Jack Del Rio pops, locks and drops in the bowels of Mile High. Maurice Jones-Drew hums ”it’s not over”under his breath as he jogs toward a huddle of Matt Schaub, Rob Streater and David Ausberry. Mike Smith sits in his Atlanta home belting out “I MADE THE GREAT ESCAPE.”
It’s ok if those references didn’t hit home because 2007 was a long time ago. Hell, for the Jacksonville Jaguars and their fans, 2007 was a lifetime ago in the context of the NFL. For those of you who do not remember the teal and black stature in pre-recession America, here’s a quick refresher.
2007 was a strange year for the NFL. The undefeated Patriots were unseated by a play Joe Buck clearly makes in Madden all the time; the Buccaneers and the Jaguars somehow found a way into January football; and this man put his heart and soul into the Pro Bowl. (Smile, Jags fans, you could be a Browns fan.)
Plainly speaking, the 2007 Jaguars make a strong case for being one of the last bastions of truly smashmouth football. I know some will cite today’s Seahawks and 49ers, but the 2007 Jaguars didn’t rely on nimble QB’s to gash defenses for thirds of the field at a time. (Oh wait, they kinda did, but more on that in a second.)
The Jaguars offense won over blue collar fans with a bruising, two-headed running game featuring respected veteran Fred Taylor and the squat yet explosive running-style of the man sometimes mistakenly referred to as Maurice Jones-Drew and correctly called “Pocket Hercules.” The pair each amassed over 1,000 all-purpose yards and combined for 14 total touchdowns.
Then there was the revelation of David Garrard. After battling Crohn’s disease and Byron Leftwich for the better part of five years, Garrard did well enough to win the job in the preseason of 2007. The former fourth-rounder responded by leading his team to the postseason despite only playing 12 games, throwing an impressive 18 TDs in the process.
The balanced offense combined with a stout defense that prided itself on John Henderson’s intensity and it’s ability to force turnovers made for a formidable opponent. If not for Peyton Manning, it’s conceivable to think that the Jaguars would have had a legitimate chance to win the division in 2007.
Despite all this, the Jaguars were not expected to beat the AFC North Champion Pittsburgh Steelers, a team that boasted its own stout running game and defense, and one that some theorized served as the model for the Jaguars’ roster moves in Del Rio’s tenure. What the oddsmakers seemed to forget was that just three weeks earlier, the Jaguars unseated the Steelers in Pittsburgh in a 29-22 thriller.
In reality, Jacksonville had become the biggest thorn in Pittsburgh’s side outside of Tom Brady, having won three straight matchups against the Roethlisberger-era Steelers. On a frigid January evening in Pittsburgh, Jacksonville won their fourth straight game against Pittsburgh on a 32-yard run by David Garrard on 4th and 2 which set up Josh Scobee’s game-winning field goal. The Jags overcame an 18-point Steelers comeback to advance to the divisional round of the playoffs.
The following week, Jacksonville fell, 31-20, to the undefeated Patriots. But it wasn’t the blowout that was expected; David Garrard even managed to out gain Brady through the air. Even though New England won the game, all together, 2007 was as impressive a season as any in Jaguars history. Garrard outplayed his 4th round draft status, the Jaguars proved they could hold their own in the competitive AFC South, and a star was born in Maurice Jones-Drew. It seemed that the year was the initiation of something special, not the end.
Then came 2008. Then 2009. Then 2010 and so on and so on. Regression and stagnation were common in every position group that didn’t include Jones-Drew, and each year would produce a disappointment that would somehow be more painful than the last.
Whether it was an offensive line belabored with injuries and tragedy in 2008, high profile busts in Derrick Harvey in ‘08, Tyson Alualu in ‘09, and Blaine Gabbert in ‘10, first round receivers that can’t stay off the NFL’s naughty list, the lack of developing defensive playmakers, and the running of MJD into the ground, a once soaring organization came crashing down.
Casualties included Del Rio’s regime, the Mike Mularkey regime, Shack Harriss, Gene Smith, and Wayne Weaver’s interest in owning the team.
