Justin Blackmon was once again suspended for violation of the NFL's substance abuse policy on Tuesday, a four game suspension at the start of the 2013 season stemming from a failed drug test for an unknown substance. This is Blackmon's second violation in less than a year and his third in less than three years. The gifted but troubled receiver now appears to be at a crossroads in his relatively short career and indeed his life. Therefore the question must be asked..
Where do all parties involved in this situation go from here?
The Jacksonville Jaguars could possibly wash their hands of Blackmon altogether following this latest suspension. The latest test has triggered a clause in his contract that states the Jags can cut Blackmon without having to pay him the $10 million he has left on his remaining four years with the team. This could look like an appealing option for General Manager Dave Caldwell as Blackmon has flattered to deceive when it comes to his rehabilitation. He has been in the NFL substance abuse program for some time now and some within the Jaguars organization felt that he'd finally turned the corner. This latest regression could have a catastrophic effect not only on Blackmon's ability to contribute during the season, but on the Jaguars chances of having a respectable win total for the 2013 season. It is generally perceived that NFL players need about three regular season games to get into their rhythm and adjust to the pace of the game after such a long time off. Given Blackmon's four-game suspension, it would be hard to imagine he would contribute greatly to the team until week 7 or 8. That's half the season gone and that is time Jacksonville just doesn't have. Their deflated fan-base is already extremely disillusioned with the direction the franchise is heading in and another disappointing season would see attendances decrease further resulting in more speculation regarding a possible move to Los Angeles. Do they really want to be paying someone $10 million when they can't rely on him? Only time will tell regarding that, my guess is that they give Blackmon one more chance to prove he is worth all the fuss he is causing the team and himself. He is one of the few players on the team that generate any kind of excitement and getting rid of him would have a substantial effect on the watchability of the Jags, not to mention the merchandise sales from the Blackmon name.
What's most frustrating for the Jags is the games Blackmon is missing. When the schedule was released, everyone in the organization would have identified the majority of the first four fixtures as winnable games. The Kansas City Chiefs, who had a complete overhaul in the off-season, may take some time to gel with so many new faces and the Jags couldn't be catching them at a better time in their first game. Next is the troubled Oakland Raiders, who seem to have gone younger and ditched most of their veteran talent and it is feared by many they will be easily exposed throughout the season, so another fantastic opportunity for the Jaguars to claim a victory and a legitimate chance of going into week 3 of the season at 2-0. Next is the daunting task of trying to overcome the Seattle Seahawks, who after an impressive off-season look primed for a deep run in the Playoffs and have been identified as one of the pre-season favourites to lift the Lombardi Trophy in 2014. Realistically, the Jags would expect nothing from this game. Anything can happen in the NFL, but they just don't match up well with the Seahawks and any positives they get from this game would be a bonus. The final game of Blackmon's suspension is against the Indianapolis Colts, who surprised everybody by making the Playoffs last year. They are not expected to do so again and even though this would be somewhat of a shock, the Jags would think they could get a victory even when most onlookers would severely doubt it. Of course, without their primary offensive weapon this becomes far more difficult to emerge from this favorable set of games with a winning record.
This is also terrible news for beleaguered Quarterback Blaine Gabbert without question. When the Jags passed on West Virginia Quarterback Geno Smith at the top of the draft it was evident that Gabbert would be given another chance to succeed. They drafted a potential All-Pro tackle in Luke Joeckel and now Gabbert has two primary tackles he can count on to give him time to go through his progressions and maximize his chances of succeeding. That is all well and good but if his receivers are having difficulty getting open then the selection of another quality tackle could end up with irrelevant to Gabbert and he will continue to struggle. He seemed to develop a nice chemistry with Blackmon at times during the 2012 season and it was thought with another off-season to develop their chemistry then both could make significant strides in their careers. With this setback, Gabbert must now rely on a crop of uninspiring receivers to aid him in his 'make or break' season. The Jaguars used mid-round picks on Ace Sanders and Denard Robinson, the former Michigan Quarterback who is making the transition to Wide Receiver in the NFL. Even the best rookie receivers have trouble adjusting the the NFL level during their first season and it's almost too much to ask for mid-round picks to play at the level Blackmon was expected to this season. The rest are a collection of cast-offs and receivers who are looking for a final chance on a struggling team. Hardly encouraging news for a Quarterback who's job and possibly his career is at stake this season.
