IN THE Jaguars' refurbished $3 million locker room at EverBank Field, 20 high-def TVs dot the walls. Ventilators inside the 90 lockers dry and deodorize shoulder pads and cleats. LED light panels that can be programmed to any color bathe the lockers in a teal glow. And the specially designed, 22-inch-wide padded chairs at each locker comfortably fit even the biggest lineman.
The bathroom rivals the spa at a Four Seasons: European steam and dry-sauna rooms, two small waterfalls, and plunge pools from which players can glimpse a couple of 52-inch TV monitors. On this day, between training camp practices, assistant trainer Justin Bland leads 19 players in a yoga session in the common area.
"I have never seen anything remotely close to this in an NFL locker room," says 13-year veteran center Brad Meester. "No one has."
New owner Shahid Khan, who bought the Jags for $760 million in January (see page 150 for more on his exploits), has paid for a championship locker room; now he wants a championship team. He believes 1) if players look forward to coming to the stadium, they will spend extra time bonding there, and 2) if players see an owner who spends lavishly on their behalf, they will be motivated to work harder. (Well, except for Maurice Jones-Drew, whose protracted holdout had cost him nearly $1 million in fines through Sunday.)
But even a $3 million locker room filled with motivated players won't mean a thing without a quarterback. And though the Jaguars are encouraged by the progress of Blaine Gabbert, the league's lowest-rated and most skittish quarterback in 2011, they're not going to know what they have until they see how Gabbert survives the first five games, which will feature some of the league's best pass rushers.
Drafted out of Missouri as a 21-year-old junior last year, Gabbert was hurt by the lockout; if any quarterback in the 2011 draft needed the extra classroom and practice-field sessions, he did. But when former coach Jack Del Rio released incumbent quarterback David Garrard less than a week before the season began, it was obvious that Gabbert would play soon. Very soon, as it turned out: He started the final 14 games. Gabbert took over before he was ready, and it showed. Asked to describe the biggest difference between this year and last year, Gabbert says, "I've had time to work with coaches and learn an offense. It's pretty simple."
Coach Mike Mularkey, who took the job after developing a precocious young quarterback, Matt Ryan, as the offensive coordinator for four seasons in Atlanta, says, "I don't like Blaine's being evaluated for what he did without an off-season as the youngest quarterback in football." Mularkey points out that Ryan had five years at B.C., while Gabbert had just three at Missouri.
Mularkey has focused on rebuilding Gabbert's fundamentals. Last year he had flawed footwork and made poor decisions, leaving the pocket at first pressure. The coaches have taken it slow. At a scrimmage in early August it was clear they were trying to build Gabbert's confidence, calling high-percentage short and intermediate passes almost exclusively. They used the same strategy against the Giants in the preseason. It seems to be working: Gabbert looks more poised and sure of where to go. "Blaine took a beating last year," Mularkey says. "But I've not seen any negativity from him. All I've said is let's wait to judge him until after a full off-season and training camp and a full season. Otherwise, it's just not fair."
Mularkey hit a wall with the Falcons, who were 0--3 in the postseason during his tenure. It was time for a change—for Atlanta and for Mularkey, 50. Khan hired him, in part, because he wanted to duplicate the tutoring of the 6'4" Ryan with Gabbert, an equally tall, strong-armed passer. It's going to be tough. Mularkey fine-tuned Ryan's game; Gabbert's needs major reconstruction. If Mularkey can turn Gabbert around soon, the Jags will contend because their defense is good enough to compete for a playoff spot. But if Gabbert fails, that will set back a franchise desperate to make inroads in a city that wants to fall in love again with its NFL team. That love depends, for now, almost entirely on a 22-year-old's putting a shell-shocked season behind him.
WITH 2011 STATS
OFFENSE 2011 RANK: 32
(N) New acquisition
(R) Rookie—College stats
TTD Total touchdowns
SACKS Sacks allowed
HOLD Holding penalties
FALSE False starts
2011 Record: 5--11
9 at Minnesota
23 at Indianapolis
21 at Oakland
28 at Green Bay
8 Indianapolis (Thu)
18 at Houston
2 at Buffalo
9 New York Jets
16 at Miami
23 New England
30 at Tennessee
After missing all of 2011 with an MCL sprain, the 27-year-old will be the Jaguars' replacement for Maurice Jones-Drew if the reigning rushing champion continues his contract holdout—Jones-Drew has two years and $9.4 million remaining on his deal—or is traded. Jennings, who moonlights as a columnist for the Lynchburg News & Advance, near his Virginia home, was the team's seventh-round draft pick in 2009 out of Liberty. (He had originally enrolled at Pittsburgh but left to be closer to his father, who had a leg amputated.) At 6'1" and 228 pounds, he is neither fast nor quick, but he is a physical back who hits the hole hard and doesn't make many negative plays. In his first three preseason games, running with the first team, he averaged 4.9 yards per carry.
The exhibition season isn't necessarily predictive, but if Jennings has to play significant snaps this fall, the real key is whether he can run well enough to keep the pressure off of quarterback Blaine Gabbert. Jacksonville's front office clearly believes Jennings can. Gabbert's season may depend on it.
Opposing quarterbacks' combined passer rating in 2011 against cornerback Derek Cox (who played only six games), the lowest for any NFL defensive player.
Rashad Jennings's average yards after contact in '10, tied for second best among NFL running backs. Jennings, who spent all of '11 on IR, has yet to fumble in his career.
Passes batted down at the line of scrimmage by Jaguars defenders, tied with the Browns and the Lions for the fewest in the league.
TOM DIPACE (GABBERT)
Gabbert's game is being retooled and his confidence reconstructed under Mularkey.
BILL FRAKES (JENNINGS)