by Alfie Crow // photos by Agnes Lopez
The Jacksonville Jaguars appear to be ready for a breakout season in 2016, coming off a 2015 that saw multiple team records being broken on the offensive side of the ball by quarterback Blake Bortles and wide receivers Allen Robinson and Allen Hurns. Expectations are high as the fan base looks to cling to any indication that this year will be something to cheer about.
The wide receiver position, in particular, has been a bit of an open wound for Jaguars fans for roughly the last decade. Prior to the 2015 season, the last time the team had a receiver breach the 1,000 yard mark was in 2005 when Jimmy Smith had 1,023 receiving yards in the season prior to his retirement. The years after Smith’s departure were hard to watch, and are a big reason why fans have latched on to the “A-Team” of Hurns and Robinson, neither of whom were really aware of the team’s tumultuous history at the receiver position.
“No, I didn’t,” Hurns says when asked if he knew much about the long line of failures at receiver when he was signed as an undrafted free agent.
“I did not,” Robinson says, too.
It’s somewhat fitting that the two players who have revived what used to be a position of strength for the team had no idea the on-field void it had become, running through the likes of Reggie Williams, Jerry Porter, Justin Blackmon, R. Jay Soward, J.J. Stokes, Matt Jones, Mike Sims-Walker, Mike Thomas, Troy Williamson and Cecil Shorts. There were others, too. Each season brought hope that at least one player was going to break through and finally be the piece the team desperately needed. Invariably, he would come up short. Or get hurt. Or get suspended. Fans were aching for something—more appropriately, someone—to pull for.
“It’s kind of weird, honestly,” says Steve Blaisdell, a season ticket holder for the past five years. “After all the random guys that were brought in to try to just be functional receivers over the years, we have legitimate playmakers. It’s nice to be confident in the guys we have out there now and the way they go about their business makes them super easy to root for, too. They seem like good dudes that are really good at what they do, and that’s awesome.”
Just because Hurns and Robinson say they weren’t aware of the lingering receiver deficiency since 2006 doesn’t mean they don’t understand the hope fans have foisted upon them and what it means to those who grew up with the team.
“I don’t feel pressure at all,” Robinson says when he was asked about filling the shoes of “Thunder and Lightning,” as Jimmy Smith and Keenan McCardell came to be known. “I think it’s an honor whenever people talk about you, comparing it to a time where the receivers were such legends. Comparing us to a special time in Jaguars history, to a special time in history at all, there’s no topping that.”
Fans have already tried to label the young duo as “Thunder and Lightning 2.0,” given the pair put together a season in 2015 better than any—statistically speaking—that Smith and McCardell had combined, teaming up for over 2,400 receiving yards and 24 touchdowns. The two aren’t trying to live up to Smith and McCardell, though. They’re trying to create their own history as Jacksonville Jaguars.
“What those guys have done for this organization is unbelievable. Me and A-Rob, we talk about it,” says Hurns. “We want to write our own legacy. We don’t just want to follow behind someone else. It’s an honor for those guys to pave the way but at the end of the day we want to have our own.”
Robinson is the high draft pick with all the physical tools, college accolades and the cocky attitude on the field. Hurns is the undrafted free agent who’s not the biggest and he’s not the fastest. Instead, he’s a quiet grinder who puts in the hard work needed to get results in the hyper-competitive NFL. You likely won’t see Hurns trash-talking on the field, he prefers to let his actions speak for him.
Robinson, on the other hand, got a tattoo of a photo of himself making a leaping catch over a Michigan cornerback. That player got wind of the artwork and responded on Twitter, telling Robinson he wouldn’t be “long for the league.” Robinson, in turn, replied with a tweet with a photo of himself at the NFL Pro Bowl. And a one-word response, “Aloha.”
When Robinson, Hurns and Bortles arrived in Jax following the 2014 draft, they were immediately linked together. They roomed together, they ate together and they did just about everything together. The three were building a quarterback-receiver relationship that can make a world of a difference in a league full of talented players.
“They are obviously two guys who kind of make our offense go,” Bortles says. “They are the playmakers that can go up and make a big play at any moment.”
One would expect a quarterback to compliment his favorite targets to throw at, but others believe it as well. Both players were voted to this year’s NFL Top 100, which is a list of the top 100 players in the league. Hurns came in at 89. Robinson ended up at 31 after a season where he broke the franchise record for receptions in a season and tied for the NFL lead in touchdown receptions. Robinson was the “other” wide receiver the team picked in the 2014 NFL Draft, as the team selected Marqise Lee earlier in the second round. He’s since become the team’s best player offensively and arguably a top-five receiver in the entire NFL.
“Higher,” Robinson said back in July at the start of training camp when asked about expectations for the receiving corps. “We definitely want to become more efficient. I think we had a decent year last year. We just want to continue to make plays.”
“It really doesn’t matter,” Robinson said when asked about added expectations. “Sometimes you are under the radar and sometimes you are not, but each and every day you have to go out there and do the same thing and make plays.”
Hurns in particular is paving a legacy, having come up as an undrafted free agent out of the University of Miami. He’s a bit of a Cinderella story on top of helping rebuild a Jaguars franchise that has been on the bottom of the NFL standings for far too long, making him even more endearing to fans. He made the team as a rookie thanks in part to his familiarity with then offensive coordinator Jedd Fisch’s offensive scheme, having played for him in college, and because of his hard work. Hurns turned that effort and dedication into a starting job and proved the coaches right to keep him on the roster by scoring a touchdown in his very first game. He continued his production last season with an even better year, earning himself a massive four-year, $40 million extension this past off season.
Both players give back to the community as well, especially Hurns. Coming from a single-parent household raised by his mother Erica Wilson, Hurns knows the struggles families can have when a single parent is taking care of everything, which is why he helped establish the 88Blessings foundation. The foundation works to assist single parents in Jax with difficult issues by providing a support system they can turn to.
“The most important part about this is that it’s completely genuine,” Hurns told Brian Jackson of Channel 4 News back in June at an 88Blessings event. “This is something that we went through and that we can relate to with these ladies. My mom was a single mom, so at the end of the day it’s all about love. We want to give back as much as we can.”
“I think every year you are looking for growth,” says offensive coordinator Greg Olson. “We knew it was a young offense a season ago. We added some pieces to it and we are excited about the additions, but we are also excited about the growth of our young players. I think we just concentrate on steady improvement from day to day and practice to practice. They have accepted a lot of challenges, so we are just excited about the growth of them at this point.”
Looking ahead to the 2016 season, the duo is no longer going to be a surprise to other teams. They’ve come a long way since their rookie season, when the offense was among the worst in the NFL, if not the worst. Jags fans rightfully fear that what their seeing isn’t sustainable, too often they have watched guys flare up for a season or so, but then fizzle out. With Hurns and Robinson, fizzling doesn’t seem particularly likely. Just ask their quarterback.
“He [Robinson] is unbelievable. Him and [Allen] Hurns are on the jug machine every day before practice starts,” says Bortles. “The work ethic and the want-to attitude for those two guys is unbelievable. I think they obviously hear all of the hype and all of this stuff about each other and about themselves individually and it does not bother them one bit. They come to work every day and want to get better, want to be a part of this team, and want to make us successful. It is impressive and fun to be around every day.”
Fun is something Jags fans desperately want. And in the NFL, winning games is fun. Waiting for the next draft with hopes of what may be—we've been there, done that. This season just may be the year high expectations are realized. If they are, you can bet Hurns and Robinson will have a hand in it. Four of them, in fact.