When Tom Coughlin was hired a year ago as the Jaguars executive vice-president of football operations, he minced no words about what would be his top priority for the organization: winning.

 

One season into his tenure, the franchise Coughlin led to its greatest glory as a head coach in the 1990s has helped lay a foundation for another potential stretch of sustained success. By picking a coach he could mesh with in Doug Marrone, and GM Dave Caldwell hitting home runs in the last two runs of free agency and the NFL draft, Coughlin reuniting with the Jaguars propelled the franchise toward ending a decade-long playoff drought.

The seven-game improvement from 3-13 to 10-6 in the regular season was the best jump in team history. Between that and making a playoff run to the AFC Championship game, where the Jaguars were one play away from knocking off the New England Patriots dynasty, the final 2017 report card reflects massive progress after six consecutive years of abject failure.

Offense: B-minus

The emphasis on becoming a run-centric offense started by using their first 2017 draft picks on running back Leonard Fournette and left tackle Cam Robinson. The Jaguars felt compelled to lighten the load for quarterback Blake Bortles, who still isn’t to the point where the Jaguars can ride his arm for prolonged periods. After throwing the ball nearly 62 percent of the time last season, the Jaguars became a 50-50 offense by running and throwing the ball 527 times apiece in the regular season. That formula was a little more tilted toward running (101-85) in the postseason against Buffalo, Pittsburgh and New England. The Jaguars eased Bortles’ burden by becoming the NFL’s top rushing team at 141.4 yards per game, though that standard diminished significantly the last six weeks of the regular season (109.1 yards) and picked back up in the playoffs (140.0). Fournette missed three games and still rushed for 1,040 yards and nine TDs, but nagging injuries slowed his home-run potential the second half of the year. The offensive line, considered a red flag when the season began, performed above expectations by allowing a franchise-record low 24 sacks and protected Bortles adequately in the playoffs (5 sacks).

No doubt, the Jaguars retaining offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett was a huge boost for Bortles, who dealt with three different offensive bosses in his first three years. Due to widespread injuries to the receiver corps, where Allen Robinson was lost for the season in Week 1, the Jaguars were ultimately forced to put three rookies (Keelan Cole, Dede Westbrook and Jaydon Mickens) into the rotation. The undrafted Cole (42 catches, 748 yards, 3 TDs) stepped up as the surprise performer of the year. Bortles showed significant improvement until throwing five interceptions in his last two regular-season games. The light then went back on during the playoffs (zero interceptions) and the team was turnover-free for any three-game stretch for the first time since 2002. Bortles went over the 60-percent completion mark (315 of 523) for the first time, though it was a feast-or-famine season in many respects. Except for the Los Angeles Rams game, the offense either struggled to find a rhythm or was turnover-prone in every loss, though that wasn’t the case in the AFC title game against the Patriots until the fourth quarter.

Among NFL quarterbacks who had a minimum 400 attempts, Bortles was middle-of-the-pack or below average in every significant category – TDs (21), yards per attempt (7.0), completions of 20-plus yards (41) and QB rating (84.7). However, losing big-play weapon Robinson and not having receivers Allen Hurns, Marqise Lee and Westbrook for a combined 17 games also made it harder for Bortles to have week-to-week continuity in the passing game. Thanks to a dominant defense, the Jaguars finished fifth in the league in scoring at 26.1 points per game, but were only 20th in third-down efficiency at 37.4 percent (85 of 227). There’s no disputing the offense made significant strides over last year, but a lack of consistency and whether the playoff run is enough to justify keeping Bortles remains the unit’s biggest question mark entering 2018.

Defense: A

It turns out that 10-sack game in the season opener at Houston wasn’t as much of an aberration as many suspected at the time. Todd Wash’s unit proved to be stout in every manner imaginable, earning him Coordinator of the Year honors by The Sporting News. The addition of defensive lineman Calais Campbell, cornerback A.J. Bouye and safety Barry Church in free agency was instrumental in turning a respectable defense into a great one, though the last two playoff games had some humbling moments. It was an impactful defense across the board because it had speed and power up front, plus elite cover skills at the corner with Jalen Ramsey and A.J. Bouye (6 interceptions).

Pro Bowler Campbell set the franchise record with 14.5 sacks, while DE Yannick Ngakoue was equally a pass-rushing demon with 12.0 sacks and six forced fumbles. Malik Jackson and Dante Fowler added eight sacks apiece, allowing the Jaguars to become one of the most disruptive defenses in recent memory. It collected an NFL-leading seven touchdowns, plus 55 sacks and 33 takeaways — second in both categories — during the regular season. Only the Minnesota Vikings yielded fewer points per game than the Jaguars (16.7 ppg). The defense added one TD, seven sacks and five turnovers in the playoffs, which included a strip-sack by Ngakoue and a 50-yard TD fumble return by LB Telvin Smith off Steelers’ QB Ben Roethlisberger in their postseason rematch. Big Ben managed to throw five TD passes and lateraled for another in the Jaguars’ 45-42 shootout win, the only time all year the offense bailed out the defense. They had New England on the ropes in the AFC title game with a 20-10 lead in the fourth quarter, forcing four three-and-outs and holding the Patriots 50 yards under their per-game average of 394.2. But the Jaguars allowed QB Tom Brady to convert a third-and-18 that eventually led to allowing two TDs in the final 10 minutes. Still, the overall body of work by Todd Wash’s unit produced the franchise’s best defense since 1999.

