The Season So Far: A Jaguars ‘Half-Time Report’
Best Jaguar in a Leading Role: Maurice Jones-Drew, starting running back – During the off-season, the questions arose as to whether he could carry a full load. There is no doubt that Jones-Drew has put those questions to rest. Through eight games, he is averaging 18.1 carries per game and 5.1 yards per rush. MJD leads the league with 11 touchdowns. The fourth-year back has 51 career touchdowns and set the team record for most rushing yards through eight games. Former Jaguar Fred Taylor seems like a distant memory with the incredible success of Jones-Drew. With 737 rushing yards, Jones-Drew will easily secure his first 1,000-yard rushing season.
Best Jaguar in a Supporting Role: Mike Sims-Walker, starting wide receiver – The 24-year-old has six starts so far and is shooting for a 1,000-yard receiving season. In his breakout year, Sims-Walker has 36 catches and 554 yards. He has passed the century mark in three games while finding the end zone on four occasions. Sims-Walker may surpass Jimmy Smith’s 2005 season (70 receptions, 1,023 yards, six touchdowns). The third-year receiver’s only black mark is a benching for the Seattle game as his punishment for missing curfew. With his continued production, that error in judgment can be forgiven. In professional sports, it is all about winning. Also, in case you were wondering, on Sunday, Sims-Walker told me he’s the best man for former UCF teammate and Denver Bronco receiver Brandon Marshall’s wedding.
Nicest Surprise: Mike Thomas, wide receiver – Jacksonville has a solid player as the punt and kick return man. With Brian Witherspoon out, the rookie Thomas has stepped up and brought a new excitement to the Jaguars. He’s shown very good hands with 19 catches, and his end-arounds keep teams guessing on defense. Thomas has four returns of 40 or more yards. His kickoff return average is a decent 24.6. However, with any return guy, the keys are not to fumble and create beneficial field position. Thomas has done both. The Arizona product was a nice selection in the fourth round. He’ll only improve.
Best Moment of the Season: It wasn’t a pass, run or kick. But, it did happen on the field at Jacksonville Municipal Stadium. During the first quarter of Sunday’s 24-21 win, Major Kevin Becar of the Florida National Guard taped a message for his family, who was present in the end zone. After the message, Becar ran out of the tunnel to greet his family in person. Becar’s son Brandon embraced him in a special moment shared by thousands. On Military Appreciation Day, it was a heartwarming scene, which easily reminded me and hopefully others of what is important in life. A huge round of applause to all those involved in making this happen.
Home Attendance: With four home games under its belt, Jacksonville has gone 3-1 while looking its best at times. If you didn’t know, the organization, after halftime, announces how many tickets are distributed. The capacity of the non-sponsored stadium is 67,164. The most tickets distributed this year was for the Titans game – 49,014. The worst was the Rams game on October 18 – 42,088. Through these four games, the average tickets distributed is at 45,785 (I rounded up). That’s well over 20,000 empty seats per game. You can blame the poor teams coming to town, the economy or Wanda Sykes’ new television show. But, overall, the turnout needs to improve vastly. It’s sad when visiting reporters in the press box start cracking jokes ten minutes prior to the game about the no-shows. Grade: D; I’m not mean enough to type the dreaded letter after ‘E.’
Offense: This team has two viable stars – Maurice Jones-Drew and Mike Sims-Walker. That’s something the Jaguars haven’t had in quite a while. Quarterback David Garrard, while not under pressure, has completed 61% of his passes and thrown only six touchdowns. He’s been sacked 18 times and hurried more than just about every other NFL quarterback. On a positive note, Jacksonville has a true wide receiving corps. I believe future Hall of Famer Torry Holt’s work ethic and mindset has rubbed off on the other receivers. Holt (33 catches, 461 yards) should be given some credit for the success of Sims-Walker. Along the offensive line, decisions need to be made as to who will permanently be in the starting lineup. Rookie Eben Britton has improved every game. He’ll be a mainstay at right tackle in two years. Switching between Eugene Monroe and Tra Thomas at left tackle has been a subject of concern. I say start the veteran Thomas and play Monroe in mop-up duty in blowouts. Grade: B-; Garrard and the offensive line have struggled against formidable opponents. Jones-Drew and Sims-Walker bring some spark to a team in rebuilding mode. At least this year, the offensive line has stayed healthy.
