To illustrate last year’s struggles, Jaguars coach Doug Marrone used an off-season meeting to present a series of statistics about the AFC South and his team’s standing.
“We were way behind in all of the major categories,” linebacker Paul Posluszny said.
Points allowed: 400, most.
Takeaways: 13, fewest.
Turnovers: 29, most.
Wins: 3, fewest.
The Jaguars have spent the last nine years way behind in the major categories, including 30th in points scored, 31st in point differential and 31st in victories.
It is well past time for the Jaguars to catch up to the rest of the division and rest of the NFL, to see their high draft picks produce at an elite level and have their free-agent splurges match or exceed their past performance.
Owner Shad Khan is betting on that happening this year.
To that end, this Jaguars season is a big gamble. But, hey, when the playoff drought is nine consecutive years and the streak of at least 10 losses is at six consecutive seasons, why not roll the dice?
Just count the number of risks:
Khan’s Hail Mary: Back with the Jaguars is Tom Coughlin as the front office chief (not head coach). Khan is hoping Coughlin can replicate the Jaguars’ glory of the late 1990s and the New York Giants’ championship success of 2007 and ‘11.
Coaching continuity: Marrone was promoted to coach and he retained defensive coordinator Todd Wash and offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett.
Free agent philosophy change: The Jaguars spent big money on strong safety Barry Church (eighth year) and defensive end Calais Campbell (10th year), a departure from their younger-is-better route.
Drafting a tailback: For only the seventh time in 18 years, a running back was selected in the top four when the Jaguars drafted Leonard Fournette fourth overall. They intend to create a running game that is pounding and big-play capable.
Not addressing quarterback: The Jaguars opted to show faith in Blake Bortles … and only named him the Week 1 starter after a nine-day competition with Chad Henne halfway through the preseason.
The predictions have not been kind to the Jaguars, again ticketing them for another last-place division finish. Within the team, there is, of course, a different feeling. They look at the talent on defense, depth at receiver and Fournette and see a different story waiting to be written.
“In Week 1, we want to be able to go out and compete at a high level,” Posluszny said. “It’s not, ‘New coaching staff, Coach Coughlin is back and we have 2-3 years to build.’ No, no. We want to be able to win right now.”
Said linebacker Telvin Smith: “Obviously, we know we’re digging ourselves out of a hole that we as an organization dug ourselves into. I see guys embracing the work and embracing the struggle so when we get into those tough situations this year, we can overcome them.”
It will not be easy and recent history says it will not happen.
FINDING A ‘NICHE’
Only Buffalo (1999), Cleveland (2002) and the Los Angeles Rams (2004) have a longer playoff dry spell than the Jaguars, whose last appearance was 10 years ago.
Since 2008, the Jaguars’ 42-102 record is second-worst in the league, four games better than the Browns. The Jaguars haven’t had a winning record since December 2010, when they were 8-7 entering their season finale, which they lost.
“That [stinks] so bad,” former tailback Maurice Jones-Drew said. “I hate that we didn’t do better when I was here. But every organization has to go through adversity. Once you find your niche and what works for you, that’s when you can take things to the next level.”
That has been the Jaguars’ conundrum. What is their niche? What can they latch onto?
Two years ago, they thought it was an up-and-coming offense led by Bortles, tight end Julius Thomas, tailback T.J. Yeldon and receivers Allen Robinson, Allen Hurns and Marqise Lee. Last year, they thought it was a defense fortified in free agency (defensive tackle Malik Jackson and free safety Tashaun Gipson) and the draft (cornerback Jalen Ramsey and defensive end Yannick Ngakoue).
Teams that can’t find their niche at the quarterback position are always playing uphill. The Jaguars remain one of those teams.
If it is Bortles or Henne this year, the Jaguars want to have a quarterback who will use play action to make big plays in addition to avoiding back-breaking errors. Basically, they are asking their quarterback to stay the heck out of the way.
The Jaguars have built the roster and organized training camp to be the tougher, more disciplined team each Sunday. They believe they won’t crack in the fourth quarter. Led by Marrone, the volume during camp practices was different — players were admonished for mistakes, drills were started over and there was the presence of Coughlin, who patrolled the field as if he were on the coaching staff.
“There’s a different feel in a lot of ways and in a very positive way,” said Posluszny, playing for his fourth Jaguars coach. “The leadership we have at the top with coach Coughlin and coach Marrone, that alone should have an enormous impact on the way we play.”
