Archive for the ‘NFL teams’ Category

As someone who covers sports for a living, the question I’m asked the most often, by far, is: Who do I think will win (fill in the game) this weekend?

Almost never am I asked who I want to win the game.

There is a difference, you understand.

When I don’t give the desired answer I usually catch hell and get accused of being a hater.

Last Saturday, for example, I thought Texas A&M would defeat the Gators. I thought playing at home in the school’s first ever SEC game would give the Aggies the edge. Besides, having watched the Gators’ sluggish performance in the season-opening victory against a clearly outmanned opponent didn’t inspire me to have much confidence in the Gators.

I also predicted the Vikings to beat the Jaguars. While I’d seen some encouraging signs in the preseason, I didn’t think the Jaguars, who haven’t had a winning record in four years, were a good bet to win a road game with a new coaching staff and a young quarterback coming off of a miserable season.,

Florida won 20-17. I was wrong? I was also happy.

The Jaguars lost 26-23 in overtime. I was correct. I was also sad.

For the record, I’d rather see the teams popular with Northeast Florida fans – Gators, Seminoles, Bulldogs, Jaguars, etc.  – post victories. To be candid, it’s good for business. Besides, most of my dearest friends are diehard Gator and Jaguar fans. My youngest son in an FSU graduate and is rearing three little Seminoles.

So, ask me the right question and you’ll likely be happier with my answer.

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Jaguars fans, I feel your pain. I understand your frustration and even your anger. Your team lost a game to the Vikings it should have won.

Still, there were more positives from the 26-23 overtime lost at Minnesota than I’ve seen from the Jaguars in a long time.

First and foremost, quarterback Blaine Gabbert looked the best, by far, he’s ever looked. He looked like an NFL quarterback who could win.

Despite three drops, the receivers as a group looked better than they have in years. Tight end Marcedes Lewis caught every pass, including one for a TD, thrown his way. Maurice Jones-Drew, seven days removed from his couch, was used more than expected and responded with a solid game. The coaching wasn’t perfect, but it clearly was an improvement from what you’ve seen. Left tackle Eugene Monroe, after a shaky start, shined against the Vikes’ sack master, Jared Allen.

The Jaguars should have won even though they had those drops; even though Gabbert missed a wide open Justin Blackmon for a sure fire touchdown and fumbled a center snap; even though there was a blocked extra point kick.

I’m not ready to put the Jaguars in the playoffs – I haven’t lost my mind – but I’m more encouraged about their season than I was Sunday morning.

The pass rush was anemic and unless it improves the Jaguars are going to make every quarterback they face look like an All Pro. If injuries continue to beset the offensive line there will gloomy days ahead.

I hear you screaming, fans. Why’d the Jaguars go to a “prevent defense” in those final 14 seconds? (This is one of those rare times I agreed with using the “prevent” even though it didn’t work.) Why’d they throw the ball on 3rd-and-2 on their final two plays in overtime? (Hindsight always wins play-calling debates.)

The Vikings, by the way, deserve some credit. Rookie Blair Walsh’s game-tying 55-yard field goal was impressive. Quarterback Christian Ponder played well. Adrian Peterson and Percy Harvin burn a lot of defenses.

Yeah, the loss hurts, but based on the first game the Jaguars are headed in the right direction. There’s a saying you are what your record says you are. That’s not necessarily true – particularly after one game.

Crystal Ball Friday, Week No. 1:

Each Friday I will predict selected college and pro football games. I’ll always include the Jaguars game. Florida and FSU games will be included when they play respectable opponents.

Florida (1-0) at Texas A&M (0-0) – It’s difficult to imagine the Gators looking as bad as they did in their opener. The Aggies have a new coach in Kevin Sumlin, an offensive whiz, as they begin play in the SEC. The Aggies are worried about their defense, but can the Gators score enough against any major team? A&M, favored by 1½, win 24-10.

Georgia (1-0) at Missouri (1-0) – The Bulldogs give their host a rude welcoming to the SEC. Missouri has some talented skill player, but it will get pounded on the line of scrimmage. Georgia, favored by 3½, wins 35-17.

Vanderbilt (0-1) at Northwestern (1-0) — An SEC bottom feeder is better than a Big Ten bottom feeder. Vandy, favored by 3½, wins 28-24.

