PHILADELPHIA, Pennsylvania – And so it began …
No, the beginning didn't finish ideally, though it appeared for a while it might. The Jaguars played a very good team in the 2014 regular-season opener, a game that figured to be a real test.
As it turned out, it was very much that.
And the result was very much a loss, 34-17, to the defending NFC East Champion Philadelphia Eagles at Lincoln Financial Field in front of 69,596 Sunday afternoon. The Jaguars started dizzyingly, then scratched and clawed much of the second half before a few glaring mistakes made the final score worse than the game felt.
That outcome satisfied no one around the Jaguars.
Images from the first half of the Jaguars Week 1 game against the Eagles in Lincoln Financial Field.
"This was a tough one because of how well we played in the first half," middle linebacker Paul Posluszny said after the Jaguars allowed the Eagles to turn overcome a seventeen-point halftime deficit with 34 second-half points. "You have to give credit to Philadelphia. They're an experienced team and they came out and were able to shift momentum in the second half. We weren't able to make the plays we needed to make.
"That's the disappointing thing, to come out and play really fast and get that lead – then to give it up. That's disappointing."
Fitting that Posluszny, the leader of the Jaguars' defense, used the word "disappointing" twice. That was the overall mood of the Jaguars' post-game locker room.
Not disheartened. Not disillusioned. Not disbelieving.
No, the players still believe this is going in the right direction, and they should believe that. They shouldn't be disillusioned, either, not with Sunday giving tangible signs of improvement, particularly early. Those five first-half sacks? The two touchdown passes from Chad Henne in the first half to rookie wide receiver Allen Hurns?
Those happened, even if they seemed distant memories by game's end, and they were signs of real growth – and signs that the roster moves in the offseason were positive. The Jaguars have been waiting for a legitimate pass rush. They have been waiting, too, for a receiving corps that can give them a legitimate passing game in a league largely geared around having just that.
The defensive line showed signs early of being that, and it continues to look as if Hurns – a free-agent rookie – could team with Marqise Lee, Allen Robinson and Cecil Shorts to be a very good foursome, the best the team has had in a long time.
"You can build on all of it," defensive tackle Sen'Derrick Marks said. "We came out fast. We executed on defense, on offense and on special teams – every aspect. We can build off what we did right."
Marks, his right shoulder heavily iced, paused a moment.
"Then we came out in the second half, and basically just gave it up," he said.
And that's it, of course …
That's the reason Posluszny used "disappointing" after the game, the reason that feeling resonated with all of the Jaguars late Sunday afternoon. As well as they played in the first half – and the Jaguars played very well – once the Eagles gained momentum in the second half, the Jaguars never could regain any of their own.
When running back Darren Sproles squirted through a wide hole for a 49-yard-yard, 4th-and-1 touchdown early in the second half, the lead felt smaller than 17-7. It really was smaller a series later when Nick Foles began shrugging off a difficult first half and passed 25 yards to tight end Zach Ertz.
The Jaguars still led by three points into the fourth quarter, but the offense that produced 188 yards in the first half produced just 32 in the third quarter, and the defense that produced five first-half sacks registered none in the second half.
The Eagles tied it with a 51-yard field goal by Cody Parkey on the first drive of the fourth quarter, and Foles gave the Eagles their first lead on a 68-yard pass to Jeremy Maclin on the first play of their next possession. Trailing by seven, Bradley opted to go for a first down on 4th-and-1 from the Jaguars 29. Averaging 2.6 yards per carry on the day, with backs having been stuffed in earlier short-yardage situations, the Jaguars threw. Henne's pass fluttered high off the hands of Lewis in the right flat, and Parkey's 28-yard field goal seven plays and four minutes later clinched the outcome.
Bradley said afterward the Jaguars will look at everything that happened Sunday – players, coaches, etc. He said that included the decision to go for it on 4th-and-1. There's not much-second guessing to be done there, though. Momentum was slipping. The Jaguars needed a first down, and if you want to win in the NFL, you need to convert fourth and ones.
You need to convert third downs, too, which the Jaguars did just two out of 14 time Sunday, making that one of the Issues of the Week as the Jaguars turn their focus to Washington next week.
But more important than a late choice here or statistic there, what Bradley and the coaches will see when they review Sunday is a team that unquestionably is improved. This team last season never had a stretch early in the season in which it played as well as it did or a half Sunday, and they may not have had such a stretch the entire season.
They also struggled last season to compete with quality teams. Until the missed fourth-down conversion with six minutes remaining, the Jaguars were very much doing that Sunday. That's improvement, and that improvement is real.
"We'll celebrate the victories," Bradley said Sunday. "There was great growth that took place. I think we raised the bar, the standard on what's acceptable, we just have to keep raising it."
And that was enough to keep the Jaguars from being disillusioned Sunday.
Even if they were without question really disappointed.