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Jags' owner fuels franchise's revival
Wayne Weaver had to put his foot down.
After 15 seasons as Jacksonville Jaguars owner, the shoe-store magnate’s franchise was in full crisis mode entering 2010. The season-ticket base hadn’t recovered since the nation’s economic crisis and local apathy caused a drop of 17,000 fans after the 2008 season. Speculation that the Jaguars would eventually leap to fill an NFL void in Southern California continued to grow. A mediocre on-field product wasn’t providing much hope, either.
That’s when Weaver decided to use his own Size 11 to give the entire organization a much-needed kick in the rear.
Just like when he was running Shoe Carnival and Nine West, Weaver took it upon himself to personally interview every managerial figure inside Jaguars headquarters from head coach Jack Del Rio down to the “equipment man.” He ordered the ticket staff to more aggressively market the product. He told the coaches to spend additional time in the film room with players. Weaver challenged David Garrard to study more and provide the strong locker-room leadership expected out of the quarterback position.
The 75-year-old Weaver even did his own self-evaluation to determine whether he was giving the Jags enough of the resources needed to become a legitimate Super Bowl contender like a decade ago.
“I said to myself at the beginning, ‘You know what? We can do better,’ ” Weaver told FOXSports.com on Friday from inside his office at EverBank Field. “That’s the reason I went through this in-depth review through every part of this building. . . . It’s the way you run businesses. This business is no different than any of my other businesses. It’s all about surrounding yourself with people who are passionate and share your goals.
“Once in a while, we just have to light a fire under ourselves.”
That flame wasn’t just lit. It’s now raging.
With a win Sunday at Indianapolis (7-6), Jacksonville (8-5) will clinch its first division title since 1999. Weaver said Jacksonville’s Dec. 26 game against visiting Washington will mark the franchise’s eighth regular-season sellout and air locally – a remarkable turnaround considering all but one Jags contest was blacked out in 2009. The franchise sold an NFL-high 15,000 new season tickets this year, which has quashed the relocation chatter.
Without Weaver’s push, these Jaguars may never have changed their spots.
“We definitely accepted the challenge,” said Jaguars defensive tackle Terrance Knighton, one of the cornerstones in Jacksonville’s rebuilding project. “We knew what type of team he wanted. We didn’t want to be one of those middle-of-the-road teams. We wanted to be in the postseason. Now the opportunity is there. We’ve just got to seize it.”
The sense of urgency began in the offseason when the Jaguars had what was essentially 100 percent player participation in the workout program. This also led to closer bonding on a squad whose roster was purged of bad seeds the past two years by general manager Gene Smith and head coach Jack Del Rio. Knighton says the team’s position groups are as close socially as on the field.
“This is a team with character instead of a team filled with characters,” said tight end Marcedes Lewis, who was drafted by the Jags in 2006. “In years past, there were a lot of personalities that didn’t mesh. Guys were complaining about getting paid. The younger guys were following the older guys because they’re young and don’t know any better. This year, everybody is pulling in the same direction.”
Leading that charge are Garrard and Maurice Jones-Drew, whose string of six consecutive 100-yard rushing games has pushed him just 52 yards behind Houston’s Arian Foster for the NFL lead. The success of the NFL’s No. 2 ground attack (157.8-yard average) has helped take pressure off Garrard, who is enjoying his best season since a breakthrough 2007 campaign.
Garrard actually has a better passer rating (93.2) than ballyhooed Indianapolis quarterback Peyton Manning (91.2). Incidentally, Weaver told Garrard during the offseason that he should aspire toward having Manning’s indefatigable work ethic.
Del Rio said Garrard’s efforts remind him of another quarterback who enjoyed a career renaissance in 2010.
“He has, almost like Michael Vick, gotten to where he’s figured out, ‘Hey, this is actually helping me -- doing this work and preparing and knowing what the heck is going on and all that stuff,’ ” said Del Rio, who was blunt in his public critique of Garrard earlier this season. “He’s worked harder at it. He’s committed more. It’s been demanded of him. He’s followed through.
“That set the tone for the whole building. It’s like, ‘If the owner and coach are both going to call out the quarterback, everybody has got to get on point.’ ”
Del Rio and Weaver both say plenty of work remains before the Jaguars can be considered an elite franchise. Selling tickets in such a small market remains a daunting task, especially if there is a work stoppage in March when the Collective Bargaining Agreement between the NFL and its players union is set to expire. And while the Jaguars have won five of their past six games, Jacksonville isn’t being mentioned in the same breath as New England or Pittsburgh among AFC Super Bowl contenders.
“It’s not like we’ve arrived or anything,” Del Rio admitted. “We just happen to have battled our butts off all year and fought our way into a position to contend for the title.”
Even so, there was a surprising lack of respect given the Jaguars this week by some Colts players as reported in the Indianapolis Star. Running back Dominic Rhodes compared the Jags to being the “little brother” to the Colts’ “big brother,” referencing Indianapolis’ long-standing AFC South domination. Outside linebacker Tyjuan Hagler also dissed the Jags when saying, “Every time they play us, it’s like their Super Bowl.”
“We laughed at it,” Lewis said. “It is what it is. I feel like that’s a sign of fear. At the end of the day, the talking doesn’t do anything. It won’t win you a game, I tell you that.”
Added Knighton: “We talk on the field. When you can’t run the ball, that’s us talking. We don’t do all that ‘little brother’ stuff. Every game is the Super Bowl for us. If teams took an approach to every game like we do as an important game, teams would have a better record. That’s why we're in the position we’re in right now. We’ll go out and play, and in the end, we’ll have the last laugh.”
That would give Weaver a chance to click his heels about his franchise’s resurgence.
“This would be a huge lift for our community, certainly for our organization,” Weaver said of what is considered the biggest regular-season game in franchise history. “It would help propel us to where we’ve got to go over the next couple of years.”
But if nothing else, Weaver has the Jaguars walking in the right direction.
“When you have it starting from the top and there’s accountability from the top to the bottom, that’s a good thing for your organization,” Del Rio said. “That’s certainly what we have.”