Auburn (0-1) at Mississippi State (1-0) – The War Eagles fall continues. The Bulldogs win the battle as the SEC West’s fourth best team. Miss State, favored by 3, wins 27-20.

North Carolina (1-0) at Wake Forest (1-0) – The Tar Heels are on probation for a reason. They cheated. Good news is cheating helped them get talent, more than Deacons. UNC, favored by 8½, wins 35-14.

Jaguars (0-0) at Minnesota (0-0) – These are considered two of the NFL’s weakest teams and it’s difficult to argue otherwise. Jags seem headed in the right direction, but there’s still a long way to go. I just can’t get the image out of my head of Viking DE Jared Allen crushing Jag QB Blaine Gabbert time after time. Vikings, favored by 1½, win 21-17.

49ers (0-0) at Packers (0-0) – Many expect a rematch for the NFC title. It’s classic defense (49ers) vs. offense (Packers). It is an offensive game now, but I see an upset because the 49ers have improved more on offense than the Packers have on defense. The 49ers, 5½ underdogs, win 28-27.

Steelers (0-0) at Broncos (0-0) – Peyton Manning’s is back, albeit in a strange uniform. I’m betting he looks almost as good as a Bronco as he did all those years as a Colt. The Steelers’ once ferocious defense has gotten old quickly. Broncos, favored by 2, win 27-21.

Making predictions about a home team is loaded with potholes that can unwittingly alter the best of intentions, research and professional insight.

As a local media person covering the Jaguars on a daily basis, I should know more about the team than the national pundits. But that advantage can be offset by hometown bias even from someone determined to be neutral.

From a national perspective, the Jaguars are expected to stink. ESPN the Magazine has them going 1-15. Sports Illustrated predicted 2-14. Las Vegas oddsmakers are predicting five victories. Several power polls I read have them ranked between 29th and 32nd in the 32-team NFL.

These commentators see a franchise coming off of a 5-11 season and without a winning record since 2007. They see a franchise with a second-year quarterback in Blaine Gabbert who as a rookie had one of the worst seasons ever by an NFL QB. They see a franchise that is depending on two new receivers, one an untested rookie with off-the-field issues and the other a free agent who did a disappearing act in preseason games. They see a franchise whose best player was a holdout until last weekend. They see a franchise with a new head coach who was unsuccessful in his first head coaching stint (Buffalo) and a new offensive scheme.

What should they expect from the Jaguars in 2012?

These predictions have angered a lot of local fans and some local media reps who openly cheer for the Jags.

From a local perspective, Gabbert has shown considerable improvement on the field and maturity off the field. They have seen players rejuvenated by a coaching change and new ownership. In rookie Justin Blackmon they’ve seen a receiver who catches everything he touches and runs well after making the catch. They are confident a healthy Rashad Jennings will be a solid runner and Maurice Jones-Drew will soon be MoJo again now that he’s ended his holdout. They are confident the defense will play as well or better than last season when the Jaguars statistically ranked among the 10 best in the league.

Locally, no one I know is talking about making the playoffs, but 8-8 or even 9-7 seems reasonable to them.

So what am I expecting from the Jaguars? Gabbert can’t be worse than last season. Nor can the receivers. The defense wasn’t as strong as the statistics indicated because of a mediocre pass rush and the failure to force turnovers, but it is solid. The coaching was a joke last year because of the lame duck status so any change is a step in the right direction. Playing the strong NFC North doesn’t help.

The Jaguars have made some positive steps, but I see another 5-11 season before the improvements create more victories.

The New MoJo Era

Posted: September 5, 2012 in Jacksonville Jaguars, NFL teams

Maurice Jones-Drew is back and, as far as he is concerned, everything is back to normal. He’s made no apology and expressed no regret about his holdout. He still feels underpaid and disrespected.

He makes it perfectly clear is all about business and nothing more.

What he obviously doesn’t see is the business angle works both ways. The Jaguars clearly think NOT giving him more money and security is the correct business decision.

Now, what the future holds rests entirely in Jones-Drew’s hands – and on his legs. He’s an elite running back in a passing era. It has been proven that at his best the Jaguars are a 5-11 team.

Jones-Drew’s supporters point out the Jaguars are $28 million under the salary cap and are being cheap by not giving him more money. My response is why should any team pay a player more than it thinks he’s worth simply because it has the cap room? Just because you have $100 in your pocket doesn’t mean you should overpay for a hamburger.

