Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Decisions to Make: Jaguars Need A Lot

Most teams out of playoff contention use the final four games of the year to assess their situation going forward.

What do we need?

How can we get better?

While the Jaguars have needs all over the field, the game against Indianapolis exposed the glaring weaknesses they have if they have any thought of getting better.

Andrew Luck is an excellent quarterback and even without Reggie Wayne, he’s figured out how to find the open guy and get it to him on a regular basis. He showed over and over that the Jaguars biggest need is creating a pass rush.

It’s not just somebody on the defensive line; it’s anybody who can get to the quarterback. Whether it’s an edge rusher from defensive end or linebacker or somebody who can push the pocket backwards towards the quarterback, the Jaguars defense will always be on their heels without that kind of pressure up front. Sen’Derrick Marks is a good building block and Andre Branch seems to have figured that part of the game out but without any fear of a pass rush, opposing quarterbacks will continue to have fun anytime they face the Jaguars.

At linebacker, Paul Posluszny is the only sure thing. Either one of the current guys has to emerge or GM Dave Caldwell will have to find something better. Guys who can cover and stop the run are hard to find but it’s a necessity they have to be willing to spend to get either in free agency or with a high pick in the draft.

The defensive backfield is more complicated. Jonathan Cyprien is a guy you can build around; everybody else has been a little slower than anticipated to develop. While the Jaguars spent a lot of time, money and picks on that position last year, they might have to go back to the drawing board to upgrade.

Everybody knows the Jaguars need a quarterback.

Nobody can agree on what to do about it right now.

Without a clear-cut franchise player in the draft at that position, it might be another year before the team has a new starter. There are no franchise-type QB’s in free agency that are coming to Jacksonville and there are no saviors in the draft either. But that doesn’t mean the Jaguars future QB isn’t out there. I just don’t think he’s there in the first round. With 10 draft picks, selecting a quarterback somewhere in the first three rounds, looking for somebody to develop is imperative. Watching Chad Henne miss open receivers against the Colts was painful. But it’s something Jaguars fans should expect for at least half the season in 2014. A.J. McCarron would be a good fit and available at the right spot in the draft.

It’s hard to predict what they’ll do at wide receiver since Justin Blackmon’s indefinite suspension leaves his situation up in the air. There’s no downside to keeping Blackmon and taking advantage of his skills. They don’t owe him that much and one more transgression and he’s out of the league permanently. After his injury history, it’s not hard to understand if the Jaguars have a little question as to whether Cecil Shorts can stay healthy enough to be a regular contributor. The rest of the guys on the roster at that position are nice slot receivers and backups but without a solid number one or number two, it’s where Caldwell and Gus Bradley will earn their money.

With less emphasis on the running back position in general in the NFL, finding guys who can run and block isn’t that difficult. They’re out there. But I do think the Jaguars will offer Maurice Jones Drew a deal he’ll probably take. He’s lost that second-level speed but can be a good compliment to Jordan Todman or anybody else they find.

At tight end, Marcedes Lewis has a decision to make on his own. He has superstar, Pro Bowl skills, but he hasn’t been that kind of consistent offensive presence you hope to have from an eight-year veteran. Sometimes he’s a force, other times he plays as if it’s the paycheck and not the performance that counts.

On the offensive line is where I think the Jaguars will be active in free agency. Potentially at center and guard. They like Luke Joeckel at tackle and Bradfield and Pasztor have been serviceable and they like one of those guys to develop into a legitimate starter.

If most NFL rosters have about a 40% turnover, the Jaguars will be substantially higher than that. With the number 3 pick in the draft (finishing 4-12) and a pocketful of cap space and money to spend, you have to put some faith in Caldwell and Bradley to make the right decisions.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Meester’s Day

Never one to say much, Jaguars Center Brad Meester said a lot on Sunday in his final home game for the Jaguars. “I’ve talked more this week than I have in my entire career,” Meester joked after the Jaguars fell 20-16 to Tennessee.

While this week was mainly focused on the Titans, Meester was a close second when it came to what the team was playing for.

“He taught me how to act,” Marcedes Lewis told us in the locker room. “Any time I needed to know what to do when I came in the league, I just looked at Brad and followed that.”

“It started to hit me when I was walking through the Prowl,” Meester admitted. “I got a emotional realizing it was my last time walking on that field as a player.”

The Jaguars introduced Meester and only Meester during the pre-game player introductions; something he said was very special.

“I’ve never had anything like that happen to me before. I saw the signs; I heard the fans calling my name. After the catch I heard the stadium calling my name, I’ve never had anything like that happen to me in my career.”