On a positive note for Blackmon, the Jags are highly unlikely to ditch someone so obviously talented. They invested the 5th overall selection in the 2012 NFL draft on him when he came out of Oklahoma State and expected him to be their go-to receiver for the next ten years. He is highly skilled, has great hands and is a nightmare to cover one-on-one for most of the corners in the league. His physicality is his greatest asset and can create space with ease. He has been accused of taking plays off and did appear to lose interest due to the Jaguars dismal form throughout the season, which is definitely a concern. However, with 64 receptions and 865 yards, including 5 touchdowns, he had an extremely successful Rookie season given all troubles Jacksonville experienced throughout the season. The powers-that-be may be willing to give him one last chance based on his potential alone. We have seen it throughout the years with most NFL teams and Wide Receivers and this time should be no different, it is widely regarded as the 'Diva' position in the NFL and it has become evident throughout history that the better the receiver is, the more problems seem to occur. Whether it be Terrel Owens, Randy Moss, or most recently Des Bryant, great receivers often come with baggage and some have teams have significant trouble dealing with it. The key is managing these enigmatic characters to get the best out of them. Some need 'tough love', others prefer the arm around the shoulder approach. Either way, it's their production that makes teams more lenient. When their productivity decreases, as was the case with Owens and Chad Ochocinco, teams do not hesitate in releasing them as they simply aren't worth the trouble. Blackmon still has his best years ahead of him and has the potential to be a Pro Bowl receiver if he continues to develop and stays out of trouble. This is what the Jags envisaged when they drafted him and no doubt will still be clinging to the hope that he can still achieve these goals. Whether he can do this or not will be dependent on his work ethic, his drive and what he wants out of the game of football.
If Blackmon is fortunate to get another chance, it will probably be his last. If he falls foul to anything like this again then the suspension will be far more severe. Realistically, it would be a lengthier ban, possibly for the season, which would leave the Jags with no alternative but to release the talented receiver regardless of his productivity on the field. Blackmon has to make some changes to his lifestyle if he is to make a success of his career. He must surround himself with the right people, NFL players have a history of being influenced by 'hangers on' who don't have the players best interests at heart. They become acquainted with the player so they can profit somehow from their affiliation and most will do anything that is in their power to make this happen. Whether Blackmon suffers because he is surrounded by the wrong sort of people is anyone's guess. If he is, then this situation must be rectified and he should seek the counsel of Philadelphia Eagles Quarterback Michael Vick, who himself had problems with 'hangers on' which led to jail time for running an illegal dog-fighting ring which severely hampered his career. Vick has turned his life around and now speaks of the dangers of being influenced by the wrong people. He also gives advice to troubled players on how to turn things around. Blackmon would be making a huge step and a very encouraging one if he was to seek Vick's advice on his continuing troubles.
Blackmon must look to rehabilitate himself in the correct way. Maybe this incident will finally get him to re-evaluate his priorities. He would do well to remember just how lucky he is and many people would give anything to be in his position. Things have come easy for Blackmon throughout his career, which is to be expected with someone of his talents. This is a tremendous test of his character and how he responds will tell us alot about the man himself. He has once again expressed his regret at this incident. In a statement Blackmon said "I've made a mistake and I have no excuse, I am truly sorry and disappointed in myself for putting the Jaguars in this situation, and I look forward to putting this behind me and maturing and growing as a person. I will have a productive training camp and preseason with my team, and during the suspension, I will work hard to stay in top football shape and be ready to help the Jaguars when I return. I have chosen to be accountable for my poor decision, and I sincerely apologize to my teammates, coaches, the front office and Jaguars fans for the impact of my mistake on the team." Now we have heard this talk from Blackmon before and there is only so many times you can apologise before it becomes meaningless. Blackmon must demonstrate a willingness to change, to rehabilitate. Most importantly for the Jaguars, he must be ready from the moment his suspension finishes in week four to come back into the lineup and be effective. Talk is cheap at this stage of Blackmon's life and there is no guarantee that things will work out the way he wants them to. It will take hard work, courage and perseverance if he is to turn his bleak situation around. Character traits that have been missing for some time now. It is up to the people closest to him to put him on the right path once again. This is the only way he is going to change, by the people he trusts telling him some home truths regarding his behavior and getting him to implement changes consistently to get results.
So, as Blackmon awaits the Jaguars decision on his future, which seems undecided at the present moment, he must reflect on his life choices that have put him in this position. Does he want to become the latest in a long line of NFL athletes that have fallen foul of substance abuse and spent the rest of their lives regretting it? If he doesn't, he will have to act fast to make it clear to everybody watching and criticizing that he is willing to make that sacrifice. Not just for himself, for his family that have supported him to get where he is today, for his teammates that he continues to throw under the bus with his reckless behavior and for the fans who adore and look up to him as a role model and the hope for a falling franchise. The next few months will tell us a great deal about the man Justin Blackmon.
Both on the field and off it.
Dean Jones: Follow me on Twitter @DeanJones_