Interest in the team hit rock bottom in 2009 when seven of eight home games were blacked out as a result of lagging attendance. In an attempt to attract more fans, calls were made to local hero and once football player Tim Tebow to be the team’s starting QB. There was even speculation of relocating the franchise to California - or even out of the country all together - and yet another Coach and GM combo, all before the eventual sale of the team to Shahid Khan in early 2010.
So what in the world would compel you to watch this team in 2014?
CURRENT STATE OF AFFAIRS:
It all starts with who’s in charge. Kudos are in order for the aforementioned Mr. Khan for his resisting the urge to signing media black hole Tim Tebow last year upon his release from New England.
We all know how that works out.
Then there’s the second year duo of Head Coach Gus Bradley and GM David Caldwell. It’s been noted that Caldwell appears to be following the same blueprint the Atlanta Falcons used when Caldwell served as their director of college scouting. That plan transformed Atlanta from perennial bottom feeder to NFC South contender (with 2013 being the only non-winning record since 2008). It’s hard to deny the parallels.
The Falcons took a stab at landing a franchise QB with Matt Ryan with the No. 3 overall pick in the 2008 draft. In 2014, the Jaguars used the same pick to land Blake Bortles out of the University of Central Florida. Ryan and Bortles are two different quarterbacks: the former is more of the traditional pocket passer; Bortles lands somewhere in between Andrew Luck and Ben Roethlisberger. With the size, arm, and pedigree of a top-five draft pick, there’s certainly potential for Bortles to be the upgrade Jacksonville has long sought since the prime of David Garrard - and it’s not exactly hard to inspire the fans after a few seasons of Blaine Gabbert and Chad Henne.
The initial reactions around the league in the minutes following the selection of Blake Bortles were largely negative, what with elite wide receiver Sammy Watkins and Khalil Mack, the highly-regarded linebacker out of the University of Buffalo, still on the board.
And the Jaguars select: B(laine)lake B(Gabbert)ortles.— SI_DougFarrar (@SI_DougFarrar) May 9, 2014
While I’m a firm believer in selecting the best player available, I can understand the Jaguar’s thought process, taking the most important position over the best individual talent. And I have my questions about Khalil Mack. What he did at UB was absolutely outstanding, but there’s often a stigma, fair or not, attached to players that come out of the MAC conference due to the inferior level of competition they face. For every James Harrison or Ben Roethlisberger there’s a Larry English or a Byron Leftwich. Even if he’s the second coming of Von Miller, Mack was not going to make this team a playoff contender by himself. And with no one to throw him the ball, I think the same can be said about Watkins.
In Bortles, there’s the potential to make an immediate turnaround, even if he’s not the next Andrew Luck. In the NFL you’re lucky to get three years as a coach or GM, no matter how bad the roster you’re handed is. Just ask Rob Chudzinski and Michael Lombardi, formerly of the Cleveland Browns. Caldwell and Bradley are hedging their bets with Bortles, a possible ticket out of the franchise hell they find themselves in, and you can’t blame them for that.
With that said, Bradley has maintained the old-school methodology that Bortles’ rookie season should serve as a redshirt year so that he may adapt to the speed of the game and the depth of the playbook without being baptized by fire.
A once admirable approach, one that was standard in decades past. But sorry Gus — gone are the days of Young being tutored by Montana, Brady by Bledsoe, and Rodgers by Favre. Nowadays, rookies are expected to enter the league as immediate game-changers; look no further than guys like Matt Ryan, Matt Stafford, Cam Newton, Andrew Luck, RGIII, and Russell Wilson. All were handed the reins in their rookie years and all responded by improving their respective team’s standing.
The NFL has made strident efforts to exhort the fastest way to score the ball. Relatively speaking, it has never been easier to play Quarterback, what with the extensive rules protecting how a QB and defenseless receivers may be hit. It’s what the people want. It is a major reason as to why the past six seasons have been such a nightmare for the Jags.
The last time they were a successful franchise was in the dying days of smashmouth football. While it still lives on in Seattle and San Francisco, it is only with the help of elite defenses and Quarterbacks that still capable of making plays on their own. That’s been absent from Duval County ever since Garrard’s long scamper in Pittsburgh.