Counting playoffs, the Jaguars held eight teams to single-digit points. They allowed the NFL’s fewest red-zone drives (28) and red-zone TDs (11), plus led in most points (137) scored off turnovers. While the Jaguars finished only 21st against the run, they made significant strides in this area after the midseason trade for nose tackle Marcell Dareus, from allowing 138.6 yards without him to 95.7 yards in their last 12 games (playoffs included). But nowhere was the impact of this defense felt more than when opponents tried to throw the ball. Opposing quarterbacks had an NFL-low rating of 68.5 and the Jaguars also led the league in fewest passing yards (169.9 per game). Perhaps the most remarkable stat was the unit’s durability. The defense was so healthy, the front-line players missed only three of a possible 209 starts, two by Smith and one by DT Abry Jones.

Special teams: B-minus

In terms of the overall package of cover and return units, the Jaguars were essentially middle-of-the-pack across the board, except in punt returns where they finished tied for 8th with a team 9.3-yard average. Rookie Mickens (10.6 average) provided a decent spark in that department. Joe DeCamillis’ unit had some wow moments with three successful fake punts (two by Corey Grant for a combined 114 yards, 1 TD) and Mickens’ 63-yard punt return for a TD against Cincinnati. Plus, the midseason acquisition of placekicker Josh Lambo to replace Jason Myers paid huge dividends as he missed only one field goal in 24 attempts, converting his last 15 attempts, including playoffs. The biggest disaster was giving up 17 first-half points in a 27-17 loss to the LA Rams. That included touchdowns off a 103-yard kick return by Pharoh Cooper and blocking a punt by Brad Nortman, who finished in the bottom quarter of the league in both gross punting (44.1 yards) and net punting (38.9). He did finish 10th in punts inside the 20 with a career-high 29. However, Nortman shanked a punt out of bounds that handed three points to the Rams. Also, his low-hanging, 41-yard kick with five minutes left in the AFC Championship allowed the Patriots’ Danny Amendola to have a 20-yard return, which set up his game-winning TD catch five plays later.

After last year’s special-teams disaster, the Jaguars upgraded the unit, but it’s nowhere near at a championship level outside of Lambo’s field-goal accuracy. The Jaguars were 13th in kickoff coverage (20.4 yards), tied for 16th in punt coverage (7.6 yards) and 14th in kickoff returns (22.0), though Grant’s 24.9 average was fifth-highest among players with a minimum 15 returns. The lack of discipline by the special teams was also an issue as the Jaguars accumulated 26 penalties for 203 yards, worst in the NFL.

Coaching: A-minus

Despite the letdown of blowing a 10-point fourth quarter lead in the AFC Championship game, Doug Marrone and his coaching staff got more mileage out of this team than anyone could reasonably expect when the season began. With Bortles struggling in August, and the offensive line in flux, the ceiling for the Jaguars appeared to be no higher than .500. Considering the injuries to the receiving corps (starters missed a combined 23 games), position coach Keenan McCardell did a commendable job getting three rookies ready to make significant contributions.

Possibly the biggest factor in why this team performed far better than many anticipated was how much the players built a genuine chemistry with each other, which is a tribute to the bond they forged by Marrone putting them through a difficult training camp. Promoting Marrone from interim head coach wasn’t exactly met by a celebratory reaction from the fan base, but his matter-of-fact approach and Coughlin’s buttoned-up presence behind closed doors proved to be an ideal combination. Unlike the previous year under Gus Bradley, you never had to worry much about the opposing coaching staff out-scheming the Jaguars because they stayed on top of all the details. Marrone obviously wasn’t shy about taking calculated gambles, as evidenced by successfully executing three fake punts.

With Bortles in his second year in offensive coordinator Hackett’s system, he made strides with his accuracy and took his game to a career-high level in the postseason by staying turnover-free. Some will nit-pick about conservative play-calling in the fourth quarter against the Patriots, but that’s a non-factor if the defense doesn’t give Brady a clear throwing lane in the middle of the field on third-and-18. Without that one breakdown, the Jaguars are likely in the Super Bowl. The bottom line is Marrone and his staff put this team in position to win, falling one play short of the greatest moment in franchise history.

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