Coughlin’s stamp on the Jaguars crystallized with three player additions.
On the opening day of free agency, the Jaguars gave Campbell $30 million guaranteed and Church $12 million guaranteed.
When general manager Dave Caldwell was the final voice on personnel from 2013-16, the Jaguars prioritized free agents coming off their rookie contracts, players like Toby Gerhart and Zane Beadles in 2014, Thomas, Odrick and Davon House in 2015 and Gipson, Jackson, Prince Amukamara and Kelvin Beachum last year. The Jaguars coveted ascending players who were likely to play out the life of the deal. It was largely unsuccessful — only Gipson and Jackson remain.
Coughlin wanted to address a leadership and experience void with players who had participated in the playoffs. Campbell and Church checked those boxes.
“When I saw that, you knew those were two guys who were wise and mature and they were being brought here to have a presence,” Gipson said. “That was something we were missing. They not only boost the team from a physical standpoint, but they boost the leadership. It was two huge additions to a defense that was already on the cusp of doing cool things.”
The Jaguars’ offense also noticed.
“Calais came in and earned the guys’ respect right away,” Hurns said. “He’s not a guy who is afraid to speak up. He’s been to a Super Bowl [2008 with Arizona] and made plays. It’s a good thing having those veteran guys.”
It is an even better thing to have a star tailback.
Fournette represented the third Coughlin pivot. If Caldwell had final say on draft night, a tailback — regardless of how sparkling Fournette’s college game tape was — would have likely been addressed later.
Fournette will fill the franchise role if he can get some blocking from an offensive line that didn’t create much running room in the first two preseason games and whose starting lineup was still being figured out through the third preseason game.
The Jaguars running game has failed to fire despite signing Gerhart, drafting Yeldon and signing Chris Ivory over the last four years.
They feel an answer has been added in Fournette.
INSTANT SUCCESS UNLIKELY
All that said, bet against an instant turnaround.
From 2007-15, the league had 20 teams that won three or fewer games in a season. Only three teams made the playoffs the following year: Indianapolis (2-14 to 11-5) and Minnesota (3-13 to 10-6) in 2012 and Kansas City (2-14 to 11-5) in 2013. None won a playoff game after qualifying as a wild card.
During that span, only three teams got worse a year after winning three or fewer games. The Jaguars improved by two games apiece in 2013 and 2015.
At a minimum, it will take an improvement of six games (from three to nine wins) for the Jaguars to sniff the postseason. Something in the range of 7-8 wins would re-create a needed buzz in the region and set the table for an exciting 2018. The players, of course, would hear none of that. They want it now.
“The feeling that lets me know that it can turn around quickly is the urgency,” nose tackle Abry Jones said. “No more nonchalant and saying, ‘We’re going to get there.’ The feeling I have is, ‘We’re there. We just have to show it.’ We showed glimpses last year and gave it up. That’s one of the things coach Marrone is harping on – we have to learn how not to lose. We got gassed last year and gave up games.”
The Jaguars were 2-6 last year in games decided by fewer than six points. It will be up to Fournette to pound teams in the fourth quarter, their special teams to win field advantage and their defense to keep the door shut.
Can the offense make enough big plays regardless of who the quarterback is? Can Fournette, who missed preseason time with a foot injury, stay healthy? Can the pass rush after Ngakoue be consistent? Can the defense improve on its NFL-low six interceptions? Can the special teams perform better after an off-season emphasis?
The Jaguars will know early. They play four of their first five games away from Jacksonville.
During their playoff dry-spell, their September records have been 2-2, 1-2, 1-2, 1-2, 1-3, 0-4, 0-4, 1-2 and 0-3. They have never gotten out of the blocks.
The Jaguars feel they have multiple blue-chip players – Ramsey, Jackson, Fournette, Robinson, Ngakoue, Campbell, cornerback A.J. Bouye and center Brandon Linder – who can help avoid yet another choppy start. But they need a spark early, success that will put an unsettling preseason in the rear-view mirror. An opening-day win at Houston would help.
“We might have the most talent since I’ve been around here,” said tight end Marcedes Lewis, entering his 12th season with the Jaguars. “The ’07 team, we had a ridiculous running game and our defense was stout up front and had some good corners and safeties. Now I feel like we have that.
“It’s hard for me to make predictions – I really don’t like that. But I think coming into that first game, we’re going to have our best product in the last decade.”
For that to happen, a majority of the Jaguars’ gambles need to pay off.