CLEVELAND, Ohio –
And as for dreaming about this moment …
Well, no not really. Not even when he was a kid. Not even that day so long ago that he saw his one and only pro football game in his hometown, back in old Cleveland Municipal Stadium.
And this week? Did the Jaguars third-year wide receiver imagine catching the game-winning touchdown in front of just about his whole family and a whole lot of his friends – and overcoming a significant amount of adversity in the process?
Those things you can’t even dream. Not really.
So, no Shorts didn’t dream what he did on a cool, gray Sunday on the shores of Lake Erie. He did better.
He lived it.
“I can’t put it into words,” Shorts said moments after his 20-yard touchdown in the corner of the end zone with 40 seconds remaining gave the Jaguars a gritty 32-28 come-from-behind victory over the Cleveland Browns at FirstEnergy Stadium Sunday afternoon.
“It’s definitely something special.”
And before we get completely into Shorts’ story, let’s think about those words, “Definitely something special…”
They applied to more than Shorts Sunday, didn’t they? They sounded most pertinent coming from him, of course, because Shorts’ heroic homecoming was indeed the primary storyline.
But there’s a broader storyline, too, one that has been developing for close to a month now. And if it was imperceptible at first, lost in the early November giddiness of just getting a victory, it’s taking shape.
The Jaguars? The once-struggling Jaguars?
Well, they’re not struggling anymore. They’re getting better in a hurry, in fact.
Not that they’re perfect. To borrow a saying from Jaguars Head Coach Gus Bradley’s vast repertoire of such sayings, this team “hasn’t gotten it,” and the Jaguars haven’t arrived. At 3-9 with a young, building roster, no one’s going to say things like that.
But it’s different right now, isn’t it?
The Jaguars have won three of four games. They have won back-to-back games for the first time since 2010. They have won three consecutive road games for the first time since 2007.
But throw out the statistics, because this isn’t about statistics. This is about feel, and the feeling around the Jaguars is a strong one, a positive one. In late October, this team left London with an 0-8 record and people nationally and locally were talking about the possibilities of 0-16.
The team wasn’t talking it. And Bradley sure wasn’t talking it.
What the team and Bradley were talking about, in fact, had a notably different feel. It had a notably positive feel. It had a notably cohesive feel. They talked about how things felt better than the record. They talked about how they believed in the direction.
More importantly, they did more than talk. They kept improving, and since the bye, the results have shown on the field with their four best games of the season.
Through it all, Bradley talked not of winning, but of constant improvement, of every player playing as well as he could play and letting the results take care of itself. What he wanted was a team that played hard whatever the circumstance, and a team that played smart whatever the circumstance.
No shock, then, that the thing Bradley talked most about on Sunday wasn’t a specific play, or player. And he didn’t actually think the Jaguars played their best game.
But he liked a whole lot about the poise with which the Jaguars played, and with reason.
A lot went wrong for the Jaguars Sunday. They struggled to stop Browns wide receiver Josh Gordon all day, and struggled offensively through the early part of the second half. They got a break to take the lead at 22-21 when Browns quarterback Brandon Weeden kicked the ball out of the end zone for a safety, and then a 25-21 Jaguars lead became a 28-25 deficit when Gordon got loose for a 95-yard touchdown.
The eventual star of the game had his struggles, too.
Shorts, who played high school football at Cleveland’s Collinwood High School and played collegiately at nearby Division III Mount Union, dropped two earlier passes. One of the drops had come on a third-and-play in the third quarter when he beat Browns cornerback Joe Haden but left his feet when he shouldn’t have. Another came when he tried to turn up the field too quickly.
“It felt like I was pressing a little bit because I was home, trying to make something happen,” Shorts said.
Bradley said he spoke to Shorts on the sidelines after the drops about trusting his preparation and athleticism. Sure enough, when the Jaguars had an opportunity to win the game, to keep alive what suddenly has become a bona fide hot streak, that’s just what Shorts did.
On third-and-9 from Cleveland 20-yard line with 45 seconds remaining, the Jaguars could have played for a game-tying field goal. But Bradley said one of the ideas during this building process is to build into a team that is bold in such situations.
Bold on Sunday came in the form of a slot-and-go route.
Shorts made a move to the inside, and Haden – one of the NFL’s best corners and a player known for his aggressiveness – went for the fake. Shorts got distance on Haden and
Shorts caught it close to the sidelines. An official review confirmed he got both feet in bounds.
Forty seconds later, the Jaguars had their third victory since the bye, and a while after that, Shorts was searching for words to describe the moment.
He didn’t find them. Not really, just as he never really dreamed this moment. But that was OK.
In this case, living the dream was better, anyway.