JACKSONVILLE – This was respectable, and more what was expected.
That opening line will draw its share of eye-rolling, sighs and ire, assessing as it does the Jaguars' 17-9 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers at EverBank Field on Sunday.
It was a beautiful day for football.
It was a day that offered a lot of good things.
It was also a day that offered a lot of frustrating things.
The first really doesn't matter much when assessing this latest loss, but the second two do, because the good things came from a previously maligned defense and just-as-maligned offensive line. And the frustrating things?
Well, they came from a rookie quarterback.
They came, too, from a lot of places around an offense that is starting an eye-catching five rookies right now, a number that includes the rookie quarterback and a slew of other players the Jaguars believe will be their core moving forward.
Blake Bortles, the rookie offensive starter that matters most because he is the rookie quarterback and therefore learning before our eyes, was asked about that topic after Sunday's loss, the Jaguars' fifth in as many games to start the season.
"I think it's cool," Bortles said. "I think it's cool to go through it as a group, as a unit, like you said with a bunch of rookies. We're learning and getting better each week. I think that's a cool process. I mean you're playing football, go play football. …"
He's right. It is cool.
It's cool to be young, and cool that these guys have a chance to grow together. The Jaguars started not only Bortles on Sunday, but rookie wide receivers Allen Robinson and Allen Hurns and center Luke Bowanko and guard Brandon Linder. They also started rookie tight end Nic Jacobs and rookie Storm Johnson got his first carries at running back.
They played second-year veteran Denard Robinson and second-year left tackle Luke Joeckel and third-year offensive tackle Austin Pasztor …
Well, you get the idea.
The youth on offense is what this season is about because Bortles' development is what this season is about. That's true more than the defense, which did improve significantly Sunday and which did its job more than well enough for the Jaguars to win Sunday.
The Jaguars, a week after allowing Philip Rivers of San Diego three touchdowns passes – one earned and two easy – held a very good Steelers offense to a touchdown and a field goal and nothing the Steelers did at EverBank Sunday was unearned.
Jaguars Head Coach Gus Bradley said the defense felt better Sunday, and it did. Although the Steelers were never in real trouble, neither did they have it easy. The Jaguars sacked Roethlisberger four times, did solid work limiting wide receiver Antonio Brown and didn't let running back La'Veon Bell take over the game.
The defense, in fact, for the first time this season did what it was generally expected to do when a slew of veteran free agents were signed along the line. The defense held Roethlisberger and this offense to 10 points? You'll take that.
The defense kept the Jaguars in the game, which they very much were, particularly after the second of defensive tackle Abry Jones' two sacks forced a fumble by Roethlisberger that defensive end Andre Branch recovered at the Jaguars 17. With 12:24 remaining, the Jaguars had possession and momentum.
Two plays later came the turning point.
With a run called, Bortles checked to a pass. He threw to Hurns, whose three drops Sunday provided frustration of their own, and Steelers cornerback Brice McCain stepped in front and ran 23 easy yards to the end zone.
"Allen was right," Bortles said. "Worst-case scenario, I should have just thrown it over his head and given us a shot on third down."
The Jaguars had possession twice more, but didn't get past their 40.
"I can't make that mistake again and definitely can't check out of play into a pick six," Bortles said.
We've heard similar after each of Bortles three appearances this season, and we'll probably hear more of the same after the final 11 games. He has two interceptions in each of his appearances, and that's too many. At the same time, he's making the mistakes expected from a rookie quarterback, and as long as his approach and tone afterward don't change – as long as you don't hear panic, fear or frustration – then you don't mind hearing them. So far, there's nothing of the kind in this kid.
So far, he's everything you want.
And, really, considering where this offense was three weeks ago, the same can be said of most of the offensive unit. Yes, Hurns is dropping too many passes, and no, the offensive line hasn't magically turned into the 1995 Cowboys overnight.
But the line has improved early, and what you need out of this receiving corps is two of the three young receivers – Hurns, Robinson and injured rookie Marqise Lee – to develop into reliable, long-term receivers. The projections on that front remain positive.
And, really, the same remains true of the Jaguars in recent weeks, the Bortles Era, if you will.
This team is competing. It's closer. The last two and half games were more what you expected from this team at the start of the season. Not ready for the postseason. Not ready to play with elite teams. Perhaps not ready to win more games than last season.
But competitive. Definitely competitive. And showing a brighter future than present.
The Jaguars were that and they did that Sunday, so, yeah, it was a little more respectable and a little more what was expected. Even if it remained really, really frustrating.