4. Closing in. We begin this pre-Patriots Fabulous Four with wide receiver Cecil Shorts, who this season has emerged as not only the surprise story on the Jaguars’ roster, but perhaps the team’s best offensive player this season – and perhaps the best player overall. What’s striking about Shorts isn’t so much that he is good – he was, after all, a fourth-round selection in the 2011 NFL Draft – but that he has become consistently explosive a year after struggling enough that some wondered if he would be on the roster this season. Shorts caught two passes last season, and while his one touchdown against San Diego showed athleticism and playmaking ability, there was little to indicate this sort of emergence. But Shorts took quickly to coaching under new wide receivers coach Jerry Sullivan, and it was evident during organized team activities that he was running routes more precisely than any other receiver on the team. The result is that a player who last season very much looked like a lost rookie looks quite the opposite this season. “There’s not a time when he’s running a route that he’s not going to be in the right spot,” Jaguars quarterback Chad Henne said. “That’s a comfort level to know he’s going to be there and he’s going to be there on time. He understands the rhythm and the timing.” Henne said with Shorts, it’s not just crisp route-running. He is a gifted player whose athleticism enables him to make plays against NFL defensive backs. “His transition from catch to getting upfield is very quick,” Henne said. “He takes coaching very well and works at it. Not everyone with talent works at it, but he gets it and he’s in there watching film. When the number is called, he wants the ball in tight situations.” Shorts on Sunday needs 75 yards to become the first Jaguars receiver with 1,000 receiving yards in a season since Jimmy Smith in 2005.
3. Tough, not impossible. As difficult a matchup as the Patriots appear to be for the Jaguars, in the NFL no game is unwinnable. A key will be creating turnovers. Jaguars Head Coach Mike Mularkey said while Patriots quarterback Tom Brady is one of the NFL’s best at his position, he also at times will provide opponents opportunities. “You have to get to him, you have to put pressure on him,” Mularkey said. “You hope he overthrows and does some of the things I’ve seen on tape. He has thrown a number of passes that are tipped or overthrown. If we do anything this week we’ve got to put ourselves in position to make plays on those balls better than any week we have.” The Jaguars this season have squandered many such opportunities, either dropping would-be interceptions or having potential big plays called back or missed. Mularkey talked on Wednesday of the Jaguars not having much luck at times this season, and at the same time, he said it will be necessary against the NFL’s No. 1 offense to create their own luck. “We’re trying to get the turnovers,” he said. “We’re trying to get to the quarterback, we’re doing everything we can with the scheme, with the play calls, with the effort, but when the plays are there to be made we need to be there to make them. And make them happen.”
2. Aggressive behavior. There’s irony in some of the criticism Mularkey has received lately. The criticism: that he isn’t as animated or outgoing on the sideline. The irony is on the field – in his actions – he has been more aggressive than he might be under normal situations. Mularkey has said multiple times this season that he has gone for touchdowns and made other relatively risky decisions in an effort to give a struggling team a lift, and to find a way to score much-needed points in a season when they have been hard-earned. He opted twice against Miami to go for a first down on 4th-and-1 in the red zone, failing on each occasion – first when Henne was stopped and later when Montell Owens also was stopped. “I put that on me,” Mularkey said. “I’m trying to be more aggressive, trying to score touchdowns. When we’re down there let’s see if we can knock it in there. It came down to the line of scrimmage. It’s about one yard of turf. Who wants that one yard of turf? I thought they were much firmer up front than we were. I feel like I’ve been doing this for at least the last six to eight weeks, trying to score points.” As for fans sometimes criticizing his sideline demeanor, Mularkey said sideline tirades and animation just aren’t his style. “You want me to be something that’s not me,” he said. “Guys handle themselves differently. I don’t know how that motivates players any more, throwing tirades. Obviously you’ve seen me get to my boiling point, but that’s just not me.”
1. And, finally, a word on the quarterback. We have closed Fabulous Four with the quarterback position all year, and we won’t stop now. And now, as the season nears an end, the position remains uncertain – far more uncertain, in fact, than would have been ideal. The Jaguars began this season hoping that by season’s end it would be clear that the franchise quarterback moving forward would be Blaine Gabbert. Now on injured reserve, Gabbert didn’t solidify that status. Then, Mularkey said last month that Henne would have a chance to solidify himself as the starter over the final seven games. With two games remaining he has played better than Gabbert at times, but not well enough to be the sure-thing starter. The result? With two games remaining, the position is as uncertain as at any time . . . well, perhaps since before the 1995 season. Mark Brunell was the quarterback that season, and Byron Leftwich was the obvious choice to replace him in 2003 Then, David Garrard was on the roster to replace Leftwich in 2007 and when Garrard was waived, last season Gabbert was considered the quarterback of the future. Now? Well, now the starter next year might be Henne. Or it might be a Gabbert-Henne competition. Considering how early the team will select in the first round of the draft, it’s unreasonable at this point to rule out any position in the draft – including quarterback. So, what is the immediate future of the position? Maybe Henne. Maybe Gabbert. What we do know is we just don’t know – and that’s sure not where the Jaguars wanted to be entering this offseason.