JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - The preseason has been nearly perfect for the Jacksonville Jaguars.
Sure, star running back Maurice Jones-Drew is still holding out in what has become a messy contract dispute. But little else has gone wrong in Jacksonville.
The Jaguars have won both exhibition games, and more importantly, quarterback Blaine Gabbert, running back Rashad Jennings and receiver Justin Blackmon - widely considered the team's biggest concerns heading into training camp - have been better than just about anyone expected.
"It's the preseason, so you don't want to call home and tell the wife that you've won the lottery and the whole family can stop working," cornerback Rashean Mathis said Sunday. "But it's definitely a great feeling to see the offense march the ball down the field and do the things they've done. It would be impressive no matter what emblem is on the helmet. I'm just glad it's a Jaguar."
Gabbert has completed 16-of-26 passes for 174 yards and three touchdowns, scoring on the opening drive of each game. Filling in for Jones-Drew, Jennings has 23 carries for 118 yards. And Blackmon, a first-round draft pick who missed 12 days of camp because of a DUI charge that hindered contract negotiations, caught four passes for 48 yards and a score in his debut.
"It's the preseason, but it's always good to see things happening and see us moving in a positive direction," guard Uche Nwaneri said. "You don't want to get too far ahead of yourself. We've accomplished some things, but we haven't achieved anything yet. We want to keep working and carrying this momentum into the regular season."
It starts with Gabbert, the former first-round draft pick from Missouri who struggled in nearly every aspect of the game as a rookie. His pocket presence, especially under pressure, got more attention than his long, blonde hair (it has since been cut). Gabbert ranked last in the NFL in passing, completing 50.8 percent of his throws for 2,214 yards, with 12 touchdowns and 11 interceptions.
There were plenty of excuses for his poor play: He was just 21 years old, spent his college career in a spread offense, had no offseason program because of the NFL lockout, was saddled with a lame-duck coaching staff and one of the worst groups of receivers in the league, and got thrown into action after starter David Garrard was surprisingly cut.
"There's circumstances last year that I won't talk about, but there was a lot of things that were not in his favor to have a chance to step up and throw the ball like he is (doing) today," new coach Mike Mularkey said.
Mularkey spent much of the offseason tweaking Gabbert's mechanics, and the changes have been noticeable through training camp and two preseason games.
"He's one of our most improved guys in training camp," Mularkey said. "We all knew he was capable of it, but we needed to see it happen in these games against good defenses. These are two good defenses we've faced."
Gabbert completed 5-of-10 passes for 62 yards and a touchdown in a 32-31 win against the New York Giants. He completed 13-of-16 passes for 112 yards and two scores in last week's 27-24 victory against the New Orleans Saints.
Jennings has been equally impressive, averaging 5.1 yards a carry.
A seventh-round draft pick in 2009 from Liberty, the 6-foot-1, 228-pound Jennings has had no setbacks from last year's season-ending ankle injury. He has better-than-average size for the position, plenty of speed to get to the edge and soft enough hands to be an every-down back.
And he could be the guy on opening day.
It's unclear when or if Jones-Drew will return to Jacksonville. He wants a new contract, but owner Shad Khan and general manager Gene Smith have made it clear they have no intentions of renegotiating a deal that has two years remaining and already has paid the 27-year-old back nearly $22 million.
Blackmon's holdout caused him to miss the preseason opener. But the former Oklahoma State standout showed exactly why the Jaguars traded up to select him with the fifth overall pick. He caught all four passes thrown his way, including a nifty nab in traffic. He turned up field and scored on them 16-yarder.
"It was very rewarding," Blackmon said. "I put in a lot of extra hours trying to catch up. ... It's not surprising. It's just going out there and executing."
Mularkey reminded his players that they still have two weeks of work remaining before the season opener, but he stopped short of downplaying the wins.
"You're trying to build some confidence in yourself, in what you're doing," Mularkey said. "I don't want to take anything (away from them). We're trying to build confidence in our team and we feel good about what we're doing, and we worked hard to earn that."