The 2017 National Football League season saw the Jacksonville Jaguars have a turnaround for the ages. The Jaguars went from being 3-13 in 2016 and having the fourth overall pick in the 2017 NFL Draft, to going 10-6 in 2017, winning the AFC South for the first time in franchise history and reaching the AFC Championship Game during their first postseason trip since 2007. The Jaguars made plenty of believers out of plenty of naysayers along their run to the AFC Championship Game. But now the hard part will come for the Jags in 2018 as they’ll have to find a way to win in the NFL when everyone now expects them to.
The Jaguars had the element of surprise going for them in 2017 as they were fresh off of nine consecutive non-winning seasons. However things finally came together in Jacksonville for a team that had constantly been picking early in the National Football League Draft.
Things began to turn around for the Jaguars when the team’s former head coach Tom Coughlin was named as the club’s executive vice president of football operations last January. Coughlin was the first head coach in Jaguars franchise history and by his second year with the team, he had Jacksonville in the AFC Championship Game. In eight years as the Jaguars head coach, Coughlin was 68-60, while he was 4-4 in the playoffs. When coaching the Jaguars, Coughlin provided the expansion team with discipline which along with getting back to the basics was a key cog in the recent culture change that has taken place in Jacksonville.
At the age of 71, Coughlin has an old-school mindset when it comes to succeeding in football as his teams run the ball and play solid defense. Coughlin’s first draft choice as the Jags executive president of football operations was used on running back Leonard Fournette. In recent years teams have shied away from drafting running backs early in the draft, but not Coughlin as Fournette made him look like a genius. This season Fournette rushed for 1,040 yards and 9 touchdowns on the ground as he became the first Jaguars running back since Maurice Jones-Drew in 2011 to rush for at least 1,000 yards in a season. Fournette’s presence provided the Jags offense with some much needed balance, while also making life easier for the team’s starting quarterback Blake Bortles.
Jacksonville made Bortles the third overall pick of the 2014 National Football League Draft. Bortles started 13 games as a rookie and he had his ups and downs as he threw 17 interceptions to just 11 touchdowns. Bortles would continue to struggle as in his first three years with the Jags, his record was 11-34. Bortles was also sacked 140 times over that stretch as he was too tentative in the pocket, and more often than not he appeared to be a deer in the headlights.
That appeared to somewhat change this season as the presence of Fournette allowed Jacksonville to throw more often out of play-action situations and Bortles appeared to be more comfortable. It also helped Bortles’ cause that the Jags were very stingy on defense.
The Jaguars has the second ranked defense in the National Football League this season as they did a tremendous job in getting after opposing quarterbacks, while frustrating offenses around the league as a whole. This season the Jags tallied 55 sacks and the leader of this crew in “Sacksonville” was veteran defensive end Calais Campbell whom was lured away from the Arizona Cardinals last off-season in free agency. Campbell led the Jaguars in sacks with 14.5 which was also tied for second in the NFL. And aside from the pressure that the Jags were able to create up front, some of their recent early draft picks began to live up to the hype.
In 2015, Jacksonville used the third overall pick in the National Football League Draft on defensive end Dante Fowler Jr. But in a huge dose of bad luck, Fowler suffered a torn ACL on the first play of his first practice with the Jags. Fowler would miss the entire 2015 NFL season as 2016 would become his de facto rookie campaign. And after totaling 4 sacks in 2016, Fowler became more active on Jacksonville’s defensive line as he accounted for 8 sacks this season. In 2016, cornerback Jalen Ramsey was the fifth overall pick of the National Football League Draft by the Jaguars. Ramsey had his ups and downs as a rookie, but he showed that he was ready to be a play maker, and when the 2017 campaign began, he showed that he was ready to be a star. This season Ramsey only had 4 interceptions, but his presence spoke volumes. Ramsey was routinely on the opposing team’s best wide receiver and he excelled at taking that player out of the game, while quarterbacks were not lining up to test his ball hawking skills. Right after selecting Ramsey, the Jaguars would select outside linebacker Myles Jack in the second round of the draft. Jack was expected to be selected earlier, but after he suffered a knee injury during his final season at UCLA, it scared many teams off. However the Jags were not scared off as Jack is developing into a solid contributor on their defense. Jack has appeared in every game since joining the Jags and his aggressive nature has been on display which included his forced fumble and recovery in the AFC Championship Game versus the New England Patriots this past Sunday. And with young studs in Fowler, Ramsey, and Jack on the defensive side of the football, Jacksonville appears ready to be a force in the AFC, but will they be ready for it mentally?