Oh yeah, the catch.

During the week, the Jaguars installed a “Jumbo” package that put Meester as an eligible receiver at tight end. As they approached the goal line, Gus Bradley and Offensive coordinator Judd Fisch called the play that was going to give Meester a chance to make his first catch in the NFL. They had practiced it three times, walking through it each time during the week.

“I was exhausted,” Brad explained after the game. We had just run a zone run and I had a bunch of guys pile on top of me. As I went back to the huddle I heard “Jumbo, Jumbo” which is the call for me to go to tight end. I was nervous. I’ve always played inside.”

When “63 eligible” was announced, Meester thought the Titans would figure it out right away. But they didn’t. He engaged the guy in front of him and slipped outside.

“I was open and I was thinking, ‘Now what?’ All I was concentrating on was not dropping the ball. ‘Catch it, catch is what I was saying to myself. Once I caught it I started to run and ran right into somebody (Nwaneri). And I didn’t know where to go. So I ran left. I’m sorry I didn’t score but I did get the first down.”

Meester’s first down allowed the Jaguars to then throw it to Marcedes Lewis for his 4th straight game with a TD. It was Meester’s first catch ever, at any level.

“I had some interceptions in high school because I played some defense. And I recovered a few fumbles, but that’s my first catch. Ever.

One scribe did the match at the game and estimated Brad had played nearly 14,000 snaps before making a catch.

“I’ll remember that for a long time,” Meester said afterwards. “That ball has to go in my office somewhere.”

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Jaguars Don’t Have Enough

You never know what to expect from two teams not going to the playoffs facing each other at the end of the season. The Jaguars are going to play hard; you know that from what they’ve done all year. Tennessee also played hard, kind of surprising since they weren’t going anywhere and their backup quarterback was still their starter.

At 4-10 and 5-9 (amazingly with second place on the line in the division) both coaches played the game as you would have hoped: loose, entertaining and with a little edge. In the first half alone, the Jaguars and Titans went for it on 4th down 4 times. One Tennessee attempt was at 4th and goal on the 1. One Jaguars attempt was a mid field. While you might not think that’s sound football judgment, when you’re not playing for anything but to win THIS game, I like it.

The Jaguars put together a nifty two-minute drill at the end of the half to take a 13-6 lead. Inexplicably, the PAT was blocked by a guy coming off the edge, leaving the Jaguars lead at 7 instead of eight.

As the second half started, you could sense a momentum shift towards the titans. Despite another successful 4th down attempt by the Jaguars, they could only muster a field goal and lead 16-6. For the next 12 minutes it was all Titans. Two TD drives, helped along by Jaguars penalties and obvious defensive mistakes, gave Tennessee a 20-16 lead.

Playing with backups and third stringers, attrition stared to deplete the Jaguars lineup in pretty stark ways. They started the day without Geno Hayes and Russell Allen at linebacker and lost DT Brandon Deadrick in the first half. So it was relatively easy for the Titans to take advantage of that. One thing Head Coach Gus Bradley had talked about this week was better communication in the defensive backfield. That didn’t happen, allowing the Titans a pretty simple TD to take a 3rd quarter lead.

Working the ball downfield and down 4 points, the Jaguars faced 4th down inside the Tennessee 35 yard line. Bradley decided to stay aggressive and went for it, only to have MJD stoned at the line of scrimmage. As much as I like that attitude at this point in the season, I think I’d have taken the 3 points there to pull within one FG of a win.

Instead, the Titans ran the ball in their 4-minute offense to perfection, barely giving the Jaguars a chance to make a difference.

Chad Henne tried to sneak one over the nickel back to Marcedes Lewis one too many times and was intercepted to end the game.

The Jaguars are now 4-11 and will finish in the 3rd spot in the AFC South (making a difference in their schedule next year, probably for the better.)

In their final home game of the year, the Jaguars proved two things:
1) They still can and do play hard.
2) They still need a lot of help.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Jaguars: Who Wants To Be Here?

Toward the end of any NFL season, teams are going in all kinds of different directions. Some are already looking ahead to the playoffs. Others are fighting for a spot in the postseason and still others are looking ahead to next year, checking their current roster to see who might be able to help them in the future.

The Jaguars are unique among that latter group because they’re playing with an intensity that would suggest there’s more football to play. Instead, they know their season ends in Indianapolis in two weeks but the players also know what they do this week and next will have a big impact on whether they’ll get a chance to be on this team next year.

Is that what they really want anyway?

