LANDOVER, Md. – The lineups were announced, the ball was kicked off and everywhere you looked …
Bare heads. No helmets.
That's what the Jaguars' starters for the most part wore as Jaguars-Redskins Preseason Week 4 began, and it's what they wore through pretty much the entirety of Thursday night's preseason finale at FedEx Field.
Blake Bortles. No helmet. Luke Joeckel. No helmet.
Allen Robinson. Marcedes Lewis. Paul Posluszny.
We could list them all, but it would take too long. Way too long. Suffice to say that not only did Bortles – the Jaguars' starting quarterback and fledging Face of the Franchise – not play in the Jaguars' score-couldn't-matter-less 17-16 victory over the Washington Redskins Thursday, backup quarterback Chad Henne didn't, either. They were among 34 Jaguars players who didn't play.
That meant a heavy dose of third-team quarterback Stephen Morris at quarterback for the Jaguars, and heavy dose of reserves fighting for roster spots.
And you know what? That was exactly the right dosage, because that's what we should have seen from the Jaguars on Thursday.
Time was these Preseason Week 4s were different. Time was you might see the starters for a quarter – maybe a bit more. Time was teams wanted to use Week 4 as the final tuneup for the regular season.
Time was, too, you might have seen a few preseason games on Friday nights. Shoot, Friday night once was sort of the norm for a preseason finale.
Now, all NFL teams play their preseason finales on Thursday, giving most teams 10 days between the finale and the regular-season opener. And now, most teams extend that rest for their front-line players by having them helmet-less once the preseason-finale begins.
In the salary-cap era, it's all about health and freshness. While freshness/health comes at the expense of preseason repetitions, it's a necessary price. The risk of injury – and inability to adequately replace front-line players, particularly quarterbacks – is simply too real and too season-altering.
Some shots from the second half of the Jaguars vs. Redskins matchup.
That also means preseason these days essentially is three games – and in reality less – which is one reason there may be little need to reduce the preseason. Yes, the games are dramatically less compelling than the regular season, but teams manage the injury risk by managing playing time for starters. And teams must evaluate young players somewhere.
That's what Thursday was about for Jaguars General Manager David Caldwell and Head Coach Gus Bradley. And while there are those who could argue for a few more preseason repetitions for the Jaguars' young front-line offense and a defense that had its preseason struggles, toward what end?
Yes, Bortles is still inexperienced. Yes, the offensive line and receivers are, too. No, we don't know for sure how they will look in the regular season.
Yes, the preseason ended with rookie T.J. Yeldon having just eight carries.
And yes, this defense clearly enters the regular season as the team's biggest concern. Can this defense do what it did last season, which was to quickly put aside an OK preseason and emerge as a solid, reliable unit? If it can, you get an idea this offense can function enough – and make enough big plays – to keep this team significantly more competitive than the last two seasons. You get the idea that's really the case once tight end Julius Thomas and wide receiver Marqise Lee return. Time will tell on the defense, which also is missing its own key player, defensive tackle Sen'Derrick Marks.
Marks' status for the opener looks iffy at best, but as was the case with that worrisome inexperience on offense, that key issue wasn't going to get solved by playing the starters a few series Thursday.
So, the question as preseason ends:
How ready is this team?
What we have exiting the preseason finale is pretty much what we had entering it – a three-game body of work that has to make you feel better about this team. Not overconfident. Not giddy. Not predicting Super Bowl. That's not where this team is yet.
But Bortles is better. The offensive line is better. Those groups couldn't function most of last season and the result was a team with little hope if the opponent had even a sniff of offensive success.
In the modern day NFL, teams sniff offensive success far more often than not, so when your offense doesn't function it leaves little hope.
And in that sense, the overriding storyline of the Jaguars' preseason long has since been written, and it wasn't going to be edited in a few series Thursday. This team looks like it can function. Progress seems to have been made. Whatever else you feel about this team, you have to feel hope.
Helmets or not on Thursday, that makes the Jaguars' preseason a success.
On the regular season. Stay tuned.
Here are some photos from the first half of the Jaguars vs. Redskins matchup.