And now, we arrive at the point in this season at which blame is the topic of the day.
It became that way Sunday in the moments following yet another dismal, damp loss for the Jaguars – this one coming at EverBank Field and coming in all-too familiar fashion.
The Jaguars lost, 30-20, to the Cincinnati Bengals Sunday, a game Jacksonville could have won and should have won. And because errors, could-haves and should-haves lead to unpleasant questions, the mood following the Jaguars' fourth consecutive loss was about what was expected.
It was dark. It was emotional. It was tense.
This was unpleasant stuff.
One moment, there was Jack Del Rio taking blame. The next, there was Maurice Jones-Drew telling the media it wasn't Del Rio's fault. It was the players' fault, Jones-Drew said.
Del Rio went first.
"Just put it on my shoulders," Del Rio said moments after the Jaguars squandered a 20-16 fourth-quarter lead by allowing two touchdowns in two strange final minutes. "I'm not doing enough."
Del Rio continued, "We can't have breakdowns like that at the end of the game. We can't even execute a two-minute drive. It's unacceptable."
What went wrong late? What didn't?
The Jaguars led, 20-16, after a 74-yard pass from rookie Blaine Gabbert to Jason Hill in the fourth quarter. That's a positive to take from this game. The kid? The rookie quarterback? He's not playing perfectly, but he's getting better each week. There's progress. That's hope.
And hope? Is that what we're talking about? There was hope Sunday in the form of the Jaguars' defense. Again. The defense allowed 239 total yards. They shut out the Bengals much of the second half. This was a good effort for the defense, a winning effort.
But Sunday wasn't about hope. It was, unavoidably, about blame, because despite the early positives, Sunday's game once again was about mistakes. First, there was punt returner Cecil Shorts letting a punt drop and roll to the 2. Moments later, another short punt by veteran Matt Turk gave the Bengals a 23-yard field that Cincinnati turned into what would become the winning touchdown drive.
Del Rio correctly said afterward the punt return game and punting game were unacceptable. He was asked about possible personnel changes in the area. He said he didn't want to get into that area, but did say, "If guys prove that they can't get something done, then you do what you have to do to rectify the situation."
The Bengals took the lead with 1:56 left. The Jaguars still had a chance. They faced 3rd-and-1 at their 42 with 1:19 remaining when veteran Brad Meester's snap whipped past Gabbert's left knee. Bengals cornerback Nate Clements recovered and all that followed – the weird, multilateral, late-game Bengals touchdown – was meaningless compared to this:
The Jaguars had chances throughout, particularly at the end of the game. And they failed to take advantage.
When that happens, you get questions like the ones in the press conference moments after the game. Questions about accountability and job security. Del Rio knew the question was coming, and when it came he said, "Sure, that's part of the business. I've been in this game long enough to understand if you win you get praise. If you don't, you get criticism. I understand that part of it."
Del Rio said he'll handle the current situation the only way it can be handled.
"For me, I've got to continue to focus on doing the things I believe in," he said. "I have faith in what I do and how I do it. I have faith in the integrity that I operate with and the work ethic that I bring – that's not going to change. Whether it's good and you're praising or whether it's bad and you're ripping me, I'm going to be consistent. I'm going to be a man of integrity and a man of faith that works hard every day. And that won't change. "
Moments later, Jones-Drew was asked about Del Rio. He bristled.
"At the end of the day, he's not playing," Jones-Drew said. "If someone has to go, obviously it's going to be one of the players. You can call it whatever you want; we have to execute the plays. It's not on the coach. It's sad that he has to take the heat, but he shouldn't. He's not out there strapping it up going out to play. All he can do it sit and watch. He can make corrections, but if we don't make the corrections ourselves, we don't tough things out and play. He's not wearing a jersey."
That was the mood of the post-game, and as was the case the last few weeks, there wasn't much pretty in the aftermath. The Jaguars are a team of stand-up players and in the locker room there was a lot of standing up. Meester took the blame for the late errant snap. Gabbert said he has to find a way to catch the snap. Tight end Marcedes Lewis said he had to catch an early, catchable touchdown.
That's all good, and it's all expected. While the Jaguars are struggling, they are a proud team, a resilient team. And while many picked them to struggle this season, they didn't enter the season expecting to be 1-4, and they didn't expect the weekly theme to be could-haves and should-haves.
Yet, as we approach mid-October, that's where we are.
We're at a place where the questions are less about optimism and hope and more about blame. They're expected questions, and in a lot of cases, they're fair questions.
If the Jaguars don't find some answers in a hurry, the questions are only going to get louder.