Jacksonville — JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (Brent Martineau)
- One winning season since 2007. Two owners, five coaches, 12 starting quarterbacks, 143 losses in that span, and just 64 wins.
Let’s be honest with each other - the Jacksonville Jaguars have been a mess. However, they may be in the best position they’ve ever been to resurrect this derelict franchise.
Fixing the Jaguars is paramount, but it’s not simple. I think there are seven things the Jags have to fix if they are going to win.
What the heck is the Jaguars identity? It’s not a physical, violent brand of football like you might find in Baltimore or Pittsburgh. It’s not a throw it all over the yard mentality like Kansas City. It certainly isn’t winning. In reality, it doesn’t really have to be a brand; many times it is one man.
Jags owner, Shad Khan, entered the NFL world with a bold vision, which included the Jags being the hottest ticket in town to renovations of the stadium to London as a sister city and now development of downtown Jacksonville. When it comes to football, we think he’s hands-off and we know he’s patient with his front office.
His vision of football in Jacksonville is yet to come to fruition – but in 2017 we did get a taste of his ultimate goal. This city was electric, but only for that one year.
While the identity starts at the top, we don’t associate organizations with owners by general rule. Sure, there are exceptions like Jerry Jones and Robert Kraft, but that’s not common. We associate an identity with head coaches. Bill Belichick, Andy Reid, Pete Carroll, Mike Tomlin, John Harbaugh - they are the architects of identity in a team and in a franchise.
Mike Mularkey didn’t have long enough to build an identity. Gus Bradley’s identity was defense, but the Jags really didn’t build the defense until he was in the last year as head coach. Doug Marrone’s identity is … we really have no idea. I’m sure Marrone has one, but in four years how often have we said “now that’s a Doug Marrone football team.”
During the Shad Khan era, the one time this organization had an identity - like it or not - was 2017 and Tom Coughlin owned it. We knew what Coughlin was all about, we knew he would never change and we knew he was going to play physical football, good defense, and run the ball. Sure, Marrone deserves credit for that season, but every move had Coughlin’s fingerprints all over it. But, the Coughlin way faded away and couldn’t be sustained for a myriad of reasons.
The Jaguars need an identity. They need to hire a head coach who has a clear identity, and his football team, in wins and losses, needs to personify that identity.
#2. WHO’S THE BOSS
Who’s making the decisions? Who’s fault is it? Who should be held accountable? Outside of 2017 and part of 2018 with Tom Coughlin, these are questions that have been tough to answer in the Jags building. While everyone has earned the blame, shouldn’t fans be able to point to a person in charge of football decisions? Shouldn’t people in the building be able to look at one person who has the most control of the football side? When the Jags do anything with tickets, make renovations to the stadium or propose Lot J/Daily’s Place initiatives we know who is taking the lead - Mark Lamping. We should be able to do the same with football operations. Even with Tom Coughlin in charge, some wondered how much he was impacting the team on the practice field or who had final say on draft decisions. Who selected Leonard Fournette fourth overall and passed on Patrick Mahomes? Who decided to give Blake Bortles an extension? Was it Coughlin? Caldwell? Khan? Marrone?
The Jags need a football boss and if you look at the most successful organizations in the NFL - that boss is the head coach. Could we say that about Mike Mularkey, Gus Bradley or Doug Marrone? I don’t think so. In New England - it’s Bill Belichick, in Kansas City - it’s Andy Reid, in Seattle - it’s Pete Carroll, in Pittsburgh - it’s Mike Tomlin. Sure, others are part of the decision process, but the successful teams seem to have the head coach as the compass of the operation.
Oh boy. It sure feels like communication has broken down over the years inside the Jaguars building. Is it the reason Jalen Ramsey and Yannick Ngakoue are no longer here? Is it the reason the NFLPA scolded the Jaguars last year? Again, this piggybacks on the above. The one issue that creates a communication breakdown is is the lack of a clear leader and too many people doing the talking. In the middle of the Jalen Ramsey saga, Doug Marrone, at multiple news conferences said - and I’m paraphrasing here - “I don’t know, you’ll have to ask them down the hall.” It appeared as Marrone was separating himself from the front office and the alignment was off in the front office. Marrone obviously noticed a communication barrier in the building. When Marrone’s return was announced on December 31st, 2019, he claimed he was going to get everyone in the building on the same page moving forward. The pandemic makes it harder to know if that happened, but the point is - it’s been an issue.
