MINNEAPOLIS - Blaine Gabbert reminded the Jaguars why they made him the 10th pick in the 2011 draft.
He still has a long way to go, though, before he can make the NFL forget why Jacksonville finished last in the league in total offense a year ago.
Gabbert went 23 for 39 for 260 yards and two touchdowns - including an impressive 39-yard scoring toss with 20 seconds to play in regulation - in Jacksonville's 26-23 overtime loss at Minnesota on Sunday.
After a day of tough running by Maurice Jones-Drew, who skipped training camp in protest over his contract, and Gabbert's final touchdown throw to Cecil Shorts III in the corner of the end zone, the Jaguars looked well on their way to starting the new season on a high note.
But after two quick passes by Christian Ponder, Vikings rookie Blair Walsh nailed a game-tying 55-yard field goal as the fourth quarter ended. Walsh hit a 38-yard kick again in overtime, and Gabbert was hurried into a fourth-down overthrow on Jacksonville's final series.
"At the end of the day, you can't control what just happened," Gabbert said. "It's in the past. It's history. So my job and this team's job is to learn from this past game."
Jones-Drew, who saw more action than originally planned due to starting tailback Rashad Jennings' knee injury, gained 77 yards on 19 carries for the Jaguars.
"It was good to be out there, standing with them, be out on the pass game, block a little, get hit," Jones-Drew said. "I just want to continue to improve, understand the offense more so Blaine doesn't have to tell me where to go half the time."
Indeed, Gabbert seemed in control of the offense for most of the game.
Starting fresh after finishing last year with a league-worst 65.4 passer rating, he looked more comfortable in the pocket to start his sophomore season and didn't force any throws. Gabbert completed passes to nine different receivers and converted 8 of 15 times on third and fourth down in regulation.
But he also missed Justin Blackmon in the end zone early, dropped a snap in the third quarter that led to a Vikings touchdown, and his fourth-down overthrow to end the game wasn't even close.
"I'm not sure what he saw from back there," new Jaguars coach Mike Mularkey said. "I'll have to look at tape on that. I think he was just trying to make a play."
The loss spoiled the debut for Mularkey, who played for the Vikings in the 1980s and was Atlanta's offensive coordinator the past four seasons.
Nevertheless, Mularkey and Gabbert's teammates had praise for their quarterback.
"I thought he took another step forward today because this is a tough place to play against that team and this environment," Mularkey said. "He made some good throws to give us a chance to win all the way to the end."
Cornerback Chris Cook's sack helped force a punt by the Jaguars in the closing minutes, but the Vikings went three-and-out and punted the ball right back clinging to a 20-15 lead. With no timeouts, 91 seconds left and starting at his 24-yard line, Gabbert responded with his most-impressive drive of the game - and perhaps of his brief career.
Gabbert completed a fourth-down pass to Blackmon and then found Shorts open in man-to-man coverage against Cook near the sideline. Shorts, who had only two receptions last season, pivoted to make a twisting catch just inside the pylon, sending a stunned silence over the stadium.
"I think for Blaine and Cecil, two guys coming off last year, to improve the way they have, that's a great sign of what we have to come," Jones-Drew said. "We just have to continue to work. It's a tough loss, yes, but there's a lot that we can learn from there."
That's at the very least promising, considering the Jaguars produced fewer total yards than any other NFL team last season.
"I'll see if this team has a serious fight in them," Mularkey said. "These are things we've got to learn, to get over the disappointment. Just like plays, you get bad plays, you've got to go to the next one, you've got to get over it as quickly as you can and get ready. It's important we do that this week."
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