ST. LOUIS — Jaguars left guard Will Rackley could tell by the groans of his rookie teammate; this was bad, as bad as it gets. Tackle Luke Joeckel lay on his back late in the first quarter, his right ankle fractured during what would become the fifth consecutive loss of a broken season. “I’ve actually heard guys who sounded like they were in much more pain,” Rackley said. “He took it like a man.”
Even if this year’s second overall pick gritted his teeth, it was the worst-case scenario in a season of worsts: Early last week Jacksonville dealt starting left tackle Eugene Monroe to the Ravens for several draft picks and moved Joeckel from the right side of the line to the left. After a Rams defender rolled up on Joeckel’s leg from behind on a running play, quarterback Blaine Gabbert bumbled his way through another quarter and a half before leaving with a strained hamstring in a 34-20 loss to the struggling Rams. Things are going to get worse before they get better: Now the Jaguars travel to Denver to face the undefeated Broncos this Sunday, in what could be one of the most lopsided games in NFL history.
But to hear first-year coach Gus Bradley tell it, Jacksonville’s biggest battle isn’t playing out on the scoreboard. “I think for us a lot of things are taking place with our culture and our attitude and our work ethic,” he says. “We’ve had a lot of good victories in that context. I know in the NFL you get defined by winning and losing, and obviously our objective is to get the point where we can do that.”
After last weekend’s game Bradley spoke to the team about accountability, about conviction and about some of the good things they did in defeat. The players quietly dressed and packed their things as Bradley ran through an injury report as nonchalantly as a waiter reading the list of specials. “Luke Joeckel,” he said, “is out for the season.” And while players sat on an idling charter bus that would take them to the airport, Bradley and a contingent of his staff met with general manager David Caldwell for 20 minutes behind closed doors in the locker room—a meeting the team said wasn’t out of the ordinary.
I asked Caldwell if he ever imagined his first season as G.M. beginning this poorly. After pausing, he said, “We’ve always been hopeful that we would start better than this. We’re just going to keep going about our business and doing the things that we need to do to rectify our situation.”
It’s hard to imagine any measure of change mitigating the coming storm: Denver’s offense has scored 103 points over its last two games; all five of Jacksonville’s losses have come by double digits. The ties shared by the clubs mean more bad news for the Jags: Jack Del Rio, the man who coached Jacksonville in prouder days and who drafted Gabbert, is Denver’s defensive coordinator. And the Jaguars’ familiarity with Manning from his years with the Colts in the AFC South is less than comforting. “I’ve played against him multiple times,” says linebacker Russell Allen. “He’s as good as it gets. It’s like having a coach on the field. The best there is. We understand the success they’ve had, and we understand where we’re at. But we know that if we do the things we’re capable of doing, we have a chance.”
Oddsmakers aren’t giving them much of one. The Week 6 line could end up topping the biggest spread of all time, in 1976, when the reigning Super Bowl champion Steelers, even though they were just 8-4 at the time, were 27-point favorites over the expansion, 0-12 Buccaneers. Pittsburgh won 42-0. Sports books won’t ignore the success that Sam Bradford had against Jacksonville’s defense last Sunday when they try to set a large enough spread to split the interests of bettors. Though Bradford has struggled with inconsistency, he hit seven different receivers and even picked on Jacksonville’s best corner, Will Blackmon, for a 31-yard toss-up to Austin Pettis for the final score; St. Louis put up the most points it’s had since Nov. 28, 2010. Meanwhile, Manning was picking apart the Cowboys’ defense for 414 passing yards and four touchdowns.
“I haven’t thought about Denver yet; I’ve got enough on my mind after this one,” said Jaguars cornerback Alan Ball. “I don’t even know how to gamble, so I don’t know anything about lines. People on the outside are going to say we’re underdogs. I can’t guarantee anything. I know we’re going to show up, and they’re going to show up and that’s it.”
As much pressure as there will be on the defense to stop Manning, who has completed 75.8% of his throws for 1,884 yards and a 20 touchdowns (he threw his first interception of the season on Sunday), there will be just as much on Jacksonville’s offense to keep pace with the fireworks. “You have to go out there with great confidence. It is what it is—we plan to win a football game,” says Cameron Bradfield, a seldom-used tackle who split time on the right side after Monroe was traded and who moved to the left when Joeckel was hurt. “If you go out there and think the odds are against you, bad stuff happens. We’re not going to go in less confident because things haven’t gone our way.”
The Jaguars got wideout Justin Blackmon, their 23-year-old first-round pick in 2012, back last weekend following a four-game suspension for violating the league’s substance abuse policy. He was one of the few bright spots against St. Louis, catching passes from both Gabbert and backup Chad Henne for 136 yards and a score. Bradley said Gabbert, who completed 9 of 19 passes for a TD and two interceptions against the Rams, would be the starter next Sunday if he’s healthy enough to play. But neither quarterback is likely to move the ball against the Broncos—or move the line to a more respectable number.