On the first possession of their preseason opener against the Giants, the Jaguars' offense marched the ball 89 yards in 13 plays (six of them on the ground) and capped the drive off with a touchdown. Last Friday night in New Orleans, Jacksonville's No. 1 unit repeated the trick, taking the opening kickoff and going 80 yards in nine plays for a 7-0 lead.
It's dangerous to read too much into preseason results, and both the Giants' and Saints' defenses were at less than full strength for those games. But, for the Jaguars, those drives -- kickstarters for a pair of wins (32-31 over New York; 24-17 over New Orleans) did two things:
1. Restored some faith in second-year QB Blaine Gabbert, who struggled through a miserable rookie year.
2. Proved to the Jaguars that they are not totally lost without Maurice Jones-Drew.
While the first point likely holds more importance for Jacksonville's long-term success, it's issue No. 2 that could have the most impact on the immediate future. The Jaguars are still waiting on Jones-Drew, their superstar running back, to show up. With two years and a little more than $9 million left on his current contract, MJD initiated a holdout in an effort to force the franchise into upping the ante and giving him a raise.
Jones-Drew led the league in rushing last season -- on a pretty putrid Jaguars offense -- with 1,606 yards, and he chipped in nearly 400 yards receiving. He's topped 1,300 yards on the ground each of the past three years. Given those numbers, you can understand why Jones-Drew is asking for more money, especially after seeing guys like Matt Forte, Arian Foster and LeSean McCoy sign more lucrative deals of late.
But each Rashad Jennings carry this preseason has weakened MJD's case. In two preseason starts Jennings has rushed for 118 yards on 23 carries, an average of 5.1 yards per attempt -- about 0.4 yards per attempt better than Jones-Drew's 4.7 average during the 2011 season.
That doesn't mean Jennings is ready to replace Jones-Drew in Jacksonville's backfield. It doesn't diminish Jones-Drew's statistical accomplishments over the past few seasons.
What it does do is kick a leg out from under Jones-Drew's bargaining stance. Again, having preseason success does not necessarily translate to a strong regular season, but the Jaguars at least can point to Jennings' efforts thus far and say to Jones-Drew, "See? We're doing fine without you."
There are only so many ways this standoff can end. The most likely: Jones-Drew reports back to Jacksonville without a new contract under his belt, is fined a hefty amount for missing OTAs and camp, and regains his starting role early in the regular season.
But what of the more dramatic possible outcomes? Jones-Drew continues to try to become one of the NFL"s highest-paid backs, holding out into the regular season and forfeiting game checks.
Or he could push for a trade.
It's a huge stretch to say that Jennings' preseason performance has made Jones-Drew expendable in Jacksonville. However, is there a limit to what the Jaguars will put up with? Say Jennings, the same age as Jones-Drew (27) and making all of $565,000 this season, carries his preseason play over into the regular season while Jones-Drew continues to sit on the sidelines. At what point would the franchise consider Jones-Drew's situation not worth the trouble?
Surely, there are organizations out there that would be willing to part with a high draft pick or two if it meant adding the league's leading rusher, even if it meant reworking Jones-Drew's contract. If the Jaguars chose to go down that road, they likely would not find any shortage of suitors. We're not there yet. Jones-Drew is still the best offensive weapon Jacksonville has, even if Jennings proves himself more than serviceable. The longer Jones-Drew hides, though, the more prepared Jacksonville will be to move on without him -- especially if its offense keeps thriving in his absence.