recent Jags. Linebacker Daryl Smith and offensive tackle Eugene Monroe — both on the Ravens' roster at the end of last year — are available for reacquisition. As well, Maurice Jones-Drew, whose performance has been widely discussed and often derided by fans and media alike, is one of the best tailbacks in the '14 pool.

What does that say? For starters: Maybe the Jags were too quick to cut bait on Smith or Monroe. Maybe the team needs to bring back MJD on a short deal with heavy incentives. There just isn't a lot to get excited about, as a position-by-position breakdown makes clear.

Quarterback, for example, offers little that's an upgrade even from Chad Henne — whom the Jaguars re-signed last week to a two-year, $8 million contract. Busted-up-and-old Michael Vick is the biggest name — and as the Eagles learned last year, he didn't have much tread left on the tires. Beyond those, a lot of …   More

SPORTSTALK

After months in the shadows, Clay County's aspirations to lure a Big League Dreams franchise to Middleburg are finally getting the public scrutiny they so richly deserve. Last month, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement announced that it's investigating allegations that the Clay County Development Authority violated state open records and public meeting laws while negotiating a deal with the company to build a baseball-themed entertainment park.

Joe Riley, one of two Clay County residents who filed complaints with the FDLE last fall, has accused the county of negotiating with Big League Dreams outside of the Sunshine law. And indeed, last year the county commission asked one of its board members to privately hammer out a deal (though the county insists this is not illegal). You need only read the county auditor's report to realize why they'd want to keep the public in the dark: This is a sucker's bet, a sham that only the gullible could support.

The deal would work like this: Clay County would agree to build the facility, which the county estimated would cost $15 million but Michael T. Price, the auditor, says would more likely clock in around $25 million or higher. To pay for it, the county would use the projected leftovers from a road-construction bond it took out five years ago, as it can't secure bonds for the project without putting it to a public referendum. (Big League Dreams generously offered to lend the county the money to build Big League Dreams' facility, which the county would then pay back to Big League Dreams, with interest. For some reason, Price does not think this a wise move.) In exchange for this investment, the county would receive a portion of Big League Dreams' profits for the next 30 years.

A very small portion. Between 1997 and 2011, Big League Dreams paid out between $11 million and $16 million to its nine government partners, all of which are in the Southwest (the Middleburg deal is its first venture east of the …   More

SPORTSTALK

Greyhound racing is, by all accounts, a dying sport. Less popular with each passing year, it seems more and more that the tracks that still exist aren't there because they themselves are a draw, but because of an arcane state law passed in the '90s that allows tracks to feature lucrative poker tables if they run at least 90 percent of the number of races they held in 1996. So even as fewer and fewer people gamble on the dogs — and even as the industry hemorrhages money (Florida tracks lost $35 million in 2012) — the tracks remain.

Poker is not without its problems. People can get in over their heads and spend money they don't have. But one thing poker tables don't have is a body count.

The same can't be said for greyhound racing.

On Feb. 15, the Miami Herald and Tampa Bay Times published an exposé of the industry. Drawing on newly available records, the investigation found that 74 dogs had died on racetrack properties in Florida in the last six months of 2013 — one every three days, on average. Jacksonville tracks were not immune.

One greyhound, the 3-year-old, fawn-colored Penrose Jake, had his final race at Orange Park Kennel Club last August. Jake started strong that night, but then slammed into another dog and finished last. A few hours later, following a 127-race career, he was dead. The track didn't say what caused Jake's death. It didn't have to: While Florida lawmakers recently began forcing tracks to report greyhound deaths, the tracks don't always provide detailed information about what happened.

In early September, a greyhound named Hallo Spice Key died after being sprinted around a Jacksonville track in the pre-dawn hours, long before a race. "It appears the death could have been prevented had the greyhound not been sprinted in the dark," the report concluded.

Most of these deaths are, in fact, preventable, the dogs victims of the industry's greed. Thirty-one dogs in that six-month span died or were euthanized for race-related …   More

 
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