JACKSONVILLE – Two steps forward, two steps back.
That, or something close, has been the Jaguars' pattern through an oft-exciting, oft-frustrating 2019 season – and they took another step back Sunday.
The Jaguars lost to the New Orleans Saints, 13-6, in front of 63,341 at TIAA Bank Field Sunday afternoon – and while the loss wasn't embarrassing, and certainly didn't end the season, it was absolutely disappointing. And it does mean this:
They must start stepping forward again soon.
"I told the team [that] I like their effort, playing hard, we've just got to perform better, really," Head Coach Doug Marrone said after the Jaguars lost for the second time in two weeks and failed to score a touchdown for the first time this season.
Defensive end Calais Campbell called the Jaguars a team that can still be "special."
"We have the ability to go out there and play hard to win some games," Campbell said. "I told these guys, 'We have to believe in each other and help because when we do that, we can become an unstoppable team against our opponents.'"
That was part of Sunday's story – that even at 2-4, there remained a feeling that this Jaguars season is far from lost. Reality: for that to be true, the Jaguars must be more consistent, they must start playing more complete games and they must start doing it now.
"We have to put a full game together," wide receiver Chris Conley said.
Added Campbell, "It's starting to get crucial."
Campbell couldn't be more right, and we'll touch on that later, but first: the more immediate issue of just why the Jaguars lost Sunday:
The Jaguars have a rookie playing quarterback. And while Gardner Minshew II is very good for a rookie, the Saints on Sunday made him look like a rookie for the first time.
They did it by design: a defense that kept Minshew in the pocket rather than using his mobility. The design also was to take away the outside receivers with man coverage and force Minshew to pass effectively in the middle of the field.
He did this at times, but not enough. The result was a few near interceptions and a real one. Minshew finished with 173 yards passing, but nothing close to the magic of his first four starts.
"Obviously, we just weren't able to make plays," Marrone said. "We said it during the week. This is probably one of the best teams we'll face, all around. Defensively, they are good at all three levels and they played well today."
Marrone talked, too, of needing to play well in all three phases, something the team hasn't done except for a 20-7 victory over Tennessee in Week 3. The last two weeks have been a microcosm of this, with the defense struggling and the offense playing well in a 34-27 loss at Carolina last week and the defense playing its best game in nearly a month on Sunday while the offense had its lowest output of the season.
"When you are inconsistent, and you can't play well in all three phrases, it's very difficult to win," Marrone said "You'll be in some close games. You might come back and win, but it makes it difficult."
And that's the No. 1 story for the Jaguars now, through six games. It's not cornerback Jalen Ramsey and his worrisome back injury; rather, it's that Jaguars now face their first real urgent moment of the season.
That was the tone in Sunday's post-game locker room as much as anything. There was frustration from the offense for not responding more quickly to the Saints' defensive approach, and there was frustration defensively. This defense, after all, played better Sunday than it had in recent weeks but still failed to produce a turnover – and failed to get some key stops lately. But for those frustrations, there's still a feeling that something good can happen.
"We just have to stick together," cornerback A.J. Bouye said. "There are going to be things said inside the locker room and outside the locker room where we have to not point fingers and just stick together. I think we're going to do that."
"I'm not a panic person," Conley said. "I would rather say, 'Bear down and get our effects in order.' Where do we go from here? We go back to fundamentals. We go back to basics. There are no excuses for anything. You've got to get results."
Conley was speaking for the receivers, but the entire locker room Sunday had a back-to-basics feel. That's what teams say when urgency gets real, and it's real for the Jaguars now. There has been a lot to like in this Jaguars season, and a lot of reason for optimism. Marrone has talked about liking this team, and all of that matters. But at some point, such talk becomes meaningless if not accompanied by winning.
No, Sunday's latest step back doesn't ruin the season.
But it does mean they must start stepping forward before it's too late.