Since 2010, David Garrard, Todd Bouman, Trent Edwards, Luke McCown, Blaine Gabbert, Chad Henne, Blake Bortles, Cody Kessler, Gardner Minshew, Nick Foles, Jake Luton and Mike Glennon. Oof. Starting in 2021: Trevor Lawrence.
Maybe, this should have been point number one. If you don’t have a quarterback, you can’t win. The Jaguars might have a generational talent at quarterback as they pick first in the draft. Yes, the Jags got lucky, but you need luck to be successful.
#5. FIRST ROUND HITS
The Jaguars have had a bevy of top-ten picks in the last decade and a pile of losses to show for it. While the quarterback might be a savior in 2021, the Jaguars can’t sustain success without first-round draft pick hits. I have argued that picks like Dante Fowler, Blake Bortles, and Leonard Fournette were not complete busts because they helped the franchise to its third-ever AFC Championship Game and ten minutes from the Super Bowl. While that’s true, those picks didn’t benefit the franchise for sustained success; instead, they eventually set the franchise back. The draft takes good luck, but it also requires good decision-making. The Jags need more of both in the first round.
The Jaguars rebuilt the roster in 2020. They have some nice young talent and the season has been drama-free (despite the record). As that talent blossoms, retention takes on even more importance (see Ramsey, Jalen, and Ngakoue, Yannick). While you can’t keep everyone because of big contracts and tough decisions, the Jaguars inability to keep Ramsey, Ngakoue and others speaks volumes about the problems of the past. I think Ramsey might have been the best talent to ever wear a Jags uniform and he didn’t want to be here. I think you can make the case from a value standpoint that Ngakoue is one of the best draft picks in team history. Ngakoue was second all time in franchise history in sacks at just 24 years old. The former third-round pick wanted out and got out. Today’s star athlete is different. Big contracts give them power, but to win, you need to appease them. The next regime must find a way to keep the team’s best players and not serve as a farm system for others.
#7. BOLD MOVE
Franchises that have turned things around or elevated their success the most in the last decade have been willing to make at least one bold move. Let’s examine a few of the examples:
Seattle: The Seahawks not only drafted Russell Wilson, but they started him over Matt Flynn, who they had just given a huge payday as a free agent.
Kansas City: The Chiefs had an MVP candidate in Alex Smith, but didn’t think he was good enough. They traded up to draft Patrick Mahomes! In that same draft, the Jaguars essentially said: “we’re good with Blake Bortles” and drafted Leonard Fournette.
Baltimore: The Ravens have enjoyed success, but they traded back into the first round to get Lamar Jackson in 2018. While that wasn’t a big risk, John Harbaugh revamped an entire offense around Jackson. He won the MVP last year.
Buffalo: The Bills have shown patience with Josh Allen and it’s paying off. He’s certainly one of the reasons why the Bills have been ascending. Buffalo’s bold move, one that may put them in the Super Bowl, was trading for Stephon Diggs. A 2020 first, fifth and sixth-round pick, plus a fourth-round pick in 2021 for the wide receiver looked steep at the time, but Diggs has been unbelievable for Buffalo.
Tennessee: The Titans were essentially the Jags from 2009 to 2015. They stunk. Mike Mularkey got the head-coaching job in 2016 and won nine games and then won nine more in 2017. Those were banner seasons for the Titans. Still, Tennessee wasn’t satisfied with the development of players. The Titans believed another coach could take them closer to the Promised Land than Mularkey. They hired Mike Vrabel. The Titans have won 28 games in the last three years and went to the AFC Championship Game last year.
Are the Jaguars willing to roll the dice and do something bold? And will it work out?
Winning in the NFL isn’t easy, but it also doesn’t seem to be as hard as the Jaguars have made it look. I’m sure Shad Khan has studied what’s worked in other NFL cities. The Titans, Rams, Browns, Bills and now the Dolphins have gone from perennial losers to on the verge of winning and maybe winning in a big way. The Jaguars can do it. They are set up beautifully. They need to hit a home run with both the general manager and head coach hires. They need to find an identity, football boss, get their quarterback, recruit and retain talent and improve communication within the organization. And, of course, they need to get lucky. It’s a complicated combination, but it’s doable, and every Jags fan will tell you, it’s certainly worth the effort.