Bortles could change that. The fans, the media and the higher ups are only going to tolerate Chad Henne for so long. Even if guys like Caldwell and Khan are copacetic with taking it slow, 2009 serves as an ever-looming threat with what an increasingly-dejected fan base can do when their demands are not being met.
I wouldn’t expect Bortles to begin the season as the starter, but I’d be shocked if he’s not the guy by the end.
ROOKIE WIDE RECEIVERS:
With the turbulent and ever-changing status of super-talented but super-undisciplined Justin Blackmon, the injury-prone Cecil Shorts, and the minute and relatively unproven Ace Sanders, it’s no wonder Caldwell and company doubled up on wide receivers in the second round of the 2014 draft.
With the 39th pick, Jacksonville took spell check’s arch nemesis, one Marqise Lee out of USC. Entering the 2013 college season, Lee was considered 1b to Sammy Watkins’ 1a in terms of WR rankings. But the Trojan struggled with health, drops and poor quarterback play in 2013, causing him to drop to the waiting Jags in round two.
Caldwell then pulled a power play for Penn State’s Allen Robinson, sending a third and fifth round pick to San Francisco in exchange for the 61st overall pick with which they selected the big bodied pass-catcher. At 6-3, 220 lbs, Robinson has a deceptive size/speed combo that could provide immediate red zone benefits, but still needs work in refining his route running and overall consistency.
Although both wide receivers were second rounders, we again see somewhat of an Atlanta approach to Caldwell’s thinking. Matt Ryan has benefited greatly when Julio Jones (whom the Falcons traded up for) and Roddy White are both on the field. One has to think that Caldwell is looking for similar results from the duo of Lee and Robinson who also matchup closely in size to White and Jones respectively.
Their selections also bolster the argument that Bortles should start sooner rather than later. With not many healthy or overly-talented options ahead of them, Lee and Robinson could conceivably be starters in 2014. If Bortles were to be the backup his rookie year, it’s likely his reps in practice would be very limited, as is the case with second string quarterbacks in the NFL. Though he’d still be able to be mentally adjust with his rookie targets, there’s no substitute for getting live reps in practice or game scenarios. Why waste time in year two getting the trio on the same page when they could have it ironed out in year one?
Perhaps the biggest similarity to the ‘08 Falcons and the ‘14 Jaguars lies in the running back situation. Much like the Falcons pre-free agency in 2008, the Jaguars had next to nothing in the way of running backs following Rashad Jennings’ defection to the Giants. Michael Turner, a bruising running back who served as a long-time backup to LaDainian Tomlinson was the answer to Atlanta’s prayers from 2008-2011. Toby Gerhart, another bruising back and long-time backup to Adrian Peterson, comes to Jacksonville under similar circumstances in 2014.
As made evident in the above chart, there’s plenty of similarities in each player’s production as a backup. They don’t end with production or experience either; only one inch and three pounds separate the two, with Gerhart being listed at 6-0, 234 and Turner at 5-11, 237. The one major discrepancy (although a case can be made for fumbles) is Gerhart is clearly the superior receiver. Sure he didn’t have to contend with Vincent Jackson and Antonio Gates for targets, but given the fact that Minnesota, excluding the 2009 season, has never had a QB at the level of Phillip Rivers, there isn’t much to debate.
The biggest obstacle to Gerhart’s success will be his offensive line, considered a question mark heading into the season. Last year’s No. 2 overall pick Luke Joeckel will be looked to develop into a star in his second year while free agent Zane Beadles will be asked to insert some stability into a relatively unproven unit. That doesn’t leave you with a great taste in your mouth, but then the best running backs always find a way. With comparable power to that of Michael Turner and a little more shimmy, and hands, it’s not out of the question that Gerhart breaks out.
The AFC South has seemingly had at least two competitive teams in Indy and Houston on a year-in-year-out basis. Entering 2014, there’s a strong case to be made for the division to be considered the worst in football.