Defense: Jacksonville has struggled on defense all year. It’s the worst of the three major units. The pass rush and pass defense are extreme weak points. Prior to the Chiefs game, Jacksonville only had five sacks. On Sunday, the Jaguars added three more to that total – the most sacks in one game this season. The loss of defensive end Reggie Hayward to injury and the flip-flopping between the 3-4 and 4-3 have hurt the overall defense. But, getting to the opposing quarterback has been a key issue. Bright spots have been the progress of rookie cornerback Derek Cox and veteran Rashean Mathis (minus his career-worst outing against Seattle). Also, Terrance Knighton and John Henderson have played well at times. With expectations come disappointment along with the names Quentin Groves and Derrick Harvey. You hear the word ‘three-pointer’ more during a football game than their names. Not surprisingly, the linebackers (when healthy) – Daryl Smith, Justin Durant and Clint Ingram – are playing at a respectable level. Grade: D+; I cannot give a passing grade to a defense that allows nearly 25 points per game and 362 yards of total offense. Jacksonville ranks 22nd or worse in all major defensive categories.
Special Teams: Statistically, it may not seem as though kicker Josh Scobee is having a fantastic year, but I look at more than just numbers. From everything I’ve seen, his leg has been powerful. On extra points, Scobee has had one blocked and one missed – his worst year in that respect. For kickoffs, his ten touchbacks have been crushed out of the opponents’ end zone. The sixth-year kicker is 9/14 on field goals. Scobee went over 500 career points during the home game against the Titans. Long snapper Jeremy Cain and punter Adam Podlesh haven’t made any crucial mistakes. Otherwise, we’d be hearing names like Joe Zelenka and Steve Weatherford. Montell Owens has quietly been proving that he was worth the off-season contract extension. Grade: B-; Three blocks on special teams is too much. And, having one returned for a touchdown by Cardinal Antrel Rolle is a no-no. But, Scobee’s leg has essentially won two ball games for Jacksonville.
Overall: Sitting at 4-4 at the halfway point is very impressive. Two of those losses – Seattle and Tennessee – were very embarrassing. However, Jacksonville has yet to beat a spectacular football team. I hope the 2009 season will be remembered more for Maurice Jones-Drew and Mike Sims-Walker instead of blackouts and lack of fan support. This is a team on the up-and-up. With another extraordinary draft class from general manager Gene Smith, the Jaguars will consistently compete for a playoff spot. The defense needs to either go with the 3-4 or 4-3. I hear excuses and pros and cons for using both. Pick one, and stick with it. The defense will continue to give up big plays. Opponents will always be in the game, much like Sunday versus the Chiefs. Don’t get ahead of yourself because Jacksonville is a .500 ball club. The players are getting better each week. And, I hope attendance will reflect that with four home games remaining. If your wallet permits, support this team. It’s a good product and money well spent. And, in a few years, it will be a very talented and successful franchise. Grade: B; The rookie draft class has been stellar. The defense continues to be questionable. Jacksonville should continue to run the ball and stop the run if they can. The second one is a big “if.”
Expectations for the Second Half: Eight games remain in the 2009 season for the Jacksonville Jaguars. Three of the teams have winning records – Texans, Colts and Patriots. But, the eight teams have a combined 33 wins and 32 losses. I expect the Jaguars to go at least 3-1 at home. The most difficult games are obviously the Colts and the Patriots. Containing Peyton Manning and Tom Brady will be difficult tasks for Jacksonville’s porous defense. And, even though this is a young squad, I anticipate Jacksonville improving on the road. The toughest trips are to New England and out west to San Francisco. At the worst, Jacksonville can finish 7-9 and third in the AFC South. In my opinion, squeezing into the playoffs with a 9-7 record is not out of the realm of possibilities. The big keys in the NFL are injuries and luck. Avoid one and obtain the other. It’s that simple!