As the holdout of running back Maurice Jones-Drew carries deeper into its third week, the Jacksonville Jaguars continue to hold their ground on not paying the man who rushed for an NFL-best 1,606 yards a season ago.
What the Jaguars have accomplished in two preseason games is certainly making it easier to ignore the highest profile holdout in franchise history.
Second-year quarterback Blaine Gabbert has made strides in everything he lacked a year ago, and the Jacksonville backfield has hardly missed a beat with Rashad Jennings and Montell Owens emerging as legitimate options.
Maybe, just maybe, the disaster that was Jones-Drew's prolonged absence is not the doomsday scenario some have predicted.
The Jaguars have won both exhibition games in 2012, beating the Super Bowl champion New York Giants to kick things off before upending the New Orleans Saints on Saturday night.
The wins mean very little alone, but the performances of the first-team offense have been encouraging.
Written off by some NFL analysts as a bust just four months into his rookie season, Gabbert has looked like a different quarterback in three quarters of action this preseason.
Standing confidently in the pocket, while also enjoying the benefits of having two NFL-quality receivers to throw to in Justin Blackmon and Laurent Robinson, Gabbert has completed almost 70 percent of his passes for 174 yards and three scores. His passer rating during the preseason is currently 126.1—almost twice what it was to end his rookie season.
His pocket presence and accuracy, two aspects of quarterback play that Gabbert certainly struggled with last season, appear to be greatly improved in his sophomore season.
And even without Jones-Drew, the Jaguars have continued running the football well.
Jennings, a seventh-round pick out of Liberty in 2009, looks like a potential breakout candidate at running back if the holdout of Jones-Drew spills into the regular season. At the very least, Jennings has proven himself a capable NFL starting running back.
Through two preseason games, Jennings has rushed for 118 yards on 23 carries (5.1 yards per carry). Against the Saints, Jennings carried 11 times for 62 yards, breaking tackle-attempt after tackle-attempt in an active performance.
Even if Jones-Drew comes back soon, the Jaguars will find it difficult to keep Jennings off the field.
Owens, the current backup, has also impressed in his new role, with a bulldozer move at the goal line against the Giants sticking out as his signature play of the preseason. He looks plenty capable of handling the backup role behind Jennings if Jones-Drew is out of the picture.
It all adds up to a much brighter picture than the one painted about a Jaguars team without Jones-Drew before the preseason.
While there might have been a time when Jones-Drew held some of the leverage in this contract discussion, those days are disappearing as fast as the money in his pocket.
Jones-Drew has already racked up well over $600,000 in fines, according to Mike Silver of Yahoo! Sports. Per the new CBA, players not attending training camp are subject to $30,000 in fines per day.
Jaguars owner Shahid Kahn doesn't appear ready to budge in contract talks with Jones-Drew, either.
From Silver's report:
He’s not here, and that’s his decision. Believe me, it’s not a great concern. You hope for the best, and you plan for the worst. Our goals for the season don’t change, and if he isn’t here, he isn’t here. I don’t control it. It’s his choice...Believe me, on a zero-to-10 level of stress, this doesn’t even move the needle.
Jones-Drew is currently under contract after signing a five-year, $31-million deal in 2009, giving the Jaguars little incentive to re-structure the deal.
At some point, Jones-Drew will have to weigh the rewards and risks of continuing his holdout.
The gloom-and-doom prognosis of the Jaguars season without him is slowing slipping away. This is still a team that is better with him, but Khan was probably not going to waver from his stance even if the Jaguars fell on their face early in the preseason.
Now that Gabbert and the offensive backfield are showing signs of life to start 2012, the Jags really don't have to plead with Jones-Drew to get to camp.