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View from the O-Zone: Gerhart rewriting end to 2014 story


JACKSONVILLE – This story didn't read as planned.

But it's ending better than many expected a few months back – shoot, even a few weeks back – and that says something significant about Toby Gerhart.

That's right, that Toby Gerhart …

Remember him? The guy who was going to be the Jaguars' feature back this season?

The guy who everyone wrote off?

The guy who fans thought was ineffective?

All of that has been said, and it all is part of his story this season, but here's what's more notable about Gerhart:

Despite all of that, he's having a decent end to a difficult season.

"It's been good to get some opportunities to show what they brought me in here to do, and what I can do," Gerhart said this week as the Jaguars (3-12) prepared to play the Houston Texans (8-7) at NRG Stadium in Houston Texans Sunday. "This whole year has been the most frustrating year."

Gerhart sustained a rib contusion last Thursday against Tennessee, but he practiced on Tuesday and indications are he will play Sunday.

It would be fitting, in a sense, if Gerhart played through injury in Week 17. Dealing with injury for better – and more often for worse – pretty much defined his 2014 season.

Not that it was supposed to be that way.

When Gerhart signed with the Jaguars last March, he was supposed to be the feature back, the replacement for Maurice Jones-Drew. Gerhart's behind-the-pads, punishing style was supposed to give the Jaguars a running threat they lacked the last two years.

Late in the first quarter of the regular-season opener, Gerhart took a handoff from Chad Henne and ran left. Eagles defensive tackle Fletcher Cox horse-collar-tackled Gerhart, who twisted awkwardly as he fell. At first, he thought his season was over.

It wasn't, but his troubles weren't, either.

Gerhart started the next four games, but the foot wasn't right. The Jaguars deactivated him, and when he returned, not only wasn't the foot still not 100 percent, he had lost his starting job to second-year veteran Denard Robinson.

Gerhart took a lesser role, playing short-yardage and special teams.

"You be a professional about it," Gerhart said. "You want to be the guy, but Denard came in and did well. You keep competing – whether it was third-down or short-yardage or special teams. It was just a matter of trying to be involved, and trying to help the team any way I could and hoping to get a chance to get healthy and show what I could do as a runner."

He said he didn't read the internet or listen to the radio during that time, but that wasn't necessary. It was obvious what people were saying: that he hadn't worked out, that he was less productive than he should have been.

Gerhart knew then what now seems reasonable – that a foot injury by definition hurts a running back's effectiveness. But he also knew it would do no good to stand at his locker and tell anyone who would listen what was wrong. That would sound like an excuse, he knew, and excuses don't play well when you're unproductive. Even if excuses are really reasons.

"I'm not a person that's going to sit there and make excuses, but it was the foot," Gerhart said. "I knew I wasn't performing up to what I could do, and my opportunities were getting shorter. I was in short-yardage and goal-line, so my stats weren't there, so it's an accumulation of everything and it's, 'He's not what we thought he could be …' "

Through it all, Gerhart waited and rehabbed, and even though his foot still isn't 100 percent, it's better. When Robinson sustained a foot injury that ended his season two weeks ago, Gerhart wasn't happy about it, but he was ready.

And when he was inserted into the starting lineup, something changed.

He ran harder, with more power – the way he knew he could run, the way he expected to run when he signed with the Jaguars, the way the team expected.

He's not setting records. The Jaguars don't have that kind of run-blocking offensive line right now, but what they have is an improving line. In his first start in more than two months, Gerhart against the Baltimore Ravens ran behind that line for 54 yards on 13 carries.

That was a good step, his best game with the team. This past week in a victory over the Titans, he rushed for 53 yards on 12 carries. His three-carry, 24-yard sequence late in the first half set the tone for a drive that ended with the touchdown that got the Jaguars back in the game, and his 1-yard run through the middle early in the third quarter gave the Jaguars the lead.

It was a cool scene to see Gerhart scoring and making key plays last Thursday. And it was cool to see players and coaches happy for a guy who could have handled a difficult season a lot differently.

That season won't be what Gerhart wanted, of course. Three games won't change the whole storyline, and Gerhart certainly would have loved for it to have gone differently.

But the ending? That's turning out OK, and a few weeks back few figured on that.

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