Jaguars trying to escape pattern of mediocrity
Few NFL coaches last eight seasons with just one playoff victory.
Jack Del Rio beat the odds, getting a second chance to rebuild the Jacksonville Jaguars. Owner Wayne Weaver stuck with Del Rio in January and gave him another shot at getting the small-market franchise out of a pattern of mediocrity. If it doesn't happen, Del Rio and his assistants probably will be gone.
So Del Rio will be under as much scrutiny this season as the quarterback competition between David Garrard and rookie Blaine Gabbert, the health of running back Maurice Jones-Drew and defensive end Aaron Kampman, and the team's overhauled defense.
''The pressures and the demands, that's part of what we do,'' Del Rio said. ''I enjoy it. I love that part of it. It becomes a little more enjoyable when you know that you're getting closer to being on equal footing.''
The Jaguars believe they're finally there, having replaced 15 of 22 starters over the last three seasons. The most significant changes came on defense, where the Jaguars ranked 28th in the league last season and allowed a franchise record 419 points.
How the revamped unit performs will determine whether Jacksonville can overtake perennial power Indianapolis in the AFC South - and save Del Rio's job.
''We can be the best defense in the league with the talent we have,'' defensive tackle Terrance Knighton said.
The Jaguars certainly have upgraded every position on that side of the ball. They signed linebackers Paul Posluszny and Clint Session, safety Dawan Landry, end Matt Roth and nickel back Drew Coleman. With the return of Kampman (knee) and tackle D'Anthony Smith (Achilles tendon) from injuries, the Jaguars are confident they will see a defensive turnaround in 2011.
''We're going to be good on defense,'' Del Rio said. ''I don't think there's any doubt. There's not anybody here coaching or playing that's part of our defensive unit that doesn't think we're going to be pretty good.''
There are doubters outside the facility, though.
Some oddsmakers have the Jaguars projected to finish last in the division. There are reasons to be skeptical, and they have more to do with Kampman, Jones-Drew and Garrard than Del Rio.
Kampman tore the anterior collateral ligament in his right knee midway through last season. He tore the same ligament in his left knee the year before, meaning the 31-year-old defender hasn't made it through a full season since 2008.
The Jaguars responded by limiting Kampman's workload in training camp, and they plan to reduce his repetitions in the regular season.
''I've always loved to just be a guy that never comes off the field,'' Kampman said. ''The reality is if it helps our team, if I'm fresher and able to mount a better rush in crucial situations, then absolutely I think it's a wise move. I'll trust the coaching staff and our guys that make those decisions, our medical staff to know what is best.''
Jacksonville has taken a similar approach with Jones-Drew, who had arthroscopic knee surgery in January. Jones-Drew played most of last season with torn meniscus in his right knee. He learned the severity of the injury during camp, but kept it hidden because he didn't want opponents taking shots at his knee.
The injury became more painful after his sixth consecutive 100-yard game, but he still tried to play at Indianapolis on Dec. 19 - a game in which Jacksonville could have clinched the AFC South. After that, and with the team no longer in control of its postseason chances, Jones-Drew shut it down.
Eight months later, he insists he's healthy. And he's eager to silence critics.
''Pretty much every reporter, 'Will he be back? Is it possible to come back and do what he's done?''' Jones-Drew said. ''A lot of fantasy football gurus who have never stepped on the field before or ever been in the locker room, they know the most about football. ... I just have to go out there and prove to my teammates and to the guys that are around me that I am back to who I used to be.''
Garrard has something to prove, too.
Even though he had a career-high 23 touchdown passes to go along with five of the top eight games of his nine-year career, the Jaguars selected Gabbert with the 10th pick in April's draft. The plan had been to bring Gabbert along slowly, but his quick progress and Garrard's sore back have made the competition closer than anyone expected.
Garrard doesn't plan to make it easy for the rookie, and teammates believe they can win with Garrard under center. But whether they can win enough to make the playoffs - and save Del Rio's job - remains to be seen.
''This team definitely has the makeup,'' Garrard said. ''I've seen teams that maybe didn't have the same kind of makeup with the same kind of quality guys on and off the field. I definitely think we have the potential to do a lot of great things and that is definitely making it to the playoffs and making a nice run in the playoffs.''