JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (AP) — Jacksonville Jaguars interim coach Mel Tucker had a simple message for the team following Sunday’s season finale: “We’re undefeated in 2012.”
No doubt, the Jaguars are ready to forget about 2011. It was one of the most tumultuous seasons in franchise history.
The Jaguars released starting quarterback David Garrard five days before the opener, switched QBs again two weeks later and matched the worst start in franchise history (1-5).
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Things didn’t get any better from there.
Owner Wayne Weaver fired coach Jack Del Rio on the same late November day that he announced he was selling the team. Tucker took over and made significant changes, cutting starting receiver Jason Hill, firing receivers coach Johnny Cox and reassigning quarterbacks coach Mike Sheppard.
The Jaguars (5-11) went 2-3 under Tucker, probably not enough for him to get the full-time job. Coaches were told they had to be out of the building by Friday.
“The picture is cloudy, but it will become clearer at some point in time,” Tucker said.
General manager Gene Smith is leading the coaching search. New owner Shahid Khan officially takes over Wednesday and insists money will not be a factor in assembling the right staff. The search took off Monday, with at least five offensive coordinators to be interviewed.
The list includes Atlanta’s Mike Mularkey, the New York Jets’ Brian Schottenheimer and Carolina’s Rob Chudzinski. ESPN reported that Denver’s Mike McCoy and New England’s Bill O’Brien also will be interviewed.
Atlanta coach Mike Smith confirmed the Jaguars have requested permission to interview Mularkey and that the team has “signed off and granted that opportunity.”
Jets general manager Mike Tannenbaum wants Schottenheimer back in New York next season, but confirmed Monday that Schottenheimer will speak to the Jaguars.
And a person familiar with the negotiations said the Jaguars have also requested permission to interview the Panthers’ Chudzinski. The person spoke to The Associated Press on the condition of anonymity because neither team had publicly announced the request.
“I’m excited to get a new direction,” tight end Marcedes Lewis said. “We’re ready to figure out what we’re going to be doing and just get better.”
Even though the Jaguars had the worst offense in the league, players believe they are close to piecing together a playoff-caliber roster that features running back Maurice Jones-Drew, Lewis and a defense that ranked sixth in the NFL despite several key injuries down the stretch.
Jones-Drew bounced back from a knee injury in 2010 to break the franchise’s single-season rushing record with 1,606 yards, which also led the league. His accomplishment was even more impressive considering the Jaguars had the NFL’s worst passing offense.
Only three others since 1978 — New Orleans’ George Rogers in 1981, Los Angeles’ Eric Dickerson in 1986 and Baltimore’s Jamal Lewis in 2003 — won the rushing title on a team ranked last in passing.
Jones-Drew routinely faced stacked lines and run blitzes. Nonetheless, he averaged 100 yards a game.
“It was an eight- or nine-man box consistently,” guard Uche Nwaneri said. “For an offense to be able to accomplish that against those kind of odds, it was great to see, really proud of that. … Teams are just saying, `We know you’re the only player that’s a threat to us and we’re just going to focus all our energy on stopping you,’ and they couldn’t.”
MJD finished with 1,980 yards from scrimmage, second in the league behind Baltimore’s Ray Rice, and accounted for 47.7 percent of Jacksonville’s offense.
But in a passing league, the Jaguars realize they need more. They have to get Lewis back to Pro Bowl form and need to get Blaine Gabbert better prepared to handle the most important position in football.
A first-round pick in 2006, Lewis had 58 catches for 700 yards and 10 touchdowns in 2010 and was rewarded with a five-year, $35 million contract that included $17 million guaranteed.
He had 39 receptions for a team-high 460 yards this season, including just two catches in the red zone and no scores.
“Obviously, I didn’t have the year that I wanted to,” Lewis said. “But my work ethic was never a question. I always came out and worked hard. Sometimes, things happen that tend to hold you back. I’m hungrier than ever to get back out there.”
The Jaguars plan to get at least two play-making receivers, either in free agency or the draft. With better receivers and better coaching, the team believes Gabbert will prove worthy of the 10th pick in last year’s draft.
The rookie completed 50.8 percent of his passes for 2,214 yards, with 12 touchdowns and 11 interceptions. He was sacked 40 times and lost five of his 12 fumbles.
His most troubling trait was pocket presence. Gabbert often seemed scared under the slightest pressure and struggled all season with his accuracy, especially on short throws.
“Got to make strides in year two,” Gabbert said. “Everything is going to get sorted out.”
The Jaguars failed to make the playoffs for the 10th time in the last 12 years and have the seventh pick in April’s draft. More pressing will be free agency.
Defensive end Jeremy Mincey, cornerback Rashean Mathis, safety Dwight Lowery and place-kicker Josh Scobee head the team’s list of free agents. The Jaguars are about $25 million under the salary cap, plenty of room to re-sign anyone they want and add a few quality starters in March.
“We’re going to have a lot of new people,” Lewis said. “We don’t know who’s going to be back; we don’t know what’s going on. We’re going to need camaraderie. Once we have that and everybody’s in the same direction, we’ll go anywhere we want to go.”