Doug Marrone just finished his first full season as the head coach of the Jaguars, and he is an extension of Coughlin on the field. Both Coughlin and Marrone played collegiately at Syracuse University, as Coughlin was a running back, and Marrone a tight end. Both men are committed to running the football as well as playing solid defense, and the fact that they have a solid working relationship trickles down to their team which will definitely help Jacksonville going forward.
The AFC South was a division that was up for grabs this past season as the Indianapolis Colts did not have the services of quarterback Andrew Luck for the entire year, while the Houston Texans took a step backwards once quarterback Deshaun Watson suffered a torn ACL. The Jags took advantage of this and won the division in spite of the fact that they were swept by the Tennessee Titans. Jacksonville has shown that they can win their division as well as a playoff game, but they must now find a way to be consistently be good which comes down to the play of Bortles.
Up until this season Bortles had not shown that he could win in the National Football League. But as the Jaguars gave Bortles a running game to work with, he was not asked to do as much. However in order for the Jags to take the next step, it will come down to Bortles being able to make plays from the pocket. In the Jags win in the AFC Wild Card Game over the Buffalo Bills, Bortles was just 12-of-23 passing for 87 yards as he actually rushed for more yards (88). Bortles was bailed out by the Jaguars defense which limited the Bills to just 3 points and 263 yards of total offense. In Jacksonville’s 45-42 over the Pittsburgh Steelers, Bortles was 14-of-26 passing for 214 yards. Bortles was helped out once again by the defense of the Jaguars that forced a pair of turnovers which led to 14 points. The Jaguars never trailed during the game against the Steelers, and although that Bortles had to make some key plays late, he was never in a dire situation due to the fact that Jacksonville was still dictating the pace. However things would be a little different in the AFC Championship Game against the Patriots.
Jacksonville was up 14-3 late in the second quarter and appeared to be going for more until a third-and-seven pass play that resulted in a first down was nullified due to a delay of game penalty. And on the very next play, Bortles was sacked and the Jaguars had to punt. The Patriots would receive the football and march right down the field for a touchdown to make the score 14-10. But when Jacksonville got the football back, they had 55 seconds and a pair of timeouts to work with. However Marrone elected to take a knee and sit on a four-point lead. In the second half the Jaguars extended their lead over the Pats to 20-10, but they could never put New England away which was due in large part to the inability of Bortles to consistently make plays from the pocket. Jacksonville still had a chance to win the contest in spite of the fact that the Patriots had taken a 24-20 late in the fourth quarter, but Bortles could not consistently make several key throws late which included missing open receivers such as Fournette as those plays helped to change the outcome of the AFC Championship Game.
Patriots head coach Bill Belichick adjusted as the game went along. Belichick took away Jacksonville’s ability to run the football and dared Bortles to beat him from within the pocket and he was never able to do it as this is what will ultimately keep the Jags from taking the next step. Coughlin and Marrone have given Bortles everything that he needs to succeed as Jacksonville can run the football and play solid defense, however until he can make those critical plays in the pocket consistently which not only get points for your team, but also keeps the opposing offense on the sideline, the Jags can win the AFC South and make the postseason. But making the postseason and winning it all are two different animals, and to do this, it is the little things that matter as the Patriots do it better than anyone in the National Football League which is why they are playing in another Super Bowl.
Following Jacksonville’s loss to the Patriots, a frustrated Ramsey claimed that there a no positives to take out of a loss. However the Jags will need to go back and look at the tape of their loss to the Patriots and see what they missed out along with what New England did. As previously mentioned, the Pats do the little things better than any other team in the National Football League which is something that Jacksonville needs to emulate. The Patriots find a way to consistently score at the end of the first half, while they also capitalize on the mistakes of their opponents. And if the Patriots defense forces a turnover, you had better believe that quarterback Tom Brady will make you pay.
The fact that Marrone elected to take a knee at the end of the first half tells me that he doesn’t trust Bortles in that situation as a field goal or touchdown in that situation in favor of Jacksonville could have changed the entire tenor of the contest. However a Bortles turnover could have put the Patriots ahead and the Jaguars may have never recovered.
There is plenty to build off of in you’re the Jaguars heading into the off-season, but they cannot take this for granted as you can ask the Seattle Seahawks and Atlanta Falcons about that in their recent postseason losses to the Patriots in the Super Bowl, along with Hall of Fame quarterback Dan Marino who after reaching the big game in his second season in the National Football League, never got back. The time is now for the Jags as they look to avoid being here today and gone tomorrow in the NFL’s title chase.