I’ve been surprised how the locker room has reacted to Gus Bradley and what he and Dave Caldwell are trying to build with the Jaguars franchise. “I want to be here,” Paul Posluszny said as the second half of the season started. “I’d like to stay here,” Maurice Jones Drew echoed two weeks ago, knowing his contract is ending and he’ll be a free agent.

No question Bradley has this group of players believing that he’s building a winner that won’t go away soon. They won’t win soon either, but once they start, they won’t stop. The culture of empowerment that the players are a part of gets the most out of their talent. Sometimes that’s not even enough to win games, but when the talent level starts to rise, the outcome will different.

“I don’t want the players to be motivated by wins and losses,” Bradley said last week. “I want them to be motivated by performing at their personal best.” That would have been considered heresy in the league 20 years ago, but to give the players the power and to act as a “servant leader” is what Gus Bradley has adopted.

Mel Tucker was the same way. “I want to be here to help the players become the best they can be,” Tucker said during his tenure as the Jaguars interim head coach.

In 2013, Gus Bradley has said the scenario has developed “perfectly.” “We had a stretch where we didn’t win, then we had a little success, then we got punched in the mouth a little but. We were going to find out if this team can take a punch. And we found out they can.”

Bradley never talks about winning but always about “getting better.” And he knows at the end of this year the team is a bit thin at certain positions because of injury, like most teams in the league. He’s adjusted the practice regimen because of it and moved some players around, trying to stay competitive.

“We really weren’t sure as a coaching staff where our depth was early in the year so we had to really work on developing guys,” Bradley said while preparing for Sunday’s match with the Titans. “But that’s our job, developing guys, brining them up off the practice squad and seeing if they can play. It’s been pretty good.”

Without the playoffs as a goal, the Jaguars have continued to strive according to Bradley. “It hasn’t changed,” he said about their motivation. “When they get in the meetings, in the locker room, the practice field, they’re still working hard. I don’t see any difference. They’re still trying to get better.”

And he was able to cite some specific examples of guys getting in games and perhaps performing better than the coaching staff expected.

“Austin Pasztor and Cam Bradfield, we didn’t know what they might do. As a coaching staff we went ‘uh-oh’ but we put them in there and they did great.”

Bradley also named Kerry Taylor as an example. “Sometimes guys just need a chance to compete and they show you what they can do.

That’s what the coaching staff will be looking for in the last two weeks, and what we should be looking at as well.

Who wants to be here?

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Meeter Retires: The REAL Pride of the Jaguars

When a coach and general manager start looking to build on the offensive and defensive lines, you often hear the phrase, “He can be a cornerstone there for the next decade,” a lot. That rarely happens between injury, free agency and the vagaries of the NFL Having more than 10 years in the league as a productive player is difficult.

Jaguars center Brad Meester not only met those goals, he by far exceeded them in his 14-year career. Meester announced on Wednesday that he’s retiring at the end of this season, making Sunday’s game against Tennessee his final appearance at home.

It would be hard to overstate the positive effect Meester has had on the Jaguars throughout his career. Rarely injured, Meester holds the record for most consecutive starts at 92 and is currently tied for second in that category as well. He’s blocked for both Fred Taylor and Maurice Jones Drew, being a part of the offensive line that helped MJD to the rushing title three years ago.

He’s played for ever one of the Jaguars head coaches, adapting to each of their styles with ease. “Its different,” Brad told me after the Thursday night win over the Texans referring to Gus Bradley’s coaching philosophy. “Way different, but it’s working.” Along the way, different offensive line coaches and offensive coordinators have wanted different things out of their veteran center. One set wanted speed, so Brad came to camp well under 300 lbs. Another wanted power up front so he came in over 330 (and didn’t like it).

Football fans know the center position is difficult, blending speed, quickness and toughness with a cerebral capacity to recognize defenses and make the appropriate line calls to combat them.

Although he started his career at guard (48 starts) after being the Jaguars second round draft pick, everybody knew he was the center of the future. It was easy to recognize that Meester had all of the qualities necessary to do that job and do it well.

He said after the Buffalo game last Sunday he stayed up late and thought about whether he might retire or not, and decided the time was right. “People don’t realize what goes on in a locker room. And that’s probably what I’ll miss most. The time with the guys, before, during and after games, it’s something special.”

To a man, players say the same thing about Meester: He’s the guy they looked to when they wanted to know how to act like a pro, on and off the field. He’s exemplified what it means to be a professional athlete in his performance and his persona.

That’s why they should put Brad in the Pride of the Jaguars as soon as possible. He’s exactly what the Pride is about: professionalism, performance, hard work, and community standing. He’s a guy the Jaguars can always be proud to say he wore their uniform.

