The Jacksonville Jaguars are a team struggling for respect even in their own backyard, as they enter the third year of Head Coach Gus Bradley and his three-year plan to bring the team to respectability.
It’s one thing to go to a Steelers game and see road jerseys. You expect that.
But to go to a game against the Carolina Panthers and see old Muhsin Muhammad and Jake Delhomme gear indicates that there isn’t as much engagement as there could be.
The Jaguars are, apparently, last for yet another year in Facebook likes. Not having been relevant since the MySpace era doesn’t help with that. But on the first day of the season, hope springs anew. And the Panthers, with Arena League caliber wideouts and a host of injuries elsewhere, provided an interesting opponent.
The Jaguars’ fellow expansion team from the mid 1990s, the Panthers somehow won a division title last season, despite winning just seven games.
Through one half of football, the Jaguars held their own. The second half, however, was the killer, as the Panthers’ depth (and, perhaps, coaching) proved to make the difference, along with Jags QB Blake Bortles reverting to rookie form.
Despite the issues the Panthers came in with, they reduced the Jags to a three and out to start, and then seemed to do exactly what they wanted to on offense, with Jonathan Stewart getting in to the secondary on a couple of runs as the Panthers got into the Red Zone.
From there, a TD pass from Cam Newton to Greg Olsen was nullified by an offensive pass interference call. Then a sack of Newton pushed the Panthers out of the red zone, forcing them to settle for a 43-yard field goal.
Then, a second three and out for Jacksonville, followed by a 46- yard punt returned for 36 yards, put the Jags’ defense (which had already lost Johnathan Cyprien) on its heels with a short field to defend. They held, forcing a 53-yard field goal try that went wide left.
On the third drive, the Jaguars showed life.
A 14-yard run from Yeldon, where he showed that “make you miss” swivel, got the Jags inside Panthers territory. Then a couple of plays later, Yeldon for 11. Then, a swing pass to Yeldon for six, and Jacksonville inside the Red Zone. Bortles with a run for 11, and first and goal.
The drive stalled, but not before a chipshot field goal tied it up.
The first drive of the second quarter saw Bortles get into more of a rhythm as he drove the Jags into field goal range. An ill-timed sack by the Panthers’ Luke Kuechly, then a fumble from Allen Hurns after a completion, took care of that, though.
And then, as if to prove bad things happen in threes, the press box announcement that Allen Robinson, the Jags top wideout, had a knee injury. All hope seemed lost… until an interception by Paul Posluzny, which set up another field goal attempt.
Jason Myers, the new field goal kicker who replaced the popular veteran Josh Scobee, couldn’t hit from 44.
The game still tied at 3, and it stayed that way until just after the two-minute warning, when Newton hit Jerrico Cotchery with a touchdown pass.
A touchdown down, the Jags got a chance to try out their two- minute offense. The situation was crucial, as Carolina would receive in the third quarter.
And damned if Bortles didn’t drive them down the field. A grab just short of the end zone by Hurns set up a quick 1/2-yard shot to FSU product Rashad Greene.
All tied up at the half! Wait, nope. A missed extra point from Myers guaranteed that sports talk radio in the morning, win, lose, or draw, would come back to the kicker position.
At halftime, despite being down by one, the Jaguars were in a unique position. If they somehow came back, they could be in first place in the AFC South, with the Colts and Texans getting waxed in their games, and Tennessee in the 4:00 slot.
Jags stopped Carolina after the opening kickoff, the defense showing pressure that they didn’t in preseason. And with Luke Kuechly out with a concussion, the Panthers’ defense was missing one of its cornerstones.
Well, that didn’t stop Josh Norman from a backbreaking pick six on Bortles. Those who had thought that problem was solved, or hoped it was, are naturally disappointed.
From there, it was obvious to pretty much everyone what needed to happen for the Panthers. A drive that took time off the clock and air out of the ball. In years past, that would have seemed like a sure thing.
This year? The Jags’ defense held, pressuring Newton, forcing a punt.
Down by eight late in the third quarter, Bortles and the Jags had their destiny in their own hands.
Three and out. The Jags couldn’t get a first, and punted the ball back to Carolina at midfield.
Three and out for Carolina. And the Jags get new life, at the front end of the final quarter.
As the minutes ticked away, those on hand waited for the big play. For Yeldon to take it to the house. For Bortles to find Hurns or Greene or Robinson streaking down the line.
It wasn’t to be. The best the Jags could do is back Carolina up deep with a punt. It would be up to the defense, which had performed well enough all game long, without enough help from the offense, to win the game.
Could they pressure Newton into a Pick 6? A fumble?
Nope and nyet. A classic ball-control drive, a field goal, and it was 20 to 9.
A winnable game lost, not by a scrappy defense, but a punchless offense and a quarterback who reverted to rookie form in the clutch.
To underscore that point, Bortles threw a second pick.
With this in mind, it is useful to consider what Bradley said a week ago about where the Jags were intended to be at this point.
”We had a team meeting when we initially started training camp and we talked, ‘Our objective is to build a team that owns the AFC South,”’ Bradley said at a kickoff luncheon inside EverBank Feld. ”And that means year-in and year-out, we’re owning the AFC and the South division. That was our mindset.
”And I said, ‘This year, we built the team. It’s built and it’s time,’ and our players need to have that mentality.”
Waiting for Bradley, the news media in the room were discussing when Bradley would be on the hot seat. Some thought it should be immediately.
Realistically, that’s not going to happen. However, those who wanted to see evidence of the team Making The Leap didn’t get it on Sunday.
A pedestrian offense. A try-hard defense that would have had to be elite to win the game for Jacksonville.
Bradley talked about “great effort” and “playing smart,” but the need to “take a good hard look” at what went wrong.
“The feeling right now is uncomfortable in our locker room,” Bradley said, referring to a “game like this” to show where the team is at.
The pick 6? A miscommunication, a mistake by a young player.
He also cited “dropped passes” as an issue “that showed up again today.”
“I know we’ll grow through these things,” Bradley said.
Hopefully “sooner than later.”
The tight ends were essentially absent from the passing game; they were being kept in to block, Bradley said.
“I felt like we would execute better,” Bradley said. “But we just didn’t finish.”
Regarding Yeldon, who ran for 51 yards, Bradley thinks “you’ll see him evolve more and more.”
In the end, “I’m surprised we didn’t play better,” Bradley said.
“I thought it would be more of a complete game,” Bradley added.
“We could have played more consistent.”
Bradley specifically cited Hurns, who alternated between highlights and lowlights on Sunday, when discussing this point.
“We’ll learn from this now,” Bradley added.
“Our whole philosophy is to go out there and be fully prepared… obviously we didn’t do that today,” Bradley continued.
After some minutes passed, an exhausted Bortles came out and talked about the pick 6.
“I know personally I was fine and ready to go,” Bortles said, and the rest of the team was as well.
“We’ll have to learn from it, and learn from it quickly.”
Regarding the red zone issues, “one of the things we emphasized was to own the red zone.”
That didn’t happen today.
“It wasn’t what they did to us; it’s what we did to ourselves… it’s not the way you want to start the season.”
When asked what the difference between this year and last year, though, Bortles’ answer didn’t really address it.
Perhaps next week, his answer will be more thorough.