“I want to make sure I answer this the right way,” began Jacksonville Jaguars head coach Doug Marrone after Sunday's game.
"Every time you play and lose, for me, I’m not going to talk about anybody else, it’s something that’s in my soul that just gets (expletive) ripped out. So, that’s how I feel.”
It’s understandable. Coaches are programmed to win, as are the players. So even though Sunday’s 24-20 loss to the Green Bay Packers helps the Jaguars 2021 draft status (and subsequently the possibility of landing coveted Clemson Tigers quarterback Trevor Lawerence), it doesn’t sit well the coach of the 1-8 team.
But maybe, just maybe, the Jaguars do have some pieces to replace those gaping holes in Marrone’s soul. Because on the youngest team in the league, the club that brought in 30 rookies this offseason has started and/or played the majority of them and turned them into major contributors.
Or maybe not, because if this trend continues, the young corps will likely be toys for a new coaching staff.
Regardless, if the Jaguars are using the remaining seven games to develop what they have for 2021, then Sunday was a good start. Against the Packers, five rookies started. It would likely have been six if receiver Laviska Shenault wasn’t sidelined this week with a hamstring injury.
On offense, quarterback Jake Luton continues to show off the arm and poise that made Marrone and Offensive Coordinator Jay Gruden first name him the backup over veteran Mike Glennon. If the Jaguars have an opportunity to draft Trevor Lawerence or Ohio State’s Justin Fields, they can’t pass that up, meaning Luton could be fighting with incumbent Gardner Minshew (who remains out with a hand injury) to be the No. 2 guy.
He went 18-35 for 169 yards and a touchdown plus an interception. Two weeks into his career, he knows there’s still much more to learn.
“I think I am still learning, just the pace of play, having to be quick with my reads and seeing the defense,” Luton explained to reporters following the game.
"In the NFL they do a lot of different things. They do a good job of mixing things up. You always have to be on your toes and locked in on every play. You can’t get lazy with your eyes or feet. You have to be ready at all times. I think I’m learning every play and every day I am trying to learn and become a better player.”
The most prolific player on offense all season and again on Sunday has been running back James Robinson. The undrafted free agent picked up 109 yards, marking his third 100-yard game of the season and continuing to reset the record book for most yards by a UDFA in their rookie season. Robinson has already cemented his status as RB1 (he was the only Jaguars player to rush the ball on Sunday) so he essentially needs to not fail moving forward. He’s proven himself.
On defense, lineman Davon Hamilton had four tackles and his first career sack…and it came on Aaron Rodgers. K’Lavon Chaisson continues to line up next to second-year defensive end Josh Allen and the latter could be seen during the game giving coaching and direction to Chaisson as the duo lined up for the snap.
Safety Daniel Thomas received his first start with Josh Jones out and finished with eight tackles.
Rookie first-round corner CJ Henderson had highlight-worthy moments on both ends of the spectrum against the Packers; some for his team, some for Green Bay. His missed tackle on a third-down that allowed the Packers to keep driving past mid-field in a close game. And he got turned around in the endzone on one play, allowing a Davante Adams touchdown.
But the No. 9 overall pick also notched three big tackles, a pass break-up and forced a fumble that the offense was able to turn into a touchdown. The turnover was a pure effort play by Henderson who originally had gotten beat on the route by Adams. But the speedster caught up to the league’s best receiver and punched the ball out after which Myles Jack recovered for Jacksonville.
It’s the fumble that highlights not only what the Jaguars have in Henderson, but also the argument to continue playing young guys. Henderson initially was beaten by someone big, fast and a master at his game. Adams could have used this game to school the rookie.
Instead, Henderson gave the effort Marrone has asked for from his team and didn’t give up on the play. In turn, he made what can only be called a game-changing play even if the Jaguars fell in the end.
And that’s typically the case with rookies and younger players. There are some aspects of the game that are different than college and must be learned through lumps. Henderson let a Miami receiver race for extra yardage by not touching him down in Week 3 and on Sunday Robinson tumbled to the ground and hesitated for a crucial two seconds before remembering he could get up and keep running as well.
In the past, the front office has traded away or cut some of their young talent that was supposed to be a building block. But some of those stripes are earned only through hard hits. Allowing the younger corps to become more adjusted to the game now allows them to hit the ground running in 2021.
Even the older leaders on this team are young and names like DJ Chark, Keelan Cole, Myles Jack, Tre Herndon and Joe Schobert—not to mention what is proving to be one of their better offseason signings, Sidney Jones IV—can be the building blocks the front office hoped they would be.
“All I know is that, we’re putting everything in this thing and we’re, we’re fighting our butts off,” said Marrone.
“We’re doing everything we possibly can, you know what I’m saying. We’re coming up short. And it’s hard. I’m not going to lie. It’s hard, and I just want to do the best job I can for these coaches and players to keep them going so they can continue to get better.”
So much of what will happen with the Jacksonville Jaguars in 2021 is currently teetering on the brink, prepared to tip one way or the other in a direction that will ultimately shape the next few years. But right now, even at 1-8, the potential might not fill the empty spots in Doug Marrone’s soul, but they could do what the Jaguars franchise has allegedly wanted this entire decade; set a viable foundation for the future.