The suspense began on Wednesday, as David Garrard re-joined practice in a limited capacity. Will Garrard be under center when the Jaguars play in Tennessee on Sunday?
"I'm not sure we'll get David Garrard back. It could be right up to game time before we know," Jaguars head coach Jack Del Rio told reporters.
Garrard missed the last two games with a high-ankle sprain. Now, as the Jaguars turn into the second half of the season and the AFC wild-card race heats up, they desperately need a return to the kind of football they were playing prior to Garrard's injury on Oct. 22.
The Jaguars need a return to the long, sustained scoring drives that had become Garrard's trademark in late Sept. and early Oct., as the Jaguars ran off four consecutive wins with an offense that dominated time of possession. They need a return to that style of play on offense to mitigate the effects of a defense that has been in sharp decline the last three weeks.
Following a 41-24 drubbing in New Orleans this past Sunday that was the worst defensive performance in Jaguars history, the defense is ranked 24th in the league overall, by far the worst ranking at this point in the season during Del Rio's five years as head coach. Making matters worse, of course, is Tuesday's four-game suspension of defensive tackle Marcus Stroud for violation of the league's steroids policy.
"I'm disappointed in our run-defense in week one and in our pass-defense in (week nine). In between, we played pretty good defense," Del Rio said.
"It can happen in this league," he added of a sudden collapse on defense, using San Diego and Baltimore as other recent examples. "We're not alone."
Tennessee is not the offensive juggernaut that New Orleans is. The Titans are 24th in total offense; next to last in passing. The Titans' running game, however, is third in the league and it began the season with a 282-yard outburst against the Jaguars. Back then, it was widely analyzed that the Titans attacked a particular vulnerability they saw in the Jaguars defense by spreading the field and running the ball.
"That's what they do. They just ran their offense," Del Rio said on Wednesday.
So, it's likely the Jaguars will see the same strategy again this Sunday in Nashville, in a game that could either leave the Jaguars in the driver's seat for a wild-card berth, or in hard chase mode. They sure could use a healthy Garrard for this one.
"The running went good," Garrard said of his first attempts to move on his bad ankle since the injury. "I'm going to practice a little this week and see how it feels. It'll be obvious.
"I don't want to be hobbling. I won't be able to play my game if I'm hobbling around. I've never played like that," he added.
Garrard reports that the injury hasn't affected his passing ability, only his mobility, and he talked last week about welcoming the role of a pocket-passing technician. The greater concern is for his ability to defend himself, especially given Sunday's season-ending injury to right guard Chris Naeole that may leave the position manned either by a rookie (Uche Nwaneri), a former tackle (Maurice Williams) or a journeyman (Tutan Reyes) who just re-signed with the team on Tuesday.
When asked what he needs to see in Garrard to return him to the starting lineup this Sunday, Del Rio said, "The ability to move and protect himself. We don't need him to be a hero. We just need him to heal and, when he's ready, be there."
"I have to be smart," Garrard said. "There are a lot of games left. I don't want to damage it more and be out for the season. I'm sure they want me to be smart with everything."