Entering the 2020 season, many Jaguars fans and local media alike believed the Jaguars would be a bad team, but not bad enough to compete for the number one pick. How wrong we were...
One particular reason for my thinking that this young team would be a bit more competitive than a 1-6 record would indicate was the connection that quarterback Gardner Minshew and wide receiver DJ Chark exhibited in 2019.
This past offseason, these two were highly complimentary of each other, and both seemed genuinely giddy to get things going in the regular season. They worked out away from the team facility, along with several other offensive skills players. It was easy to assume that these two would help get the Jaguars' offense on track in 2020.
But the connection hasn't been what Chark and Minshew imagined, and it's been far from what I expected.
In the first two games of the season, at home against the Colts and on the road versus the Titans, the two were efficient, but Chark didn't receive much of a target share. Minshew was 7/7 in those two contests when targeting Chark, and they linked up on a touchdown in week one. Still, targeting a Pro Bowl receiver just 3.5 per game over a two-week span is far from acceptable.
In week three, DJ popped up late on in the injury report with a chest ailment and missed the Jags matchup with Dolphins.
But just a week later, Minshew-to-Chark was as potent as ever. Chark hauled in eight of his nine targets and found the end zone twice. While the Jaguars again lost, it at least looked like the offense was getting on track.
Not so fast!
In week five, Minshew targeted Chark just four times against the Texans, and Chark managed a measly 16 yards on three catches. Not the type of numbers and efficiency you look for from your top receiver and quarterback.
Still, it didn't appear that the link between Minshew and Chark had been severed. But in weeks six and seven, there were some dangerous steps in the wrong direction. Against the Lions in week six, the two appeared to have zero chemistry. Minshew missed Chark several times, and then Chark dropped the ball or two that he should have been able to reel in. Chark was visibly frustrated on the field. Chark caught seven passes for 45 yards, but on 14 targets, that's nowhere near the efficiency these two regularly share. In the post-game press conference, when asked what the Texans' defenders did to slow down the Jaguars' receivers, Chark replied, "I mean, I felt like we were open. Yeah." It's not difficult to read between the lines with such a comment. That was a direct shot at Gardner Minshew and his inability to either find the open man or get the ball to him.
In week seven, as the Jaguars took on the Chargers in Los Angeles, the situation reached a boiling point. Chark's body language throughout the game likely would have earned him a fine if Tom Coughlin were still running the show in Jacksonville. Minshew targeted Chark seven times, but Chark caught just one of those passes. Yikes.
So, why isn't this combination working in recent weeks? I believe it all stems from the immense pressure that these two have put on themselves this year. Minshew and Chark are supposed to be the best of what the Jaguars' offense has to offer, and during a six-game losing streak in which the team averages just 21 points per game, tempers can run high. Chark is discouraged, and it's now affecting his game. There certainly have been times when Minshew has missed Chark or not put the ball in the right place at the right time, but overall until week seven, the situation felt manageable.
What happened to cause Minshew and Chark to only convert on one of seven pass attempts? Let's take a look.
It's first down on the opening drive of the game. Minshew drops back and targets Chark on the right side of the field. The pass sailed out of bounds on an apparent miscommunication. Minshew threw the ball as if Chark was going to cut out towards the sideline, but Chark stopped as if running a quick button hook or turn around. Not the start the two were looking for.
Now, it's third down, just a play later after a six-yard run from James Robinson. Minshew drops back and targets Chark over the middle. He delivers the pass right where it needs to be. It's not the tightest spiral the world has ever seen, but it's on time and accurate. DJ inexplicably let the ball fall to the ground. And just like that, three and out for the Jaguars.
The Jags' second drive of the game came and went without another look from Minshew to Chark. But on the third drive, on third and 12, Minshew once again targeted his top wideout. Chark got to the line to gain, but Minshew, with pressure in his face, got too much juice on the pass as it sailed too high. I would chalk this one up to Minshew's lack of overall arm strength. A QB with a live arm likely would have been able to get the ball out with velocity and in a more accurate spot for the receiver.
Finally, we have our one and only completion! It's first and ten, and the Jaguars are already down big with 10:28 left in the first half. Minshew finds Chark coming from left to right out of a bunch formation 26 yards downfield. It may not have been a perfect pass, but it was delivered in between the two levels of coverage where only Chark could get his hands on it. Chark got up after the play, rolled the ball in the direction of the ref, and swaggered back to the huddle.
It's now second and seven with just over three minutes left in the third quarter. The Jaguars are just outside the red zone and trail 21-22. Minshew targets Chark on a crosser and delivers the ball just low. It's a ball that we've seen Chark catch on many occasions, but this time he was unable to bring it in. Chark was slow to get up after the play, appearing to aggravate his left shoulder.
When the Jaguars needed this pair the most, down ten points with a few minutes left in the game, they faltered on two straight plays. Third and eight, Minshew throws it deep down the right sideline for Chark, but the pass is too wide for Chark to bring in with both feet in bounds. Chark made a hell of a play on the ball, but Minshew needed to give him more of a chance. Minshew targeted Chark again on fourth down, and his pass landed nowhere near his target. Chark slowly walked off the field. That incompletion effectively ended the Jaguars' chances of snapping their losing streak.
So what's up with this once dynamic duo? For one, they're both unquestionably pressing. This season hasn't gone the way they expected, and as it begins to spiral out of control, these two are trying, perhaps too hard, to get back on the right track. Then there's the issue of Gardner Minshew's game as a whole. He's not playing as well as he has at times throughout his young career. In fact, he's playing the worst football we've seen from him. I think it's fair to say that DJ doesn't have the same faith he once did in Gardner. Neither do I. His lack of arm strength appears to be his most consistent issue on tape.
Can they fix it? Only time will tell. The team has a bye week to try to get things right before they take on the Texans in week nine. Minshew told the media they'd work through the bye to try to reconnect. "The bye week will be a good opportunity to take a look at it and get him back to the Pro Bowl level he really is."
On Tuesday morning, Jaguars' head coach Doug Marrone addressed the relationship between Minshew and Chark: "I don't see a problem with the relationship. So, it's not that. I do acknowledge that we haven't been doing as good of a job as we've done early in the year. So, I think that could cause frustration. And I think for us as coaches we've got be challenged to upgrade ourselves there. The one thing we have to do a better job of is obviously their intermediate game and obviously our deep game" ... "It's definitely something we can improve on from a coaching stand point and player stand point. We've got to go ahead and keep fighting. Like I said, It's not the way we want to do it whether it's from Gardner or DJ. Both of them at times, as well as everyone else, is frustrated. But at the same time, what are we going to do moving forward? That's the big question. How can we get it better? How can we do a better job of it? But as far as the relationship, there hasn't been any issues in the locker room."
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