NEW ORLEANS – The ball flashed across the middle of the opposing secondary, its destination unclear – until, in an instant, a pair of hands reached out and snatched it out of the artificially cooled air. The hands belonged to Justin Blackmon, the Jacksonville Jaguars’ high-profile rookie receiver, who was about to complete the first possession of his first NFL preseason game with a 16-yard touchdown catch.
On the opposite side of the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, Shad (Shahid) Khan, the Jaguars’ rookie owner, broke off an interview in mid-sentence and let out a loud “Whooooooooo!” that reverberated throughout the visiting owner’s suite. He and his son, Tony, the team’s senior vice president of football technology and analytics, embraced emphatically, thrilled that the player for whom they traded up to draft with the fifth overall pick in April had made such an auspicious debut.
“He is the real thing,” Khan said of Blackmon, sporting a massive smile under his iconic mustache. “On draft night, we felt we had to have him. This is why.”
The fact that much-maligned second-year quarterback Blaine Gabbert, whose shaky pocket presence was a symbol of the 2011 Jags’ failures, had delivered the pass while absorbing a hit from Saints DE Junior Galette made the moment even sweeter. The play gave the Jags a quick lead in a preseason game Friday night that they would ultimately win by a 27-24 score, improving their exhibition record to 2-0.
If Khan was in any way bothered by the absence of the Jags’ highest-profile player, holdout halfback Maurice Jones-Drew, he did a nice job of concealing his concern in a first-quarter conversation with Y! Sports. With the reigning NFL rushing champion now more than three weeks into a training-camp boycott that has cost him more than $600,000 ($30,000 per day in fines) and no indication that he plans to report anytime soon, Khan made it clear that he has no intention of giving Jones-Drew the new deal he desires.
“He’s not here, and that’s his decision,” Khan said of Jones-Drew, who has two years remaining on the five-year, $31-million deal he signed in 2009. “Believe me, it’s not a great concern. You hope for the best, and you plan for the worst. Our goals for the season don’t change, and if he isn’t here, he isn’t here. I don’t control it. It’s his choice.”
In other words, confronted with his first conspicuous staredown since purchasing the team from Wayne Weaver late last year, Khan doesn’t plan on blinking. This was his position before training camp began and a private meeting with the player last month that lasted several hours did nothing to weaken his resolve.
To Khan, this is more than a test of his power, and more than a chance to set a precedent for players who might try to leverage him in the future. It’s also a labor dispute that evokes past experiences, many of which, in his mind, required far more gumption than he’s currently being asked to summon.
As someone who made his fortune in the auto-parts business, Khan has faced off against powerful unions and riled-up workers who weren’t subtle about driving home their displeasure.
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“I’ve been involved in many kind of industrial business dealings,” Khan said. “I’ve encountered strikes and violence. And if you don’t handle that, you’re not around to see them through.”
Simply put, some of Khan’s past experiences have been far scarier than the thought of going into a football season with Rashad Jennings as his starting halfback. And unless he returns home to Illinois to find bullet holes through his windshield or similarly menacing acts of vandalism, his inclination will be to remain calm.
“Believe me,” he insisted, “on a zero-to-10 level of stress, this doesn’t even move the needle.”
In Khan’s eyes, the frontloaded deal Jones-Drew signed was a fair one, especially considering that the Jags ended up paying out more than $3 million more in 2010 and 2011 than they would have had they franchised the player for each of those seasons – while assuming the added risk associated with a long-term contract.
It’s also logical that Khan expects Jones-Drew to flinch first, given the potentially steep financial consequences that would accompany a season-long holdout. Jones-Drew, who is due to make $4.45 million in 2012 and another $4.95 million in 2013, received a $17.5-million signing bonus when he signed his extension. If he fails to honor his contract, the team could go after a prorated share of the bonus, which is roughly $3.5 million per season.
Then there is the mounting total from the daily, $30,000 fines that Jones-Drew continues to accrue. Even if he reports well before the start of the regular season, Jones-Drew is unlikely to recoup that cash. A Jags front-office source said any decision about whether to forgive the fines would be made by first-year coach Mike Mularkey, who has yet to meet Jones-Drew in person. (The two men have spoken on the phone several times.) Given their relatively undeveloped relationship, the source said, the smart money is not on Mularkey opting to give Jones-Drew his money back.
Beyond the dispute with Jones-Drew, Khan has big plans for the franchise he purchased for a reported $760 million. He says he is deeply committed to fielding a winning team and “doing what it takes to make this work” in the Jacksonville market, perhaps the NFL’s least-fertile territory.
His first order of business is to eliminate the upper-deck tarps that in recent years have covered an estimated 10,000 of the 76,867 seats at EverBank Field. Khan, who has likened the tarps’ presence to “underachieving” , said he expects to address the problem in the very near future.
“Stay tuned, because to me, we’ve got to start taking the tarps off,” he said. “I look at that and it frankly sucks my energy. I really don’t want to subscribe to excuse-making and talk about the challenges of the market – I just want to solve the problem. And if we can take them down for two games this season, or even one game, it’s progress.
"Eventually, winning solves all of these issues. And I wouldn’t be in this business if I didn’t think we would win. I’ve lived the American Dream, and I’m blessed financially. If you’re looking for a return on your investment, this would be one of the worst-performing businesses possible. That’s not why I bought the team. It’s a competitive challenge. I want to win.”
If Khan made one thing clear Friday night, it’s that he looks forward to a season in which Blackmon’s presence theoretically makes the Jags a more explosive team than they were in 2011. Whether Jones-Drew joins him – and, if so, when, and at what cost – remains to be seen.
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