And so we begin.
The offseason is over, and the preseason is, too, and now – nearly eight months after he was hired as the third head coach in franchise history – the Mike Mularkey Era officially begins. At last. It's the beginning of the Shad Khan Era, too, and those will be just two storylines when the Jaguars visit Minnesota Sunday.
The return of Maurice Jones-Drew. The debut of Justin Blackmon.
The development of Blaine Gabbert.
Throw in a re-tweaked offensive line, a thin defensive end and cornerback corps, and there are a lot of concerns as the Jaguars prepare for the 18th regular-season opener in franchise history. But there's a lot of optimism, too.
This team feels good about where it is entering the season. They like the approach of a new coaching staff under Mularkey, and they like the strides a passing offense that ranked 32nd in the NFL last season made during the preseason. There is chemistry. There is hope.
We've said it before and we'll continue to say it. There will be stops. There will be starts. This offense is a work in progress, and work in progress means bad days and good. That's true of Gabbert, because it's true of young quarterbacks, and it probably will be true of a lot of players on what is still a very new offense.
That's reality, but what's also reality is the progress this team made in training camp, and the way this team feels about what's going on. How will that translate? How will it play out?
That's what we start finding out in two days. For real. At last. But for now, here are 10 things the Jaguars must do to beat the Vikings Sunday:
1) Set a tone.The Jaguars want to be physical on offense under Mularkey. They want to play fast and be physical on defense. There's more, but that's the gist of the approach. Start Sunday.
2) Get Gabbert going.Yes, we said this in the preseason. A lot more than once. He had an ideal start in preseason, but August is forgotten come September. That's tough, but it's NFL reality. Now is the time, and a start like the one he had in preseason would be ideal.
3) Protect Gabbert.He looked better under pressure in preseason than he did last season. Still, the less he's pressured, the better he'll look. Key matchup: left tackle Eugene Monroe versus Vikings All-Pro defensive end Jared Allen. You must get Allen blocked.
4) Run to win.Running is the strength of the offense. Mularkey has said this offense will still be run-oriented. The passing game is coming together, and will continue to improve, but for now, when this team runs well everything else is much, much better.
5) Pressure Ponder.Christian Ponder is a young quarterback, and young quarterbacks make mistakes under pressure. The defensive line's goal is to not only create pressure, but to get sacks. No better time to start than Sunday.
6) Stop the run.Even with Adrian Peterson less than 100 percent, this isn't easy against the Vikings. The Jaguars gave up some runs early in preseason games, but usually got it solved quickly. Pressuring Ponder is the key, but you've got to stop the run to get into 3rd-and-long.
7) Stay in 3rd-and-manageable.The Jaguars' offense was significantly better in preseason when it stayed in 3rd-and-short rather than 3rd-and-long. That's true of any NFL team, but it's particularly true with a young offense/quarterback. This team can't overcome mistakes on early downs. Not yet.
8) Get the ball to Blackmon.He is good. He's ready. He proved it in preseason, and he's your best receiver. Use him.
9) Get ahead and stay ahead.Few observers expect much from the Vikings. But it's the regular-season opener and for the Vikings, it's a home game, so as long as they're in it, they're thinking they'll win it. Don't let that happen. Get ahead early and stay that way.
10) Go win it.On paper, and in the eyes of many analysts, this is a game the Jaguars should win. That won't be the case every week. Take advantage of the opportunity. You don't have to win the opener for a big season, but for a young team, it doesn't hurt. The regular-season is here. At last. Get it started off right.