For the fans, all of this becomes a moot point if the Jaguars win and Jones-Drew plays well. Otherwise, his days as the team’s most popular player are doomed.

Along that line, I don’t think he’s doing himself any favors with his new look. I’m certainly not at fashion or style expert, but the new scruffy-looking Jones-Drew isn’t nearly as charming and likable as the clean cut and always smiling old Jones-Drew.

The more immediate concern is how he’ll perform and fit in the Jaguars’ new offense under Coach Mike Mularkey. It is unreasonable to think he’ll be a major contributor in this Sunday’s season opener at Minnesota. It’s also unreasonable to think he’ll put up the kind of numbers he put up last season when he led the league in rushing.  For one thing, he’ll get fewer carries with a healthy running mate in Rashad Jennings. For another, the Jaguars plan to throw the ball more with an improved quarterback in Blaine Gabbert and better receivers.

Bottom line is the love affair between MoJo and the Jaguars fans likely will never be as passionate as it was. That’s a shame because it sure was fun while it lasted.

 

Incredibly many Jaguar fans continue to live in fear of their NFL franchise moving elsewhere. The news that the Jaguars will play “home” games in London for four years starting in 2013 has amped up their inferiority complex.

The London games are about owner Shad Khan and the city of Jacksonville making money. There’s nothing wrong with that and, if the plans works out, a lot of First Coast residents could benefit.

It has nothing to do with the Jaguars becoming the London Jaguars . . . or the Los Angeles Jaguars . . . or, for that matter, the Hong Kong Jaguars.

The Jaguars aren’t going anywhere. There are franchises that face bigger problems than Jacksonville. For the record, the Jaguars sold more tickets last year than any NFL franchise in the state.

Leaving a team in a growing Sun Belt state doesn’t make good sense. And among all of the things the NFL does well, making good business decisions tops the list.

Calm down, boys and girls. Don’t be depressed because the Ravens slapped around your Jaguars last night. I kept telling you after the Jags won those first two exhibitions not to get too excited. Now I’m telling you not the get too depressed.

It’s practice. These aren’t real games. Final score doesn’t matter.

That’s not to say practice isn’t important. This time of year is about fine tuning vets and evaluating prospects. It’s also about trying to identify strengths and potential weaknesses.

The Jags’ pass defense hasn’t been very good. Veteran Rashean Mathis looks a step slow to me. The pass rush still needs to improve. As usual, the way to move the ball on the Jags is to make to their linebackers play pass coverage. The special teams also were stinky against the Ravens. Even Josh Scobee missed a chip shot.

Another thing: Where’s Laurent Robinson? Are the Jags simply not targeting him in preseason games? Is he not getting open? The Jags need their biggest offseason free agent signee to be a major contributor.

But there were good things even in a 48-17 “loss”.

Quarterback Blaine Gabbert did more good things than bad and that’s a major step forward.

Rashad Jennings looks like a better-than-average running back. I remember one play when he clearly made the wrong cut, but overall he gets a high grade.

But the No. 1 positive thing about the preseason is rookie wide receiver Justin Blackmon. He catches everything he touches – and then he actually runs after the catch. Jags fans haven’t seen one of their receivers excel at running after the catch since the days of Jimmy Smith and Keenan McCardell.

Perhaps the most important item on the Jags agenda is keeping Blackmon sober.

 

The Jaguars’ first training camp under Coach Mike Mularkey has ended and by all measurable is was a success.

There was high energy and a strong work ethnic, which is to be expected with a first-year coach –not to mention a new owner.

Other note worthy points in no particular order:

  • Quarterback Blaine Gabbert is showing significant improvement. Improvement in a quarterback’s second season is to be expected, but Gabbert appears to be ahead of pace. No doubt better coaching and a better supporting cast are factors.
  • The better supporting cast includes a much better group of wide receivers. Rookie Justin Blackmon is an immediate upgrade. He looked like a No. 5 overall draft pick in his first pro test, not only catching everything thrown in his direction but running after the catch. Laurent Robinson appears to be a solid free agent signee.
  • Maurice Jones-Drew’s holdout has been a non-factor. I’m not saying Rashad Jennings is a better runner than Mo-Jo, but he is talented enough to get the job done in the Jaguars are a better passing team.
  • There were no significant injuries – that we know of. In the ultra secretive world of the NFL we seldom get the truth about injuries. The offensive line has had more than its share of what appears to be nagging injuries, but everyone should be ready for the season opener. The biggest question mark is left guard Will Rackley.
  • The Jaguars outscored their opponents in their first two exhibitions. Winning isn’t necessarily important but it’s better than being outscored.

