HOUSTON, Tex. – Maybe the mustachioed one can get this done.
Maybe. Just maybe.
The Jaguars must believe that, and make no mistake: While backup-quarterback-turned starter Gardner Minshew II didn’t give the Jaguars a victory in his first NFL start on Sunday, he sure gave them a reason to believe.
“He’s got a chance to really help us,” defensive end Calais Campbell said in a disappointed Jaguars locker room following a weird, tricky-to-decipher, heart-stopping and ultimately heartbreaking 13-12 loss to the Houston Texans at NRG Stadium Sunday afternoon.
“It’s a daily grind, but he played well enough today.”
How weird was this one? How tricky?
Enough that there are a few issues to sort through before settling on the big-picture issue of just what this game means for the Jaguars moving forward with Minshew. We’ll get to the sixth-round rookie’s performance soon enough, but by the end it was impressive.
And it was nearly good enough to win.
The Jaguars’ defense on this day was good enough, too – certainly better than in a Week 1 loss to the Kansas City Chiefs a week ago. The Jaguars’ defense held a very good offense to 13 points. Seven points came on a point-blank, 11-yard drive early in the fourth quarter that began when Texans defensive end J.J. Watt recovered a fumble by Minshew and ended with a two-yard touchdown run by Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson.
Watson, who Jaguars Head Coach Doug Marrone said this week likely will challenge to be the 2019 NFL Most Valuable Player, didn’t fulfill that praise Sunday. The Jaguars sacked him four times and held him to 159 yards passing. But his touchdown gave the Texans a 13-3 lead with 11:35 remaining. The lead felt insurmountable.
Except it wasn’t.
It wasn’t because Minshew and the offense, which hadn’t been impressive all day, suddenly was impressive when it mattered most.
Minshew, making his first NFL start for the injured Nick Foles, led the Jaguars on a 61-yard drive on the series after his fumble ad Watson’s touchdown. The drive included five passes of more than 10 yards, including a 31-yarder to wide receiver Chris Conley and a 29-yarder to wide receiver Dede Westbrook. Kicker Josh Lambo’s 32-yard field goal made it a seven-point game.
Minshew’s best was yet to come.
The Jaguars’ defense forced a punt and Minshew moved the Jaguars to the Texans 31 with passes to Conley and Westbrook. Three incompletions made it 4th-and-10 and Minshew turned into a first down at the 13 with an 18-yard scramble.
Minshew bought time two plays later before finding wide receiver DJ Chark Jr. wide open in the back of the end zone, and the Jaguars somehow, someway were within one point less than 10 minutes after the game seemed lost.
That brings us to the second issue to sort through:
Head Coach Doug Marrone’s decision following Chark’s touchdown to go for two rather than overtime, and the decision to run running back Leonard Fournette on the two-point try.
Fournette dove, scrapped and leaned – and appeared on replay to perhaps have broken the plane of the goal line. Officials on the field ruled him short. Officials determined after review that the call on the field stood. The Texans recovered an onside kick to secure the victory.
Fans and observers undoubtedly will criticize both the decision to go for two, and to run Fournette. Marrone said the decision to go for two was made well in advance of Chark’s touchdown. As for the run to Fournette, the Jaguars had multiple plays called. The Texans’ defensive formation for the play determined the run.
Players afterward were unanimous that it was the right decision.
“He [Marrone] believed we could win it; we believed we could win it,” Fournette said.
“Most definitely,” wide receiver Dede Westbrook said. “Our offense was on fire. I felt at that point it was a good call.”
That’s the immediate stuff, and those things matter because Sunday’s loss leaves the Jaguars 0-2 and in a tough spot entering Thursdays’ home game against the Tennessee Titans. Sunday felt like a must-win game; Thursday will feel doubly so.
But a bigger picture is Minshew’s ability to lead this team for the next seven weeks with Foles out. That wasn’t a topic Minshew discussed after the game because it wasn’t the time. He stayed on the appropriate topic and said that whatever he did mattered little because what he did didn’t mean a victory.
He’s right in one sense because the loss hurt. But in another sense what we saw from him late in Sunday’s game matters very much. Maybe the mustachioed one can get this done. Maybe the savvy he showed late can get the Jaguars a victory Thursday and a few after that.
Maybe. Just maybe.
The Jaguars can only hope, because it’s their truly their only hope.