As a Cubs fan, I am conditioned to be patient, to try and temper my expectations and most of all, to be prepared for disappointment. With opening day finally here, I can’t help but think about how this Cubs season is particularly unique, as the waiting part isn’t just implied; the leader of the Cubs’ new brain trust, president Theo Epstein, has said as much. The arrival of Epstein in Chicago was met with frenzied excitement, but also with the understanding that blowing things up and starting fresh, doing things the “Cubs Way,” as Epstein has billed it, is going to take time. There will be more than a few growing pains in 2012, as the Cubs this offseason went bargain hunting to fill out the roster with temporary placeholders while the young, future faces of the franchise continue to develop and wait in the wings.
And having said all that, I couldn’t be more excited for the start of another baseball season. Typical Cubs fan: glutton for pain.
Thus, in the spirit of opening day, I thought it would be fun to take a look at one player from each team in the AFC South who does not get the benefit of patience, any built-in excuses, or waiting another year. No, the following four players are entering you-know-what-or-get-off-the-pot seasons for their respective clubs. Unlike Cubs fans, who are always told they must wait another year, fans of these four teams have run out of patience.
Texans WR Jacoby Jones
If the fans in Houston had it their way, Jones — not ORT Eric Winston or ILB DeMeco Ryans — would be a former Texan. It is easy to point to Jones’ meltdown in the AFC divisional playoff game, when his muffed punt deep in Houston territory led to a gift-wrapped Ravens TD from which the Texans would never fully recover. But the list goes on for Jones, whose lack of consistency has long been a source of headaches for Texans fans throughout his five-year stint with the club.
With No. 1 WR Andre Johnson hamstrung much of the 2011 campaign, Jones never stepped up to the plate as a consistent weapon in the passing game. His big-play ability tantalizes, but his production underwhelms. With Houston finally acknowledging that it needs another wideout to make life easier for Johnson and QB Matt Schaub, Jones likely will be under the gun with a high-round draft pick breathing down his back this offseason.
Titans DLE Derrick Morgan
Unlike Jones, Morgan’s biggest detriment entering Year Three of his professional career has been health. He was just starting to flash in Week Four of his rookie season when he blew out his knee. It has been a long road back, with a scope performed on the same knee last offseason and continual bumps and bruises for the former 16th overall pick along the way. In 19 career games, Morgan has mustered only four sacks. Not helping his cause was Tennessee’s decision last offseason to part ways with DE Jason Babin, who followed up his 12½ sack season in Nashville in 2010 with an NFL-best 18 sacks for the Eagles this past season. As a result, the Titans were the league’s second-worst pass-rushing club, and Morgan’s critics grew less patient. The acquisition of Kamerion Wimbley to pair with Morgan should be a benefit, but the time is now for Morgan to break through. With the tone setter of the defense, CB Cortland Finnegan, no longer with the club, the Titans would like nothing more than for Morgan to take on the role and begin consistently instilling fear in opposing QBs.
Jaguars OT Eben Britton
When Jaguars GM Gene Smith was hired, he spent his first two draft picks on a pair of OTs, Eugene Monroe and Britton, whom he hoped would bookend the front wall for the next decade. Britton, who was selected in the second round, played more like a first-rounder than Monroe as a rookie. The size, intelligence and tenacity that made Smith so high on Britton was on full display, and it appeared the sky was the limit. Fast-forward a couple of years and Britton has made just 10 starts in the past two seasons. A torn labrum cost him the second half of the 2010 campaign and chronic back issues forced him to miss almost the entire ’11 campaign. While Morgan nor Britton are to blame for their injury-riddled starts to their careers, the NFL is a cutthroat business where contracts can be terminated at the drop of a dime for injuries, as well as poor performance. I am not suggesting Britton is on the cutting block, but I will say that the Jaguars are running out of patience before they must consider addressing the tackle position again.
Colts DE-OLB Jerry Hughes
After being virtually invisible in his first two NFL seasons — with the exception of whiffing on a key special-teams tackle of Jets CB Antonio Cromartie in the final minute of the Colts’ 2010 first-round playoff defeat — Hughes has been given a second chance. With new head coach Chuck Pagano looking to install a 3-4 defense, the 31st overall pick in 2010 should have an opportunity to show he can get after QBs from a two-point stance the way he did at TCU. Former Colts defensive coordinator Larry Coyer had big plans for Hughes, hoping to find ways to put him on the field at the same time as perennial Pro Bowl DEs Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis. But those plans never materialized, as Hughes struggled to make the jump to the pros and, at times, didn’t appear all that interested in getting better. Entering Year Three with only one career sack and one career start under his belt, Hughes couldn’t be in a better situation under a new defensive scheme that, above everything else, promotes pressure. If Hughes can’t still find a role this season with the Colts, chances are it isn’t going to happen in Indianapolis.