Jacksonville Jaguars moves finally bear fruit en route to playoffs
JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (AP) — As the home crowd reveled in the wave and a “playoffs” chant, Telvin Smith huddled with his fellow Jacksonville Jaguars linebackers on the sideline and soaked it all in.
That was the extent of his celebration.
The Jaguars (10-4) ended a decade-long playoff drought with a 45-7 thrashing of AFC South rival Houston on Sunday. Smith and his teammates refused to get caught up in the party. At least for now.
After all, the Jaguars see themselves as legitimate Super Bowl contenders. It’s a significant about-face for a franchise that lost 102 of its previous 144 games heading into this season.
“We understand what we did, but there’s no reason to go crazy,” Smith said. “We still have a lot in front us. It’s great that we made the playoffs. I’m telling you, we’re excited; it was our goal this week. At the same time, that don’t mean nothing until we get there.”
Having finished with double-digit losses each of the last six seasons, the Jags — who play San Francisco this week — now have double-digit wins for the first time since 2007. Reaching this point might seem like an overnight feat, but it really started years ago.
And everyone in the locker room insists they saw it coming.
Turnaround? More like “Told you so!”
“It was turning. The tide was turning,” defensive end Calais Campbell said. “They were trending in the right direction, and I wanted to be a part of it, so I tried to throw my hat in the pile and am trying to do my part.”
It’s impossible to identify a sole reason for Jacksonville’s improbable rise.
Offense. Defense. Special teams. Coaching. Tom Coughlin. Any of those could be justified.
More precise is the Jaguars nailed nearly every major move they made over the last two years, a series of successful decisions that overhauled the roster, changed the culture and established the foundation for what has happened on the field. The results have been evident all season: Jacksonville has nine wins by 10 or more points and six by at least 20.
Here’s a look at the pivotal choices that fueled the franchise’s face-lift from also-ran to division leader…
— Defensive tackle Marcell Dareus: The Jaguars traded for the 340-pound run-stopper in late October, and the defense has steadily improved since. Jacksonville ranked 31st against the run when Dareus joined the team and now ranks 20th.
— Place-kicker Josh Lambo: The team cut Jason Myers in October after six games that included three misses beyond 50 yards. Lambo replaced him and turned in the best season by a kicker in franchise history, making 17 of 18 field goals (94.4 percent) and 19 of 20 extra points.
— Quarterback Blake Bortles: Not only did the Jaguars stick with Bortles in March, they picked up the fifth-year option in his rookie contract that could pay him $19 million in 2018. The decision looked questionable then, but now looks genius. Bortles has 19 touchdown passes, two rushing scores, eight interceptions and two fumbles. He also has been sacked a career-low 21 times.
— Draft, 2017: Jacksonville added bruising running back Leonard Fournette and massive left tackle Cam Robinson with their top two picks. Both have flourished as rookie starters and helped establish the offense’s smash-mouth approach. Throw in receiver Dede Westbrook in the fourth round, and it’s one of the more notable drafts in team history.
— Free agency, 2017: There’s little doubt Jacksonville’s free-agent class was the best in the league this year and tops in franchise history. The Jags signed Campbell (4 years, $60 million), cornerback A.J. Bouye (5 years, $67.5 million) and safety Barry Church (4 years, $26 million) — three standout defenders who fit perfectly in the scheme. Campbell has a team-record and AFC-leading 14 sacks. Bouye has six interceptions and hasn’t allowed a touchdown pass all season. And Church has become the secondary’s leader.
“Not only did we get big-time free agents, but we got great character people,” Bouye said. “It shows in the locker room and on the field. We see everything is coming together, and we haven’t even reached our peak yet.”
— Staff changes: Owner Shad Khan fired coach Gus Bradley a year ago and kept general manager Dave Caldwell. Khan then hired Coughlin to oversee football decisions and ended up sticking with interim coach Doug Marrone and both coordinators. The selections seemed suspect at the time given the team’s record, but players welcomed the continuity. That proved helpful when Coughlin and Marrone instituted a grueling offseason program that included more padded practice in training camp than most guys had experienced. Those workouts reinforced a physical style of play.
— Draft, 2016: Jacksonville landed three significant pieces of its touted defense in the draft. Caldwell chose cornerback Jalen Ramsey, linebacker Myles Jack and defensive end Yannick Ngakoue with his first three picks. Ramsey has emerged as one of the best cornerbacks in the NFL. Jack has flourished at middle linebacker. And Ngakoue’s 11 sacks would get more attention if not overshadowed by Campbell.
— Free agency, 2016: Defensive tackle Malik Jackson got the richest contract in team history, a six-year, $85.5 million deal that included $31.5 million guaranteed. Safety Tashaun Gipson (5 years, $36 million) and running back Chris Ivory (5 years, $32 million) also were part of that class. Jackson has eight sacks — second-most among interior linemen — while Gipson has four picks and Ivory has teamed with Fournette to give Jacksonville a 1-2 punch.
— Early years: Jacksonville’s rebuilding project started in 2013. Bortles, Smith, center Brandon Linder and receiver Marqise Lee were drafted the following year, creating the team’s core. There have been some misses along the way — left tackle Luke Joeckel, guard Zane Beadles, defensive end Jared Odrick, tight end Julius Thomas and left tackle Brandon Albert among others — but what the Jags did the last two years made the difference.
“You know, it’s been a challenge,” Khan said. “But it’s so wonderful now to see a young team come through with the veteran leadership, which gives us sustainability and hope for the future.”
And for this season. Jackson, Campbell and Smith talked about making the Super Bowl in March. The notion seemed laughable then. It’s plausible now.
“I knew what we were and where we were headed,” Smith said. “This is where we’re supposed to be. We wish we could cut out a couple of them “L’s” that we took, but we’re going to continue to move forward and be a dominant football team.”