JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- In an era when quarterbacks rule the NFL, the Jacksonville Jaguars have built their offensive identity around a smashmouth, pound-it-between-the-tackles running game.
That's normally an attitude set by the offensive line, but in the Jaguars' case it all depends on running back Leonard Fournette. His running style sets the tone for the offense, and it was clear that had been missing while he was sidelined with a right hamstring injury.
Fournette, who returned last week, didn't run for a lot of yards or average much per carry in the Jaguars' loss to Indianapolis, but things finally started to look the way they did for much of last season. That's an encouraging sign as the Jaguars (3-6) cling to a slim hope of rallying to earn a playoff berth.
"We played the way we want to play," coach Doug Marrone said of the 29-26 loss to the Colts. "We'll get better at it. First time coming back, getting him the ball, Carlos [Hyde] the ball, T.J. [Yeldon] the ball, they all were a big part of what we were trying to do.
"It's obviously a style we game-planned for and worked hard to do, and I think it obviously helps us."
Fournette ran for 53 yards and a touchdown on 24 carries and caught five passes for 56 yards and a touchdown. That's just 3.8 yards per touch and only 2.2 yards per carry, but multiple players said just having Fournette on the field made a huge difference.
It's no coincidence the Jaguars put together their longest drive of the season in both plays (17) and time (8:35) with Fournette on the field. The Jaguars drove 75 yards to start the third quarter, and Fournette capped it with a 1-yard touchdown run.
The three longest drives of the season in terms of plays (17 and 15 twice) have come in the three games Fournette has played.
The Colts keyed on Fournette, and that made things easier for quarterback Blake Bortles on Sunday. He had one of the most efficient games of his career -- 26 of 38 for 320 yards and two TDs; his 111.7 rating was his 11th highest -- and he didn't turn the ball over (he was second in the NFL with 11 entering the game).
Bortles said it felt like 2017 with Fournette in the huddle.
"With what we did last year, it kind of felt like that again, as far as looking at those guys in the huddle and having Leonard in there," Bortles said. "It was good to have him back. It was good to get him back. He hasn't played in seven weeks or whatever it was. For him to get out there and get his bearings back about him and get back into the flow of the game and carrying the ball and doing all that, I thought it was a good start for him.
"The way he runs, the proof that he has put out there, the way he ran all last year ... The stuff you have seen from him and the things he can do on a consistent basis gives the guys up front confidence. If you get on a guy and hang on for a second or two, then Leonard is going to get by and make something happen."
Fournette's hamstring injury really wreaked havoc with the offense. He played in the first half of the season opener and then the first half of the Week 4 game against the New York Jets, but that was it until last Sunday. Though the Jaguars beat New England without Fournette, the offense sputtered in the rest of the games without him.
The Jaguars had to rely on Bortles and he had one of the worst games of his career against Kansas City (five turnovers) and ended up getting benched two weeks later against Houston after losing two fumbles on scrambles. That's been the thing with Bortles throughout his career: stretches of very good, even outstanding play, but also runs of awful games.
Bortles' up-and-down play is why the Jaguars opted to draft Fournette fourth overall in 2017 and build the offense around him. Tom Coughlin, the team's executive VP of football operations, and GM Dave Caldwell felt that would be the best way to get consistency on offense. For the most part they were right -- Fournette ran for 1,040 yards and nine TDs last season and helped the Jaguars reach the AFC Championship Game.
They added left guard Andrew Norwell in free agency (five years, $66.5 million with $30 million guaranteed) in March, too, but Fournette being out for much of 2018 had stymied the offense. Yeldon and Corey Grant were the primary backs early in the season, but neither has the same physical running style as Fournette and Grant suffered a season-ending foot injury in Week 5.
The Jaguars added Jamaal Charles for a few weeks and traded a fifth-round pick to Cleveland for Hyde on Oct. 19. Hyde is the same kind of runner as Fournette, but he needed time to learn the offense and got only six carries in the only game he played before Fournette's return.
Hyde got only three carries last Sunday as the Jaguars rode Fournette pretty hard against the Colts. The 29 touches were the second-most he's had in his career (he had 29 against Houston and Pittsburgh last year, too).
Don't expect his workload to dip much the rest of the season, either, as the Jaguars try to return to their identity -- and keep their slim playoff hopes alive.
"Make no mistake about it, we have had quite a few injuries on offense and people are brought here or drafted and developed here to play a certain type of football," Marrone said. "Not to say that we can't play any other way, but that's what we have worked on. If we can play to the identity that we want to play, then we feel that will help us become a better team and start winning some games."