It is the 800 pound gorilla in the room nobody in Jacksonville wants to discuss openly. It lingers in the minds of coaches and fans alike. It stirs spirited debate any time the subject is touched upon, even in passing.
What is the issue?
The Jaguars passing game.
It is one of the two major areas where there is legitimate concern about how improved things will be in 2009 for a team struggling to regain some traction in a division that appears to be pulling away.
Is David Garrard going to rebound and return to 2007 form or will it be 2008 all over again?
Will Torry Holt's knee hold up to the rigors of a full training camp and a season of pounding?
Will Zach Miller give the team a legitimate weapon in the passing game?
Will Mike Walker find a way to remain healthy?
Will the horde of young receivers including a rookie trio find a way to overcome the traditional struggles to be significant contributors this year?
What about Troy Williamson?
The list of questions about the passing game is almost as long as the number of new names trotting around on the field catching passes during training camp.
David Garrard is the poster child for the tale of two quarterbacks. Leading up to 2007, Garrard had proved to be an adequate career backup who was prone to make mistakes. His foibles landed him on the bench at the end of the 2006 season, replaced by Quinn Gray as the signal caller.
He rebounded in 2007, earning the starting job and forcing out the Jaguars 2003 first-round selection, Byron Leftwich.
He responded in 2008 with a sub-par performance.
The reason behind his decline was attributed to the offensive line failing him miserably, which is indeed the case.
It was also partly blamed on a sub-standard receiving corps lacking a deep threat, or a true number one guy.
The assertion was true, but somewhat misleading. This was the same receiving corps which had helped him earn the starting job in 2007. Nothing about the group changed other than the addition of the poison pill, Jerry Porter.
While Porter spent most of 2008 not on the field because of injuries, the receivers who did contribute previously were suddenly inadequate to run the Jaguars offense. Garrard was insulated from his own mistakes by a complete collapse around him.
But, the very reasons given for why Garrard struggled were the primary factors in why he was given the job to begin with. His mobility was touted as the main reason why he was a better fit for the offense in Jacksonville. It allowed him to evade the pass rush, extending plays and allowing him to keep things alive long after a less mobile Byron Leftwich would have been able to accomplish.
The problem was Garrard had nowhere to run. He did indeed take a beating last year, but not all of it could be blamed on the offensive line. Even when the line did their job, there were times when David simply lacked the trust to stay with a play. The gun shy nature was obviously a byproduct of the hits he had taken, but the one thing which made him a good fit for this offense was suddenly more of a liability. Running was not helping keep plays alive.
With a rebuilt offensive line and a younger rushing attack, the hope is Garrard will return to form, but what exactly is that form everyone expects him to return to?
Was 2007 a true indicator of how good David is, or was that the anomaly?
This question will be answered this year, and the answers are already starting to formulate. During the scrimmage on Saturday night, Garrard threw two picks. Critics were quickly told it might have been the receivers running the wrong routes, or cutting off routes.
But, Garrard's performance so far in training camp has hardly been laser sharp. None of the quarterbacks are dazzling the masses with their accuracy, and this trickled over to the scrimmage.
Garrard can be an efficient operator of the offense if all things are clicking. The effort put into making sure things around him do indeed operate as expected has been monumental, and the outcome will reveal itself once the team takes the field against a legitimate opponent next week. When they face their first test, a lot will be known about which David Garrard the Jaguars will be playing behind this season.
One certainty about the passing game for the Jaguars in 2009 is the addition of one of the best receivers in the business and the level of professionalism he has brought to the Jaguars. Torry Holt is the consummate professional, and he has taken it to task to serve as a mentor to the very young receiving corps he leads.
But, Holt is only practicing half the time, trying to limit the wear and tear on the knee which has been a problem for a couple of years now. Hopes are high he will remain healthy and avoid the pratfalls of aging which have ended the careers of many great players over the years.
When he is on the field it is clear just how much better than the rest Holt truly is. The effortless precision in his route running, and the quiet way he goes about making plays is an impressive display for observers. It is also a great guide for the youngsters who are pushing for roster spots.
However, what happens to the Jaguars passing attack if Holt misses any playing time when it matters?
The effect could be devastating with such a lack of depth on the roster at wide receiver.
The one bright spot so far in training camp is Zach Miller, who has proved to be a quick study, picking up the passing game and giving the team a good bit of hope he will provide the team with a weapon in the passing attack the Jaguars have not had in several years: a play making tight end.
There have been a few minor struggles with dropped passes, but overall Miller has been on the fast track to earn significant playing time when the games matter. It is encouraging to see Garrard already targeting him on a regular basis.
Mike Walker is expected to be a major contributor this year, but he is already dealing with the first injury of the year coming out of the scrimmage. The lower leg injury does not sound severe, but is it a sign of things to come?
Walker got off to a slow start in training camp, and he has yet to rise above the difficulty to show flashes of what many hope will be a breakout year. If the sputtering start continues to be an issue, the team may be forced to rely upon a rookie to fill the role he vacates.
That is a scary prospect.
With Mike Thomas missing time in training camp due to an injury, the Jaguars will lean more heavily on Jarett Dillard and Tiquan Underwood to fill those roles. Nate Hughes also gets tossed into the mix as a legitimate deep threat.
The youngsters certainly look like an interesting group of talented athletes so far in training camp. But, with no fear of real contact, these receivers have been able to put on a show. With the first preseason game on the horizon, they will find their first true test facing legitimate NFL defensive backs and linebackers. How they respond to the challenges will speak volumes about where the team is headed with the passing game this season.
Should these rookies struggle as most do, the team is going to have to lean more heavily on familiar targets like Maurice Jones-Drew and Marcedes Lewis. If they do not create enough attention for defenses to respect their skills, it will make it a more difficult challenge for Torry Holt to do his job.
The Jaguars passing game was given a pop quiz on Saturday night during the scrimmage. The standing grade is a C based upon their first performance under the lights. The real test will begin on Monday night in Miami when they get their first taste of live action.
How they respond to the challenge when the contact is live and defenders are not being held back will go a long way toward answering questions about the passing attack this season.
It will either be business as usual, or the Jaguars will show signs of new life in the passing game.
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