|Blaine Gabbert is slotted to be The Man for the Jags, not Maurice-Jones Drew. (Getty Images)|
JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- The locker in the middle of a row of them sits empty with a No. 32 practice jersey hanging, neat and tidy in this sparkling, new, club-like locker room. On a chair sits an unopened package for Jacksonville Jaguars running back Maurice Jones-Drew.
No, it is not a new contract.
Nor will there be one coming his way.
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Jones-Drew, who has two years left on his contract, is a holdout, sitting out daily to the tune of $30,000 fines because he doesn't like the deal he has with the team and the team flat out won't give him a new one.
That has most in the national media taking up for the short, powerful runner, chastising the Jaguars for not paying their only true star, their only nationally recognizable player. The Jaguars, they say, are being cheap, thrifty and disrespectful.
How about smart?
Here are the facts: Jones-Drew led the NFL in rushing last year and the team went 5-11 with the sixth-ranked defense to go along with it. How much worse off would they have been if he didn't play?
Jones-Drew's problem is he's a running back in a league where the position has been more devalued than being Tom Cruise's rent-a-wife. This is a passing league and while the Jaguars were a run-first team under Jack Del Rio, the new staff appears smart enough to move away from that, and with each day he's away, Jones-Drew fades a little more from the team's consciousness.
He might want to rethink his position. He might be the face of the franchise, but that face lately has been one big frown.
This is about to become quarterback Blaine Gabbert's team, which is why it's not so bad if Jones-Drew, who is due to make $4.45 million this season, is away for now.
"I don't drive home or sit in my office worrying about it," first-year Jaguars coach Mike Mularkey said. "I don't waste the energy."
Mularkey hasn't even met Jones-Drew. Nor has running backs coach Sylvester Croom.
Not a handshake. Not a visit. Nothing. There have been a few calls, but that's it. Nothing else. And that's on Jones-Drew, the supposed leader of this team. Shouldn't he get to know his new coach at some point? After all, Mularkey isn't making the money calls.
"I don't know him at all," Mularkey said.
And that's the danger in Jones-Drew's holdout. How do you know what you're missing if you don't know what it is?
Gabbert, the second-year passer who struggled mightily, as a rookie looks much more sure of himself now. He's also acting like the alpha male of the offense, especially with Jones-Drew playing the pay-me game.
"I see a guy taking charge in the huddle," Mularkey said Monday after his team's practice.
Jones-Drew is 27 now. When this contract ends, he will be 29. That's ancient for a running back. Jones-Drew also carried a league-high 343 times last season, which is a lot of pounding for a smaller back.
He did an admirable job on an offense that was pass-deficient with Gabbert as a rookie. But even though he rushed for 1,606 yards, the tape showed he left yards on the field. The cutback ability and breakaway ability just didn't appear to be the same when you watched the tape.
I get why Jones-Drew wants the new deal. He sees it as a cash-in time. But the Jaguars and owner Shad Khan are dug-in on this one, even among the catcalls from many in the media that the organization is doing him wrong.
No, this is smart business. Remember this is a team that raced to give Del Rio and quarterback David Garrard beefy new contracts when they won a playoff game in 2007. They were killed by both of them.
Whereas in the past, Del Rio or somebody could go to Weaver and usually get him to agree to a contract extension for a player, Khan is less apt to do that. He seems much less emotional about business dealings than was Weaver before he sold the team to Khan last year.
In Jones-Drew's absence, Rashad Jennings is running with the first team. He is a third-year player who has impressed this offseason. He is coming off a knee injury, but he averaged 5.4 yards on his 123 carries in his first two seasons.
At 6-1, 228 pounds, he has showed no affects from the 2011 injury and might be in the best shape of his career.
"I like big backs like that," Mularkey said. "He's going to be tough to tackle."
One man's greed is another man's opportunity. But Jennings wouldn't bite when asked about if it's a good thing for him that Jones-Drew isn't here.
"There's no difference," he said. "You still get your opportunities. It's not about me personally, it's about this team."
I call garbage on that one. Who doesn't want to play? Even when I pressed Jennings to say Jones-Drew not being around was good for him, he wouldn't bite.
But I can tell you this: The Jaguars, including the players, don't seem real concerned about Jones-Drew not being around.
Since the Jaguars are dug in, the interesting thing will be whether Mularkey imposes the $30,000-a-day fines for Jones-Drew. Word is he will, even if he won't say. The message would be wrong if he didn't, and this is a coach who will send messages.
As I looked at Jones-Drew's empty locker, I joked with Jaguars safety Courtney Greene, sitting at his locker a few over, that there should be an ATM at the locker dispensing $30,000 daily. It brought a chuckle from Green, but I'm sure it isn't bringing much laughter to Jones-Drew or his family, knowing on a daily basis they are losing more than many people make in a year.
What if he doesn't show?
"That's a moot point," Gabbert said. "I don't think that thought has come through anybody's mind."
Except maybe for the guy whose No. 32 jersey remained clean, hanging in a locker he has never used in a locker room that he once ruled as the team's big dog. That title could be slipping away with a change in offensive style and his insistence on a new deal and a coach who has never even met the man.