Bottom line: Things are looking up for the Jaguars.

Lose the Ego, MoJo

Posted: August 16, 2012 in Jacksonville Jaguars, NFL, NFL teams

Open letter to MoJo:

I don’t pretend to know you, MoJo, except as a media guy who’s talked to you dozens of times and observed you both on the field and in the locker room. From those experiences two things are obvious: You’re a helluva football player and a savvy guy when it comes to public relations. You seem to be an intelligent young man and one who’s motivated to succeed.

Now that I’ve got that out of the way, in my role as a commentator I offer this advice: Get rid of the ego,  put your pride on the back burner and get back to work, which means reporting to the Jaguars and getting ready for the upcoming season.

Honestly, I don’t have a favorite in this fight between you and management, but not only does management have all of the high cards, I can’t make one argument in your behalf.

Let’s examine the issues:

  • You have two years remaining on your contract, a big-money contract the Jaguars gave you and you gladly signed when you were still a backup.
  • You’ve already been paid more than $20 million and will earn close to another $10 million by honoring your contract so no one can honestly feel you’ve been shortchanged.
  • You’re the first guy to say it’s all about the team and winning, not individual play. I don’t need to remind you, I’m sure, that while you won leading the NFL in rushing last season your team was 5-11. I’m willing to bet if the Jags had been 11-5 and you were 10th in the league in rushing there’d be no holdout. A hint of hypocrisy there, don’t you think?
  • Your position, running back, isn’t as important as it used to be. It’s a fact. That means you aren’t as valuable to a team as a top-flight quarterback, wide receiver, cornerback, pass rusher and offensive tackle.

Yes, you are the face of the Jacksonville franchise. You’ve been great for the franchise and the city. You’ve thrilled fans and, no doubt, inspired youngsters. You get an A when it comes to being a role model. But surely you know how quickly things can change.

You made your point – I guess it’s all about the money – by skipping offseason workouts. By holding out now you’re looking greedy, selfish and . . . well, stupid.

The good news is Blaine Gabbert didn’t suck.

The Jaguars quarterback began his second season and looked okay in the team’s 32-31 “victory” over the New York Giants. He completed half of his 10 passes for 62 yards and, yes, his short TD pass to Cecil Shorts showed a nice touch.

What Gabbert did in his brief appearance in the Jaguars’ first exhibition game of the 2012 season was encouraging mainly because it wasn’t a step back. I did think he looked a little skittish on one of his deep throws, but who thought he’d suddenly become Ben Roethlisberger in the pocket?

All in all, the Jaguars looked like they’re moving in the right direction. First-year Mike Mularkey has brought an energy that was clearly lacking in last year’s dysfunctional coaching staff.

Hindsight tells us we should have expected a miserable season in ’11. Maybe 5-11 wasn’t so bad considering the obstacles the Jaguars faced. Those obstacles started with a lameduck coaching staff. Jack Del Rio knew he was around for his eighth season only because of the lockout. Former owner Wayne Weaver wasn’t going to fire Del Rio and hire a new coach when it wasn’t certain there’d even be a season. What owner in his right mind would pay TWO head coaches when there might not be any games? Many on Del Rio’s staff spent most of the season looking for new jobs.

The releasing of starting quarterback David Garrard a week before the season opened was another clear sign. Was it Del Rio’s decision? Gene Smith’s decision? Could Garrard have even played considering his back issue?

The formula of poor coaching and a rookie quarterback is not one for success.

Enter Mularkey. He inherits a solid defense, although not the NFL’s sixth best as the statistics would indicate. Whoever took the job would have improved the energy in the locker room and the enthusiasm of the fans. Mularkey still has to prove he can be a winning head coach, and he must do so with the distractions of a pouting star and holdout in Maurice Jones-Drew and a first-round draft pick in Justin Blackmon who had an off-the-field issue and then started late because of a holdout.

For the moment, things are looking up. Exhibition scores don’t count, but it’s always better to win than lose. Of course, everything about this season depends on Gabbert. Is he going to be a star or a bust?

He passed his first test, but remember what that renowned philosopher Allan Iverson once said, “Practice? It’s practice.”