JACKSONVILLE – Here we are again. It's time to get started at last.
We do know that much, even if it's tricky to know exactly what else we know about the 2019 Jaguars based on a preseason that ended with a 31-12 loss to the Atlanta Falcons at TIAA Bank Field on Thursday night.
What we mainly know is this has been weird, weird past few weeks.
Head Coach Doug Marrone put it more succinctly.
"It's been a damned tough preseason," Marrone said late Thursday night.
That was in part by design. While Marrone opting to play starters in one of 16 quarters didn't assure the first winless preseason in franchise history, it wasn't as if the team that tries to win lunch was exactly emphasizing winning in August.
Instead, Marrone emphasized safety and precaution – anything to avoid a repeat of the injuries that wrecked the 2018 season.
By now, you know the numbers: 30 players held out of Preseason Week 1, 27 held out of Preseason Week 2. The starters and front-line layers played the first quarter in Preseason Week 3 at Miami and led 7-0 after a dominant defensive performance. But that quarter was the only glimpse of anything close to what the Jaguars will put on the field in the regular season – and as expected, 40 players were held out against Atlanta Thursday.
That's the smallest preseason sample size in franchise history – and even if the preseason isn't a great gauge of what's to come, '19 offered less of that unideal gauge than ever.
That's the troubling part of the formula. The positive is that players such as veteran tight end Goeff Swaim and rookie linebacker Quincy Williams – key players who missed huge swaths of the preseason – returned to practice this week. The injury list is dwindling.
"The one thing I am happy about is we're going into this first game healthy," Marrone said. "That was the goal. That's where we are. Now, are we going to be ready to play? That's the one thing everyone's going to ask. I feel like we will be, but it's still going to be how we play.
"If we play well, everything worked great. If we don't play well, we're going to have to fight through it. I'm excited to watch this team now."
So, what to expect when the Jaguars play the Kansas City Chiefs in 10 days?
There have been reasons for optimism in recent days. The first-team defense was dominant in its lone preseason appearance, holding the Dolphins to one first down – by penalty – in four series. Rookie defensive end Josh Allen showed star qualities, and he's only the latest playmaking elite talent on a unit that already includes such players in end Calais Campbell, end Yannick Ngakoue, cornerback Jalen Ramsey, cornerback A.J. Bouye, linebacker Myles Jack.
The defense is good and ready to play.
There have been positive signs offensively, too. Quarterback Nick Foles played just four preseason series, but led a touchdown drive on one of them. Running back Leonard Fournette also played just four preseason series, but he looks strong and healthy – and he also appears focused after a difficult 2018 season.
But the reality, too, is that there as many unknowns as knowns about this offense – and because of Marrone's approach. Will Foles' accuracy, poise and leadership really make a difference? Is Fournette really ready to mature and produce? Will the offensive line stay healthy, and will it play to its potential? Can the tight end group get healthy – and if healthy, can that unit produce better than last season? Can the receivers look as improved as they looked at times during training camp?
If there are more "yeses" in there than "no's," it's hard to imagine this offense not being improved. If the offense is improved, it's easy to see this team squeezing out four or five more victories.
Perhaps the biggest unanswered question: can this team stay healthy? There seems little doubt the starters are good. There's more doubt about the depth, doubt that Marrone has voiced multiple times in recent weeks.
One piece of advice: Don't fret the preseason record. Preseason games are always a bad gauge for how a team will fare during the regular season. They're an even worse gauge when coaches take the approach Marrone did.
No, the only gauge for this team after this "damned tough" preseason is the regular season. That begins in 10 days, and that's when we'll starting learning if the unanswered questions are yeses or no's and if Marrone's plan was genius or misguided.
It's time to get started. At last.