4. The right direction.We begin this post-New Orleans Fabulous Four with one of the more amazing storylines to develop in the last week. The storyline is in the vein of a staggeringly inaccurate portrayal of the relationship between head coach Mike Mularkey and the Jaguars players. The latest step came last week, in the wake of Mularkey implementing a policy under which he will donate $250 to the Ronald McDonald House when a Jaguars player scores a touchdown and hands the ball to an official rather than celebrating with, say, a spike. Several national analysts this past week began theorizing that Mularkey was "banning" celebrations, and by doing so, he was taking aim at holdout running back Maurice Jones-Drew, who occasionally partakes in an end-zone celebration. Let's pause to consider that. Under this theory, Mularkey – who implemented the same system when he was the head coach in Buffalo (two years before Jones-Drew entered the NFL, incidentally) – is taking $250 out of his own pocket to irritate a running back who has yet to come to the facility since Mularkey's hiring in January. Mularkey implemented the policy because he wants players to act as if they've been in the end zone before. Players aren't punished for celebrating, and on Friday, Justin Blackmon showed the spirit of the initiative when he scored, handed the ball to an official and leaped into his teammates arms to celebrate his first NFL touchdown. How that pertained in any way to Jones-Drew I have yet to understand.
3. Ready for the stage?I wrote Friday night that Blackmon appeared NFL ready in the preseason opener. As I did, I worried perhaps I was overreacting to what appeared from the Superdome press box to be a very good first half. Statistics can be deceiving, especially in the preseason, so I was anxious to watch the replay of the game Saturday. What I saw was impressive. I knew Blackmon's reputation for being a playmaker, for being physical and for breaking tackles in college. I had doubts it would translate to the NFL, particularly immediately, but what we saw in that vein Friday was impressive. Yes, this was just one half of one preseason game, but you saw real strengths from Blackmon. He attacks the ball differently than most NFL receivers, and his hands are unusually strong. What I noticed Saturday, though, was that as much as Blackmon is gifted at breaking tackles, he also seems to have a knack for not putting himself in a position to be tackled in the first place. His body control is such that when he catches the ball he is positioning in a way to make it very difficult for a defender to get a clean shot on him and that puts him in position to make runs after the catch. One final thought on Blackmon: in the locker room on Friday, Vito Stellino and I kept asking him about nerves and butterflies before the game, and other media kept asking him about the feeling he got with a productive debut. He kept shrugging and saying he really wasn't nervous, that he was just playing football. It occurs to you talking to him that he doesn't really think four catches in a preseason game is a big deal. This guy expects to be special. Maybe that's what he'll be.
2. Coming together.One thing lost in the wake of the Jaguars' victory over the Saints was the play of the offensive line. The unit obviously blocked well for the run. The Jaguars dominated the first half on the ground, and Rashad Jennings and Montell Owens had room to run. But the unit also appeared to pass-block well much of the game. Blaine Gabbert was under pressure at times, but not nearly as much as he had been in the preseason opener, and there were plenty of times when the starting line gave Gabbert time to throw. That's impressive considering the absence of left tackle Eugene Monroe, Cameron Bradfield appeared to play well in his place. More and more, it appears the starting line is shaping up to be Monroe, Eben Britton at left guard, Brad Meester at center, Uche Nwaneri at right guard and Bradfield at right tackle. And you know what? That's a pretty strong group. It obviously can run block and has shown that to be the case again this preseason, but it should be able to pass block well, too, particularly as Bradfield settles in opposite Monroe.
1. And finally, a word on the quarterback.It was hard to get a read on who excited Jaguars fans more Friday – Blackmon or Gabbert. We've already discussed Blackmon in today's Fab Four, so we'll move on now to Gabbert. There are those in the national media who still don't believe Gabbert is improving, and as perplexing as that may be, it's meaningless. Anyone who has watched Gabbert's body of work from OTAs to training camp to the preseason knows he has improved, and while the regular season obviously us the true measure, Gabbert clearly has played well enough to give the Jaguars confidence entering the season. If you're expecting perfection or the play of a 28-year-old elite player in his prime, you're not going to get that from Gabbert in August 2012. What you're getting is a player who clearly is listening to coaches and improving based on what he's taught. He's also doing things right enough that even when he's not spectacular he should be solid, and that's an important trait for a young quarterback to have. On the days when he's not playing great you want a young quarterback to not get you beat. That was always notable to be last year about Gabbert – that as much as things went wrong he never had that game where things just spiraled out of control. I always believed that was a good sign, that he wasn't getting overwhelmed by the situation. And then there's the issue of pocket presence and fear and looking at the pass rush? Again, the measure is the regular season, but Gabbert threw at least four complete passes under pressure Friday. If he plays all season with the pocket presence and calmness he did Friday, he'll be fine.
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