The Colts are the runaway favorites and rightfully so with the supremely talented Andrew Luck under center. With Hakeem Nicks and rookie wideout Donte Moncrief now in the fold, Luck’s numbers and performance should only improve - a scary thought. It’ll be up to the line and Trent Richardson to take the next step this year if the Colts want to be legitimate title contenders. Their defense may prove to be questionable at times, but Luck is a good enough QB that 6-0 in the division is not out of the question.
Beyond that it’s a crap shoot. For all the normal rookie QB questions surrounding Blake Bortles, the Texans are even worse off with the abysmal Ryan Fitzpatrick and 4th round rookie Tom Savage out of Pitt. Jadeveon Clowney and J.J. Watt should be fun to watch, but with a disillusioned Andre Johnson and an aging Arian Foster, this team is a powder keg of self-destruction waiting to happen. Keep an eye on DeAndre Hopkins, the second-year receiver and former first-round pick out of Clemson. The guy may not have the ceiling of Sammy Watkins, but he started over him for multiple stretches in college.
The Titans seem to have little faith in Jake Locker as made evident by the decision to not pick up the fifth-year option on his rookie contract. I love the pick up of Ken Whisenhunt, who was really given an unfair shake in Arizona as the organization neglected to acquire an even halfway-decent QB following Kurt Warner’s retirement. The Whiz proved his offensive prowess by revitalizing Phillip Rivers’ career in 2013 and for that earned the attention of multiple teams this offseason. Talent is there on the offensive side of the ball with Kendall Wright and Justin Hunter emerging. Bishop Sankey, the rookie out of Washington, is one the league’s more intriguing rookies and fantasy options.
Jurrell Casey starred in the 4-3 last year with 10.5 sacks, but he will be asked to move to the challenging, pass-rush limiting five-technique position, otherwise known as the 3-4 DE. The rest of the defense has a few solid pieces in guys like Shaun Phillips, Wesley Woodyard, Michael Griffin, Jason McCourty and Bernard Pollard, but no one jumps out as a star. They could end up being the second place finisher in the division if Locker can progress, but after three years of struggles, it doesn’t appear that there’s that high a ceiling on his career - or the Titans’ chances while he remains the starter.
HOW THE JAGUARS COMPARE:
That leaves Jacksonville. As it stands, I feel as though Blake Bortles has the second-highest upside in this division. How soon he’s acclimated to the NFL will determine Jacksonville’s fate this season; there can be no sustained success with Chad Henne at the helm.
As far as the defense goes, Bradley spent the offseason recruiting players from his days as the Seahawks’ defensive coordinator. The end result brought talented run-stuffer Red Bryant and pass-rusher Chris Clemons into the fold, as well as former Titan Sen’Derrick Marks. The trio should help bolster a defensive front that was bullied into 131.8 rushing yards a game last year.
Ziggy Hood, a former first-round bust in the Pittsburgh Steelers 3-4 defense, could be a more natural fit in the Jaguars 4-3 front - one that is similar to the scheme Hood played in at Missouri.
Paul Posluszny will be the rock of the linebacking corps again, while young defensive backs Dwayne Gratz and Jonathan Cyprien will need to make second year leaps to help a secondary that was ranked 25th in 2013.
THE VERDICT: CHECK DURING THE COMMERCIALS
Now this is conditional based on who is the starting QB. If it’s Bortles and if you’re blessed with NFL Sunday Ticket,hop on over to the Jags game when your favorite team is on commercial break. The first five weeks of the season figure to be a difficult stretch as they’re up against three playoff teams (Philadelphia, Indianapolis, San Diego) and two much improved teams (Pittsburgh, Washington).
I don’t think Chad Henne makes it out of that stretch the starter. Bortles and his young receivers, plus the bell cow Gerhart, should give you more than a few highlights, especially in the middle part of the season when they face the Titans, Browns and Dolphins during Weeks 6-8. Their November 9 match up against the woeful Dallas defense might be their best chance at an offensive explosion all season.
The ceiling of this team is not very high, but if Bortles can win the job early, a 7-9 record and a spoiler role are not at all out of the question for a younger, improved Jaguars team.
Tim Mullhaupt (@TimakaHines) is the editor of The Buckets Blog.