JACKSONVILLE – Senior writer John Oehser and senior correspondent Brian Sexton both offer three quick thoughts on the Jaguars as they prepare to play the Green Bay Packers at Lambeau Field Sunday at 1 p.m.
1.Hope is not lost for the second half of the season. Yes, the Jaguars have lost seven consecutive games. And yes, the remaining schedule is brutal. But make no mistake: The Jaguars will have multiple chances to win in the coming weeks, and there were positive signs toward that end in this past Sunday's loss to Houston. Most obvious: the performance of rookie quarterback Jake Luton, who was poised enough with a strong enough arm to make you think the offense could be more open moving forward. That would help a passing offense that struggled for plays downfield in the first seven games, and it would help running back James Robinson. There were also encouraging signs from a defense that was as healthy as it has been in weeks, with perhaps the best pass rush of the season and three big fourth-quarter stops. The upcoming schedule is tough enough that these improvements may not mean many victories. But could it mean a few upsets? Absolutely.
2.The kicking situation is now just plain weird. It's understating the obvious to say the Jaguars' kicking situation has reached historical weirdness this season. It got weirder this week, with kicker Josh Lambo reinjuring the left hip that kept him out four games during September and October. That four-game stretch featured four different kickers: Brandon Wright, Aldrick Rosas, Stephen Hauschka and Jon Brown. The Jaguars missed either a kick or an extra point in each of those games. Because the normally reliable Lambo has missed two extra points this season, the Jaguars only have gone two games this season – Week 1 (Indianapolis) and Week 7 (Los Angeles Chargers) – without missing a placement kick. That's a contrast to the previous two and a half seasons, with Lambo converting 71 of 75 field goals and 60 of 64 extra points during his first 39 games with the organization. Up this week: Chase McLaughlin. This weird situation remains a key storyline, and one to watch in the coming weeks.
3.Defensive tackle is key to watch moving forward. Interior defensive line isn't the only important position for the Jaguars' moving forward; safety, pass rusher, tight end and quarterback also could be concerns. But how the Jaguars' play at tackle over the final eight games will go far toward shaping some major offseason changes. With rookie defensive tackle Taven Bryan being replaced in the starting lineup by free-agent rookie Doug Costin, it's clear the team believes Costin and rookie DaVon Hamilton represent the best options on the interior for the second half of the season – and the team really likes those two players. Can Costin and Hamilton show they are starting-level players moving forward? Perhaps. But the thought here is the Jaguars probably must invest major draft capital – first or early second round – as well as heavy free-agency money this offseason to replenish the position. Teams need four or five tackles playing at a high level to be a winning NFL defense. The Jaguars don't have close to that many and must figure out over the final eight games how many they must acquire – and for how much – next offseason.
1.Part Two? I see Luton as a valuable asset for the franchise and a guy in which the Jaguars should invest plenty of time to develop. If I'm the general manager, I am absolutely using my earliest first-round draft next spring choice on a potential franchise quarterback no matter how Luton looks the rest of this season. Luton could be the next Rob Johnson and – by default –the next Fred Taylor. For those too young to remember Johnson, he was the club's fourth-round draft pick in the 1995 NFL Draft and a big guy with a big arm – like Luton. He started one game, Week 1 in 1997, and led the Jaguars to a victory in Baltimore – but sustained a high-ankle sprain. By the time Johnson was healthy, starting quarterback Mark Brunell was back and Johnson was a backup the rest of the season. But the Buffalo Bills traded the No. 9 overall selection in the 1998 NFL Draft to the Jaguars for Johnson; the selection became Taylor – the Jaguars' all-time leading rusher and arguably their greatest player. Quarterbacks are the currency of the realm so to speak, which is why having one in development can turn good general managers into great ones.
2.Play better. Offensive coordinator Jay Gruden can't waste a minute thinking about who will be the Jaguars' quarterback of the future; he has this season on his to-do list. He was asked about the position Wednesday. After praising Gardner Minshew II, Luton and Mike Glennon, Gruden laid down his cards: "Whoever it is, we have to get better play, more production at the position." The numbers can lead you to believe they were getting it from Minshew, who had 13 touchdown passes with five interceptions and 66 percent completions before his thumb injury. But Minshew held the ball too long, left the pocket too quickly and missed open receivers. He wasn't playing well. Look at those areas when you watch Luton as we get to the more difficult part of the schedule. Statistics have significant value, but your eyes can tell you as much or more about the position if you look in the right places. In terms of stats, look at points, turnover margin and red-zone production as a way to measure the position.
3.Do your job. Seven consecutive losses with games against the 6-2 Green Bay Packers on the road and the 8-0 Pittsburgh Steelers at home in the next two weeks can create anxiety for a team struggling under the weight of losing. Players can't worry about the schedule after the Packers, who is going to play quarterback, or if there are too many rookies on the field; they must focus and do their job. Right tackle Jawaan Taylor is a great example for young guys to follow. Watch Mic'D Up from last Sunday's game and see how excited he is to play, how well he played against Houston Texans defensive end J.J. Watt and how much he enjoys what he is doing. Taylor is a young guy getting better, because he's focused on his job instead of the record, the remaining schedule, or social media chatter. His ability to focus is making him better. If more guys follow his lead, this team will emerge – eventually – stronger, tougher and better. There's only one way for this team to go and that's up. But it will take a lot of work to turn it around.