MINNEAPOLIS It took three yards and just seconds on the field for Letroy Guion to push Maurice Jones-Drew to the ground. Three yards, a quick sprint and a smack, and Jones-Drew was back at it.
The Jaguars' leading rusher for the past four seasons, Jones-Drew is fresh off a 38-day holdout, during which he refused to report to training camp while he tried -- and failed -- to renegotiate the final two years of his contract. It's been just a week since he announced he'd rejoin the team, but the running back had no luxury of easing his way back into football. Rashad Jennings left the game in the first half with a knee injury, which coach Mike Mularkey later said was not serious, and after that, the Jacksonville running game was back to last year's status quo: all Jones-Drew, all the time.
The sixth-year running back said that he kept himself in good shape during his holdout, which was apparent in the Jaguars' 26-23 loss to the Vikings. Jones-Drew finished the afternoon with 19 carries for 77 yards, and he also got in on the passing game, with three receptions for 18 total yards. It wasn't perfect, and Jones-Drew admitted he tired, but really, it was better than the Jaguars could have asked for.
"I think he did well for, we were not planning on this situation occurring, and I still think he's got some work to do, but I was pretty proud of the way he picked up the system," Mularkey said. "I don't remember anything blatant that he missed. I thought he ran the ball extremely well."
Mularkey added that the team didn't have a precise plan for Jones-Drew entering the game. They'd planned to give Jennings a greater share of the carries, of course, but beyond that, Jones-Drew was slated to be used on an as-needed basis. They had several packages in which they knew he'd play, but Mularkey said there was no specific number of carries that the team was targeting.
That flexibility paid off, of course, after Jennings' injury, and it didn't take long for Jones-Drew to return to fighting form.
"I think the first time being taken to the ground, it kind of just gets the nerves or the excitement out there," Jones-Drew said. "After that, it was just run the ball."
Talking to him after the game, it felt almost like Jones-Drew had just finished a preseason matchup. It was hard even to talk about the loss when there were so many other things to catch up on. How's your conditioning? What did you think of Mularkey's offense? You and Gabbert, how was the communication?
It was all far too new, far too "nice to meet you, what can you offer this year?" to be September. Jones-Drew admitted that he didn't feel disappointed, not even after the kind of rollercoaster, overtime loss he'd just plowed his way through. He was more focused on what the team did right -- which admittedly was a longer list of accomplishments in most of last year's games -- but his attitude had a dose of laissez-faire excitement.
The team didn't hurt itself, Jones-Drew said. It needs to move on and recognize its mistakes along with its accomplishments. It needs to get ready for next week.
Ah, next week.
"I don't even know who's next," Jones-Drew admitted.
Houston, next Sunday at home.
"Oh, Houston. Well, we have to move to Houston next."
So yes, in many ways this still might be the preseason for Jones-Drew. And in a perfect world, maybe he'd have eased in a bit more slowly, to a still-developing quarterback and a new system, to a rookie wide receiver who seems poised to be a star. But this isn't a perfect world, and Jones-Drew proved Sunday that sometimes, a player can tire early and be uncomfortable and yet still be himself.
After a 2011 season in which he led the NFL in receiving yards, Jones-Drew returned with signs of last year's dominance. Last year, he finished with 1,606 rushing yards, 81.5 percent of his team's total. His 343 carries were good for 70.1 percent of all Jaguars' rushes, and there was no hiding the fact that he defined his team's offense, no matter its overall struggles. So no, no one was really surprised in the Jaguars' locker room on Sunday.
"Absolutely not," receiver Cecil Shorts said. "Me being a rookie last year, just seeing him tote the ball like that, him coming like that -- he came in in great shape. I wasn't surprised at all. He'll probably only get better from here."
The Jaguars can only hope. Despite playing well, Jones-Drew's 77 rushing yards were fewer than he scored in all but one game last year, a 63-yard outing against Houston on Oct. 30. This is not Maurice Jones-Drew in top form, and the team, no matter how frustrating that fact might be after a loss like Sunday's, is hoping that better things are to come.
Jones-Drew insisted there was no disappointment. Gabbert, too, seemed even-keel after the last-second loss, and Mularkey stressed repeatedly how proud he was of what his team accomplished. But accomplishments aside, this was still a loss, and no matter the impression Jones-Drew gave, the preseason ended more than a week ago. The excitement over Jones-Drew's return will continue, but it will wane. He's supposed to be this good, better even.
Next week, a loss will just be a loss, not an exciting reunion. Even this week, Jones-Drew could provide only the veneer of calm, the gloss over a deeper frustration. Marcedes Lewis refused to talk about his touchdown pass -- "We lost, so it don't even matter." -- and Gabbert acknowledged that his calm was little more than a disguise.
"Nobody likes to lose, especially myself," he said. "Maybe I'm just doing a good job of hiding it. But yeah, it makes my blood boil."
Next week, Gabbert should show it. Next week, Jones-Drew should know what team awaits on the schedule. Next week, Jones-Drew is just a talented running back, no longer a coveted commodity. Reality will set in, and last year, reality was not kind to the Jaguars.
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