If the Jacksonville Jaguars don't have Maurice Jones-Drew for their third preseason game Saturday, they'll have to get creative.
Beat writer Vito Stellino of The Florida Times-Union tweeted Thursday that Jones-Drew has missed three days of practice as the Jaguars prepare for their trip to Tampa Bay.
"Injuries plaguing jags," (sic) Stellino concluded cryptically.
Should head coach Jack Del Rio decide to keep Jones-Drew out, it'll be tough to get a read on his offense against the Buccaneers. In the current four-game preseason format, NFL teams often use the third game to get their starters ready for the regular season.
And, from Jacksonville's run-heavy game plan to blitz pickups on third down, Jones-Drew is the unquestioned focal point of the offense. He's an All-Pro, a Pro Bowler, and the Jaguars' best player.
In that light, removing him from the equation ought to be awfully educational.
Considering Jacksonville's depth chart at running back and the talent at other positions, they'd have three plausible courses of action. Would any of them be as good as having Jones-Drew?
Statistics, reputation, and fantasy football aside, the differences between Jones-Drew and second-stringer Rashad Jennings come down to long limbs and straight lines.
Jennings, a 2009 seventh-rounder who backed up Jones-Drew as a rookie, is built differently. At 230 pounds, he's solid for his 6'1" frame, but few backs in NFL history can compare to Jones-Drew (5'7", 210) in terms of stoutness.
In limited action last year, Jennings flashed a slashing style more reminiscent of former Jacksonville star Fred Taylor. Instead of trampling through and wrong-footing defenders, as is Jones-Drew's "bowling ball" modus operandi, Jennings picks up downhill momentum with minimal change of direction.
With 21 of his 66 career touches coming on receptions, he has also emerged as a weapon in the passing game. Though a long way off from Jones-Drew's 201 career catches, Jennings has been praised by beat writer Vic Ketchman for having "the best hands of any running back on the [Jaguars]."
Outside of Jennings, street free agent Kolby Smith and undrafted rookie Chad Kackert are Jacksonville's only other healthy options at running back this week. If the Jaguars want to run a reasonable imitation of their regular offense, they'll have little choice but to feature Jennings.
Once hotshot rookie return man Deji Karim comes back from his thumb injury, Jacksonville's alternatives to Jones-Drew at running back will become more appealing.
According to Tania Ganguli of The Florida Times-Union, Karim will miss the rest of the preseason while recovering from surgery on his left thumb.
"It's possible, though unlikely, he'll be ready in time for the first game of the regular season," Ganguli speculated Tuesday.
Less than a month after the Jaguars drafted him in the sixth round, Karim started to showcase the game-changing speed and quickness that made him a finalist for the Walter Payton Award—the FCS equivalent of the Heisman.
In one of Jacksonville's late-May practices, Karim opened onlookers' eyes with a juke that, according to Vic Ketchman, "was so sudden and so explosive that it left linebacker Justin Durant grabbing at air.
Over the past two weeks, Karim has bolted out of the preseason starting gate by averaging 32.8 yards on kickoff returns. Sprinting upfield, his runs have been equal parts fearlessness and the 4.37-second speed from his pre-draft 40-yard dash.
Jennings has Jones-Drew's hands, but not his quickness. Karim (5'9", 207 pounds) has Jones-Drew's elusiveness, but not his grit.
Between the two, the Jaguars would be more likely to build a workable approximation of "Pocket Hercules" than by featuring either of them.
Realistically, Jacksonville won't look to any combination of Jennings and Karim to fill the gaping hole Jones-Drew would leave.
As much promise as they've shown, neither player has yet started in an NFL game.
Instead, the player who'd need to shoulder the burden of Jones-Drew's offense would be quarterback and team captain David Garrard.
For starters, Garrard's a better short-yardage runner than either Jennings or Karim. In situations where the Jaguars have needed one yard for a first down, Garrard's quarterback sneak behind center Brad Meester has been more fail-safe than a hand-off to Jones-Drew.
As for Jacksonville's game plan, offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter would likely look to take advantage of Garrard's stellar timing and zip on short-range throws to move the ball.
With left tackle Eugene Monroe and tight end Marcedes Lewis both in rare form this summer, Garrard should have some peace of mind in the pocket and the safety valve he's lacked in the Jaguars' offense.
Between Lewis (6'6", 275 pounds) and ace wideout Mike Sims-Walker (6'2", 214 pounds), he'd have a pair of reliable possession receivers. Throw in slippery fantasy sleeper Mike Thomas, athletic H-back Zach Miller, and burners Troy Williamson and Tiquan Underwood, and you've got the makings of a decent corps.
Losing Jones-Drew for any stretch of the regular season would be far from ideal. Considering Jacksonville's patchwork defense, the Jaguars' best chance to win in 2010 will be their clock-killing, run-first offense.
But Garrard and his improving group of pass-catchers wouldn't be a recipe for disaster, either.