In These Trying Times

Shellacking is a word Barack Obama reinserted into the American vernacular following the 2010 midterms.  The Jaguars gave a shellacking to the Buccaneers four days ago, beating them 41-14 at home. They received a shellacking tonight, losing 14-41 to the Falcons.  There’s some twisted beauty in the symmetry.

A football season is a life lived in seventeen weeks; a few more if you’re lucky.  Even in seasons where nothing seems redeemable, when hope has been mathematically dashed away, a moment of joy will come around as it did last Sunday.  It’s easy to let that boil away when faced with a night like tonight.

There’s nothing to be gained from hand-wringing about tonight’s performance.  In baseball, where statistics carry even more weight than in football, it would have been considered essentially inevitable. 29 players on injured reserve. A combined receiving roster with less catches on the season than one of Atlanta’s receivers.  The soon-to-be-youngest-quarterback-to-start-as-many-games-consecutively in NFL history. A steward of the throne calling plays with the derelict coach removed mid-season.  Even Maurice Jones-Drew, strong as he is, can carry no such load alone.

The events in Denver make matters no easier.  The ignorant contingent point to unexplainable success and declare nothing short of salvation awaits on the mountaintop.  Sometimes kickers miss field goals. Sometimes Marion Barber steps out of bounds in the last two minutes, then proceeds to fumble in overtime. Sometimes fat ladies at the Imperial Palace hit the jackpot on adjacent slot machines on consecutive pulls.  Sometimes, John Elway sits at home alone, toying with a revolver, drinking aged whisky and weeping silently for the secret burden of truth that only he carries.  Every once in a while, even statistics fail.

The same objective eye, however, that knew tonight was unlikely to result in victory, will surely tell you that we’re not nearly as far off as it may feel at this second.  Look at who you see on the field. Will Cloherty or Pryce, Owusu-Ansa or Rutland, Whimper or Bradfield be in the starting lineup next year? The answer is clearly no. That requires no ill will towards them; while eminently more qualified than you or I may be, they simply lack the talent to be competitive at this level. There is no doubt that they will be replaced. The good news is that many of their replacements are already on our roster; they’ve just been placed on injured reserve. Most aren’t gone forever. Some, like D’Anthony Smith, haven’t even had a real chance yet.

There are areas where health isn’t the primary issue.  No doubt receiver is one of these.  Even our starters aren’t good enough.  That, too, will be resolved.  A new owner, a robust checkbook and a sizable free agent class will see to that.

Finally, some just need time.  And while it’s easy now for people to revert to this new stereotype of Gabbert being too “scared” and “shrinking in the pocket”, almost entirely based off of one slow-mo-zoom-in-Jon-Gruden-thing on Monday Night Football against the Ravens (a game we won, humorously enough), that’s simply not the fact.  Scared quarterbacks don’t take responsibility. Scared quarterbacks don’t show resiliency. Scared quarterbacks cause murmurs from their teammates. Scared quarterbacks actually shrink in the pocket or duck, and do so consistently. With exceedingly rare exception in these past weeks, that has not been the case.

A tall, blonde guy that would surely get carded if he tried to buy a beer was thrown into a new environment on the largest scale, promised that he’d be taken under the wings of two mentors in a stable, developmental position.  Within two weeks of the season’s beginning, one mentor was gone and the other so thoroughly dismantled by the Jets that he will never likely start for a team again.  Meanwhile, he was instructed by a man with almost no experience working with quarterbacks, who worked for an offensive coordinator severely limited by his last quarterback and by his boss, the head coach, a man we knew to be grasping at straws in order to try to save his own skin, whatever the cost.

Achieving complete perfection in creating a worst case scenario is the fact that even when Gabbert manages to do things right despite no instruction, not enough experience and a lunatic coaching environment, he is faced with alleged professionals who, with a ball thrown squarely between their hands and with no defensive coverage whatsoever, blatantly drop passes at what’s surely the highest rate in the league.

Imagine for one second being Blaine Gabbert.  The fact that his psyche isn’t so addled as to have him curled into a ball in a corner, rocking back and forth silently, proves him more willful and tenacious than most men.

When the team’s rebirth began in 2009, the process was made clear: Clean out the crap. Lay the foundation. Build prudently, slowly, surely.  I dare you to look at this roster– not the one that played today, but the one that shows the full account, and tell me that its quality is not exceptionally higher than that of 2008.

The beauty of the NFL is that while it can take a long time for a team to achieve a high level of play, any team can do so.  This isn’t like baseball, where the Yankees can just buy up all the talent.  Draft picks, not dollars, remain the most valuable currency.  And there are few of them; fewer still when a General Manager follows a dual mandate of attempting to be competitive both now and in the future, when starting with a roster so broken that only a small handful from the Shack Harris era remain.

Think: quietly, objectively, with consideration, about the state of this roster, and tell me where we remain truly broken.  There are less now than there were before.  That’s progress.

Good men are here, now.  Today’s arrest of Sam Hurd shows why that’s important.  A threshold of talent must be reached, but is nearing, whether it feels like it or not.  New leadership is required, and will be installed within weeks.  We are entering the final phases of a project we were set upon three years ago.  In the meantime, the franchise itself has grown stronger and has now found an owner who will provide stability for years to come.  That’s more important progress than could have ever come from the field of play.

Of course things feel disastrous now.  ”Patience is required” is frustrating to hear precisely because it’s true.  But take heart– or perhaps take mental note– that regardless of what this season may feel like, an objective reading shows more promise.  That in these trying times, it’s not just hope that springs eternal, but the simple fact of inevitable progress.