If they don’t put him in, they should take the rest of the names off the wall because when you look up there and see BRAD MEESTER 2000-2013, that’ll be something to be proud of.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Jaguars: Three Forward One Back

Coaches talk all the time about “overcoming adversity.” When it comes to a young team like the Jaguars, sometimes the adversity is self-imposed. For the first eight games of the season, they made mistakes and failed to capitalize on the mistakes of their opponents enroute to an 0-8 record. For that adversity, Head Coach Gus Bradley kept the team together and told him they were getting better and hang in there.

That’s how they got to 4-1 in the second half of the year.

Almost as if the first 8 games hadn’t happened.

Early against the Buffalo Bills, Chad Henne threw an interception that lead to three points. No problem, they bounced back from that to tie the game at 3 with a Josh Scobee field goal. They even took a 10-7 lead on a nifty play by Ace Sanders. Say one thing for Jedd Fisch: He’s designing plays that take advantage of the players’ talents. Sanders doesn’t have great straight line speed but he can juke with the best of them. So getting the ball to him in open space in short yardage is a very positive move.

So things are going well for the Jaguars, even backing the Bills up inside their own ten after a punt and a penalty. But then the adversity or a “lull’ started to creep in. The Bills completed a 29-yard pass on third down and subsequently marched right down the field for a 94-yard touchdown drive. After a 3 and out from the Jaguars offense, the Bills went right down the field again for 73 yards to make it17-10. And when the Jaguars looked like they were going to at least get a field goal on the half’s final drive, Mike Brown’s drop was ruled a fumble, leading to a field goal and a 20-10 halftime lead for Buffalo.

So how do the Jaguars respond to that adversity?

They stop the Bills on a 3 and out to open the second half and march right down field, only to have Denard Robinson fumble the ball at the goal line while he was trying to reach into the end zone. (Instead of just plowing through the goal line) Those are the kind of plays you hope young players like Robinson learn from. Secure the ball in this league all the way to the ground if you have to.

The guys in the NFL are pretty good and know what to do, even out of desperation.

Instead of folding, the Jaguars still hung in there. You have to think that all of the bad things they’ve been through and some of the success they’ve had are allowing them to focus on what they’re doing RIGHT NOW instead of wallowing in either their success or failure.

Bradley’s philosophy of being motivated “be being your personal best” doesn’t involve the scoreboard. It encourages the players to go play to play without thinking about the past or the future. It’s why you see the Jaguars playing hard at the end of games, even if they’re out of it.

So each time Buffalo did something good, the Jaguars would answer.

At some point their youth, inexperience and lack of talent will catch up with them in these situations where they let the other team stay in the game with turnovers and mistakes. But against Buffalo, an equally challenged team, they stayed in it until the end. They had their chances but a 4th turnover (Henne’s second INT) stopped a Jaguars drive right at the goal line. I’m not sure why you would throw a “jump ball” to Jordan Todman, a 5’10” running back instead of 6’6″ Marcedes Lewis doesn’t make any sense and Henne and the Jaguars paid for it.

Even if the defense did force a Buffalo punt, the Jaguars just didn’t have enough talent, especially at receiver to mount a drive. Henne’s 4th down pass was well out of bounds anyway, and the Bills win 27-20.

If there’s still no such think as a moral victory in the league, the Jaguars just come away with a loss but to turn it over 4 times and have a mid-game lapse that put the Bills ahead . . .and still be in it at the end is another step in the right direction for Bradley’s troops.

If the team had taken three steps forward during the three game winning streak, the loss to the Bills as at least a half step backwards.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Jaguars Beat Texans Again: Learning How to Win

“Learning how to win” sounds like such a trite phrase but when it comes to a pretty equal competition, it’s the team that knows how to win, or figures it out that comes out on top.

My friend and ten-time Grand Slam champion Tony Trabert attributes winning to “knowing how to play the big points” in tennis.

In the second half of the season, the Jaguars look like they’re learning how “to play the big points.” In the first half of the year, the Jaguars looked outmanned every time they took the field. And save for Oakland and St. Louis, they were. But since the bye, Tennessee, Houston and Cleveland have had problems of their own equal to the Jaguars. And in those games the Jags have held their own, taking advantage of the other team’s mistakes. And that’s how you win in the NFL.

You have to prepare, you have to execute, but when the opponent gives you an opportunity, you have to make them pay.

In the first half against Houston, the Jaguars did just that. Penalties and miscues by the Texans gave the Jaguars several “second” chances and they pounced on them, scoring 17 points.

