JACKSONVILLE – And so it begins. At last.
The offseason and all that implies is behind us, and in two days the Jaguars will play the Carolina Panthers in the 2015 regular-season opener at EverBank Field.
There's real excitement around the Jaguars entering this game. Players, coaches, fans, observers – you'll find few people in any group who don't believe the Jaguars are better than they were the last two or three seasons.
It's Year Three of the David Caldwell/Gus Bradley era. This team is supposed to be better than Years One and/or Two, and everywhere you look around the roster that appears to be the case.
Blake Bortles at quarterback. A veteran linebacker corps.
An improved secondary. An improved offensive line.
A deep running back position.
All appear legitimate, tangible reasons to believe the Jaguars are better than their 3-13 record from a season ago. All appear legitimate, tangible reasons to expect more.
We say that based on the offseason, the eye test, training camp and the preseason. All are legitimate reasons to be optimistic, and all mean little once the regular season begins.
That beginning comes in two days. So, what needs to happen then for the Jaguars to win the regular-season opener? Here are 10 things:
1.Protect Blake Bortles.Yes, Bortles must play well. But as we saw last season, it's difficult for any quarterback to play well under pressure. The offensive line protected Bortles very well in the preseason. Keep doing that.
2.Keep looking the part.This is about Bortles, and while it's not No. 1 on this list, it's the most important item on any Jaguars-related list. Before, now and always – it's about the quarterback.
3.Force a turnover.A major objective entering the preseason was forcing turnovers, particularly interceptions. The Jaguars didn't force an interception or a fumble in the preseason. That has to change. Fast.
Check out images as the Jaguars hit the practice field for the final time before Sunday's season opener.
4.Pressure Cam Newton.There's a lot to this entry. First, Newton is so mobile and strong that pressuring him isn't easy. Second, pressuring any quarterback didn't come easy for the Jaguars in the preseason. The Jaguars may have to get creative to create pressure. That can be high-risk, but it's probably necessary.
5.Run.Overlooked in the preseason giddiness around the Jaguars' passing offense was that the Jaguars this season very much want to dictate pace, tempo and momentum on the ground. They didn't look like that sort of team much in the preseason, but the more they do it in the regular season the better their chances.
6.Play smart.Also overlooked in the preseason passing giddiness was that the Jaguars didn't throw an interception. That was as important to the first-team offense scoring on eight of 11 preseason possessions as any other factor. This team is improved, but it's not improved enough to be willy-nilly with the ball. Keep the turnovers to a minimum. It's critical.
7.Get a lead.It's not that this team can't overcome a deficit; part of the appeal of a capable quarterback is that you absolutely can come from behind. But this fan base is ready to get behind this team. Get a lead early and feed off the crowd. EverBank is ready.
8.Use D-Rob and Corey Grant.If the Jaguars have a concern offensively it's a lack of speed at some skill positions. That is made a little more concerning by the likely absence of Marqise Lee because of a hamstring injury. Grant and Denard Robinson don't lack speed. Not by a long shot. They can score from anywhere on the field. Give them a chance to do that.
9.Break a return. This ties in with No. 8, because Grant – a collegiate free agent from Auburn – will open the season as the team's kick returner. Another rookie, Rashad Greene, will open as the punt returner. Forget their experience: each player has shown real big-play return capability in preseason. That needs to happen in the regular season.
10.Go above and beyond.This franchise has been down a while. To get up, sometimes something special is needed. A big play. A SportsCenter catch. Former Head Coach Tom Coughlin called it playing above the Xs and Os. Do it. Now is the time.