When Marcedes Lewis was playing at UCLA, the Jaguars’ tight end would scribble messages on Post-It notes and put them in his locker and dorm room.

 

They were little reminders to himself about fundamentals, things like “better footwork” or “better leverage,” just whatever Lewis felt was important to keep improving and to stay focused through football’s daily grind.

“It’s just the mindset and emphasis you put on it, so it’s at the forefront of your mind,” said Lewis. “Every day I saw those notes, I knew what was at stake and what was in front of me going forward.”

That’s exactly how the 12-year veteran felt when he returned to EverBank Field for the first time in the offseason and saw a simple, powerful message on a wall of the refurbished hallway outside the Jaguars’ locker room. It took him back to his college days and those Post-It notes.

In large white lettering against a dark background — with bright logos of the Jaguars’ AFC South rivals Tennessee Titans, Houston Texans and Indianapolis Colts next to it — was this directive: “WIN THE DIVISION.”

“I thought it was pretty cool, seeing stuff like that every day,” said receiver Allen Robinson. “It sends a strong message.”

Actually, there’s plenty of motivational words for the Jaguars that pop up on screens throughout the building, but no visual has quite the presence or impact for the players than seeing those three inescapable words.

When the Jaguars open the 2017 season Sunday against the Houston Texans at NRG Stadium, followed by next week’s home opener with the Tennessee Titans, they’ll provide the first clues as to how much this team responds to the organization’s undeniable top priority. The new wall decor was a collaborative project, one highly endorsed by head coach Doug Marrone and front-office czar Tom Coughlin.

“I know how important those [AFC South] games are, but it adds a little emphasis, for sure,” said Jaguars quarterback Blake Bortles.

Jacksonville is one of only four NFL franchises, along with Buffalo, Detroit and Cleveland, who have yet to win a division title since the league went to four-team divisions in 2002. The Jaguars are 34-56 (.377) against the AFC South over that 15-year period, a record so pedestrian that it can’t be chalked up to merely being forced to deal with quarterback Peyton Manning in his Indianapolis Colts prime.

If the Jaguars have any chance of showing significant improvement in 2017, which at bare minimum should be a 7-9 record, they must stop the infuriating trend of losing ground in head-to-head games with division rivals. The franchise’s only winning record in AFC South games was in 2005 when they were 4-2. The Jaguars have had a losing divisional record 10 out of 15 times under the current format. That pattern is even more galling to accept now because the AFC South has been one of the league’s more suspect divisions in recent years.

In Jaguars’ history, nobody placed a higher premium on division games than Coughlin when he was the team’s head coach. That might explain why he never had a losing record within the division until his final season (the first in the AFC South) in 2002. Before then, playing in an AFC Central that included the Pittsburgh Steelers, the Jaguars went 39-23 and won two division championships or tied for first from 1997-99.

So it’s no coincidence in Coughlin’s return to the Jaguars as Executive VP of Football Operations, there’s been a point of emphasis to the players about winning the critical part of the schedule.

Frankly, it’s hard to envision a successful season without the Jaguars winning at least one of those AFC South games in the opening two weeks. Being 0-2, with defeats coming against Houston and Tennessee, would be a bigger red flag with this franchise because slow starts have consistently killed hope and triggered underachieving seasons.

The Jaguars had no business going 3-13 last year in such a mediocre division. But when you fail to close out seven games while holding a fourth quarter lead, including two to AFC South opponents, bad stuff happens.

When owner Shad Khan decided to bring back old-school Tom in an authoritative, non-coaching capacity, the Jaguars knew the environment around the building would immediately change.

From that first week on the job when Coughlin publicly asked, “Who’s going to win lunch?” as a way of emphasizing his No. 1 priority, he put the word out about his expectations for the 2017 season and beyond.

Now it’s staring Lewis and the Jaguars right in the face. Every time they enter and leave their locker room from the north side, that wall reminds them what must be done to resurrect this franchise.

Winning the division might look unrealistic for the Jaguars in 2017, especially with that shaky offensive line, but it’s not impossible. Besides, what benefit is that three-word message unless the Jaguars take it upon themselves to deliver?

The next two Sundays would be a pretty good time to start.

Gene.frenette@jacksonville.com: (904) 359-4540