While Houston had lost 10 straight coming into this game, they still have a lot of talent on their roster and remember, this is a team that was one of the favorites to go to the Super Bowl in 2013. They also know how to win, they just forgot for a while.

So when the Jaguars stopped producing on offense, the Texans took advantage of field position and made a game of it. It didn’t hurt Houston that Head Coach Gary Kubiak put Matt Schaub in the game at quarterback. Schaub has played road games in the Jacksonville and knows the Jaguars aren’t going to put a lot of pressure on him in the pocket. So in his first drive he marched the Texans right down the field for a way-too-easy TD, 24-17 Jaguars.

You could tell Schaub was playing “angry” with some real purpose in his actions. In fact, he brought some life to a heretofore-lifeless Texans team.

And this is where the Jaguars started making crucial mistakes.

Houston sends in their kicker to attempt a 51-yard field goal on 4th and 10. He misses it but the Jaguars are penalized for 12 men on the field. So Kubiak sends his offense back on the field and they convert easily. A much easier 30-yarder is made and it’s 24-20 Jaguars.

What a team does in times of stress is a good measure of who they actually are. In this situation the Jaguars could have stayed on their heels and let the Texans take control of the game. Instead, they relied on their instincts, went back to what they do best and that’s play hard. They’re not going to “out talent” anybody and when they are successful it’s usually pretty. But if you’re looking for effort, they’ll deliver.

Two different times, the Texans had the ball with a chance to take the lead but instead the defense for the Jaguars made a play. Once on fourth down and another with an interception by Geno Hayes that lead to a Scobee field goal and a 27-20 lead.

Say what you want about the quality of the opponents or how their winning but there’s something going on with Gus Bradley and the Jaguars that has a very positive feel about it.

Maybe this win didn’t change any minds of those watching around the country who like to make fun of Jacksonville and the Jaguars but here in town, and inside the stadium, there’s a momentum being built that has the potential to create a lot of fun.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Florida/FSU: Different Directions?

It’s a pretty simple story at the Florida/FSU game this year:
Are the Gators as bad as they seem? Is FSU worthy of a shot at the National Championship?

As usual, the answers fall somewhere between yes and no on both counts.

In front of a big home crowd, (90,454) Florida played a spirited first half against the ‘Noles, making some stops on defense and making Jameis Winston look ordinary. But on a couple of occasions, Winston looked extraordinary, firing passes for long 3rd down completions and TD’s that added up to a 17-0 score at halftime.

While Florida’s defense still has some bite, FSU’s explosive play potential can be demoralizing because it can happen anywhere on the field. Winston is good, no question, but with three receivers, a tight end and a couple of backs to throw it to, he has a lot of options. He’s pretty comfortable in the pocket as he surveys the field and is bigger than most opponents expect until they actually confront him face-to-face. He’s had so much success and has put up such gaudy numbers that when things aren’t going right you have to remind yourself that he’s just a redshirt freshman. He is a little anxious for the big play but after all of the success he’s had, that’s understandable.

FSU is also big up front, with four juniors and a senior starting on the O-line. If they chose to just pound away at their opponents, no doubt they could wear opponents down and win games that way as well. It seemed as if they realized that about halfway through the first quarter, running the football at the Gators and taking some sting out of the Florida defensive charge.

Florida’s problem is getting anything done on offense. Besides underestimating what having Jeff Driskel meant at quarterback, the Gators offensive philosophy has plays that are slow to develop. No match for the ‘Noles speed on defense.

And that’s the dilemma they’ll face going forward.

Bringing Brent Pease in from Boise State came with great expectations of a “spread” offense that came at a defense from all kinds of directions. Instead, it’s been an attempt at a plodding, power game that hasn’t materialized. Did Will Muschamp overrule what Pease wanted to do? I guess we’ll never know that.

If there’s an advantage in the state of Florida when it comes to recruiting home-grown players, speed is the difference between the Sunshine State and everywhere else. And for two decades, the Gators took advantage of that resource and won big. Now, the emphasis seems to be on time management and ball control over blinding speed.

If you’re a 5-star recruit as a QB, WR or RB are you going to go to Gainesville these days? Heck no. FSU, Miami and a half dozen other schools are throwing it around and look like they’re having fun. Muschamp is going to have to decide whether he’s willing to cede the control of the offense to somebody else and open it up, or continue to try and win low-scoring, defense-dominated games.

Against Florida State this year, that didn’t get it done leaving the ‘Noles just one win away from a berth in the National Championship game and the Gators pondering a very uncertain future.