The Jacksonville Jaguars are one of the NFL’s youngest franchises, born in 1993. They had a promising childhood: a winning record in their second season and playoffs in four of their first five years.
But like the kid actor Macauley (Home Alone) Culkin, they have not improved with age. The Jags could win with Tom Coughlin – well, who couldn’t? – but none of his four successors has put winning seasons back to back. The Jags have eight losing years in a row, extraordinary futility for a team that’s not based in Cleveland.
But believe it or not, times are changing. The Jaguars’ general manager, Dave Caldwell, has transformed the roster, and it’s now the best in the AFC South. USA Today and ESPN’s Mel Kiper both graded their draft A+, and they’ve been among the most active buyers in the free-agent market.
They signed the best lineman off Denver’s Super Bowl-winning defense, Malik Jackson, and they acquired four other accomplished NFL starters: running back Chris Ivory (AFC’s leading rusher with 1,070 yards), left tackle Kelvin Beachum and defensive backs Prince Amukamara and Tashaun Gipson.
A secondary that was one of the worst in the league now looks strong, with Gipson and the feisty Amukamara arriving along with first-rounder (fifth overall) Jalen Ramsey out of Florida State.
The quarterbacking must improve, but probably will in Blake Bortles’ third season. He’s too gangling and fumbling (13 last year) to be called “athletic,” but he does have a cannon. He set a franchise record in 2015 with 35 touchdown passes. He can terrorize defensive backs with bombs to speedy young receivers Allen Robinson and Allen Hurns.
However, there remains one lingering issue: head coach Gus Bradley.
One of the first moves Caldwell made upon becoming GM in January 2013 was to hire Bradley, coordinator of the sport’s greatest defense, with all the Seattle Seahawks raving about him. He was a brilliant schemer, playcaller and one-on-one motivator.
Unfortunately, some qualities that made him a beloved assistant coach do not help him in his current position. A head coach can find others to do the X’s and O’s (see Bill Parcells and Jimmy Johnson). But a head coach must lead; he must inspire confidence that he knows what he’s doing. That’s where Bradley continues to fall short.
Consider this comment from a postgame press conference last fall: “We have to evaluate and differentiate between solid performance and fluff, to be honest.”
What? An NFL head coach straining to discern the difference between solid and fluff?
Bradley is loyal to a fault. He was an effective motivator for his Seattle defense in large part because he bolstered the confidence of young players who were unsure of themselves. A head coach, however, must be a ruthless judge of ability and performance.
Ted Johnson, who provides NFL insight on 610 Radio in Houston, after playing for Bill Belichick, has said the New England Patriots win because “everybody’s walking on eggshells. They know if they’re late for practice or don’t work hard, they’re gone.”
The Jaguars, by contrast, feel that if they screw up, Gus will forgive them. They will get a second chance, a third chance.
Gus is getting his fourth chance. And probably his last if he doesn’t reach the playoffs. Under his misdirection the Jags are 12-36. He saved his job by improving to 5-11 last season. Caldwell recognized some valid excuses for the team’s slow development, most notably the youth of Bortles and the horrible luck of losing defensive end Dante Fowler Jr., 2015’s No. 3 overall pick, to season-ending injury before the season began.
In Bradley’s defense, it has not been well stocked. Until now, Caldwell hasn’t drafted a defensive back better than Johnathan Cyprien, who couldn’t cover a twin bed.
And it’s Caldwell who must answer for the left tackle he drafted at No. 2 overall in 2013. Luke Joeckel has kept Bortles running for his life and is such a bust that the team committed $4.5 million this year to Beachum, former Pittsburgh Steeler.
Caldwell has drafted better in the lower rounds than the top one. His masterstroke was undersized (220 pounds) linebacker Telvin Smith on the fifth round in 2014. Smith ranged all over the field to lead the team with 128 tackles last season. NFL Network’s poll of players ranked him in the top 100.
Caldwell thinks last month’s draft brought him a bigger – and equally fast — version of Smith. The 42-year-old GM traded up for Myles Jack at No. 36 overall. Jack was rated top 5 until reports circulated that he’s slow recovering from a torn meniscus. Caldwell claims to have better medical intel than the other teams, that Jack “right now is a full go.”
The Jaguars are mostly unproven, but they could prevail in a division full of teams with holes. Houston lacks, among other things, a tight end and a nose tackle. Indianapolis is unable to run or stop the run. Tennessee is coached by Mike Mularkey, who’s one of Bradley’s failed predecessors in Jacksonville.
So the opportunity is there for the Jaguars to grow teeth and devour some teams. But it may not happen with the present coaching staff. My suspicion is that Nice Guy Gus is another Wade Phillips or Rex Ryan, superb at building and juggling a defense, but not tough enough to be an above-average head coach in the NFL.
Alan Truex formerly covered the NFL for the Orlando Sentinel, Atlanta Journal and Houston Chronicle.