HOUSTON – On Sunday, the conversation changed.
Maybe it changed permanently, or maybe it's just temporary, but the reality following a 43-37 overtime loss to the Houston Texans at Reliant Stadium Sunday is people will now see the Jaguars' quarterback situation through a different lens.
Now, Chad Henne is part of the discussion. Very much so.
As well he must be.
"It's out of my power," Henne, who passed for 354 yards and a career-high four touchdowns in the Jaguars' best offensive game of the season, said afterward. "This is Coach Mularkey's team. He's going to make the best decision for the team.
"All I can do when my number is called is play well and do the best I can for the team."
That's what Henne had to say Sunday after replacing injured starter Blaine Gabbert in the first quarter and playing the best game any Jaguars quarterback has played this season.
Mularkey, now faced with a legitimate question at the position, said what he had to say, too.
"I'll make that decision next week," he said.
Mularkey said he wouldn't make a decision without looking at the game film, and without knowing the extent of Gabbert's injury. The second-year veteran sustained an elbow contusion in the first quarter after a sack/fumble, and while he originally was announced as probable to return, he did not.
That's the main storyline out of Sunday, because when the quarterback is at issue it's always THE issue, but as big a story in what was a wild and eventually for the Jaguars a heartbreaking game may be the breakout game for Justin Blackmon.
The rookie had struggled the first nine games, but caught seven passes for 236 yards and a touchdown Sunday. You don't anoint a guy a star and a go-to guy after one game, particularly when the first nine were so quiet, but if Blackmon can be an elite guy, or at least approach it . . .
Well, let's just say the Jaguars need that.
"Today was good for him," Mularkey said. "It's good for our team to see that. I'm sure it will carry over."
Whether he makes that happen will be an important story moving forward, but as we mentioned, it won't be THE story. Quarterback will be THE story this week, and it will be that way because Henne did what few – actually, no one – expected Sunday.
He played big-time, and he made the NFL's 32nd-ranked offense look that way, too.
He also did it against the NFL's No. 2-ranked defense, a defense that had played every bit as good as that ranking and one that had dominated the Jaguars in Week 2 this season.
He threw two touchdowns to tight end Marcedes Lewis. He threw a 67-yarder to Cecil Shorts. He threw an 81-yarder to Blackmon that gave the Jaguars a tantalizingly-close-to-insurmountable lead in the fourth quarter. He didn't play perfectly, and there were plays left on the field that could have turned defeat into victory, but for the first time in a long time, the offense functioned – and for a good stretch Sunday, did so at a high level.
It was a stark contrast to Henne's last extended appearance, a 26-23 Jaguars loss in Oakland in overtime. Henne played in place of Gabbert that day for two and a half quarters, and he and the offense stumbled and staggered in a big way.
But Henne said he entered Sunday far more confident.
With Gabbert playing and practicing with an injured non-throwing shoulder the last month, Henne said he was aware each week that he needed to be ready. He said while he took no reps with the starters this past week in practice, he had still been working with the scout team. By his measure, he had practiced better lately.
He also said he was throwing the ball better.
"I was making those practices like they were games for me," he said.
Whatever he did, he nearly led the Jaguars to an improbable victory Sunday, and whatever he did, he very definitely reframed the team's quarterback situation.
Before, there was a prevailing feeling that the team needed to stick with Gabbert and see if he was the quarterback of the future. That's a huge question that needs to be answered before the end of the season. Gabbert was the No. 10 overall selection in the 2011 NFL Draft, and you need to find out beyond doubt if he is or not the future of the franchise at the position.
So, that plays into the equation this week.
And that's why Mularkey absolutely had to do what he did Sunday. He had to wait, because this decision is not a gut decision, and it's not as easy as simply going on what happened Sunday. There will be plenty of gray, particularly the gray that is Gabbert's uncertain health.
But the reality is that whatever Gabbert's health, Henne played well Sunday – well enough to earn a start. Gabbert hadn't been bad on Sunday, just as he hadn't been entirely bad all season. He actually had been better the last four weeks than the first five – not good enough to win, but good enough to provide hope that the development arrow was up. That had been the argument for staying with the second-year quarterback, that you were seeing improvement and improvement from Gabbert was one of the underlying goals of the season.