In the locker room, the pain was real.
Quiet and somber, the Jaguars went about the business of breaking down the loss to the New England Patriots in the AFC Championship game, speaking with the media and having small conversations among themselves.
I’ve been in the losing locker room for the Jaguars for three of these and they’re the same in many ways but different in others.
In 1996, the Jaguars finished the regular season at 9-7 and got hot behind Clyde Simmons on defense and Natrone Means at running back. The trip to the AFC Championship game in January of 1997 was so unexpected that it had a “glad to be here” feel. Nobody expected the Jaguars to beat the Patriots on a cold night in Foxborough at the old and dumpy Sullivan Stadium. A couple of critical turnovers did the Jaguars in that night, but the team was so young and exuberant that in the losing locker room that night it felt like the start of something.
And it was.
The Jaguars were an upstart expansion franchise that got good fast. They were in the playoffs the next three years straight, culminating with a trip to the AFC Championship game after the 1999 season.
After going 14-2 and demolishing the Miami Dolphins in the divisional round after a bye, the Jaguars hosted the conference title game. Leading at halftime, they melted in the second half and fell to the Tennessee Titans for the third time that year. Titans head coach Jeff Fisher called Jacksonville “our other home field.”
While that one hurt, it was more anger and disappointment than hope in that locker room. The Jaguars were the best team in the league that year and they knew it. A blend of veterans and young players, they were right in the peak of the cycle of competitiveness. There was no talk of “next year,” the team knew their chance had happened “now” and they lost. After getting beat at home, the Jaguars had four consecutive losing seasons.
Sunday’s loss to the Patriots had a similar feel to 1996, much like the entire 2017 did as well. Except this year’s team wasn’t just “glad to be there.” They believed they could win the game and win the Super Bowl. The swagger and proclamations by Jalen Ramsey and others weren’t just boastful: It was what they really believed.
“I believe in this team,” Calais Campbell told me in front of his locker. “We know we can do this but we didn’t get it done tonight. I believe in these guys in this locker room and believe we’ll be back here.”
As emotionally painful as the loss was to the players, it also showed a steely determination that burns in these guys, even after getting beat.
“We created our core, and that’s what you build from” Telvin Smith said.
“We have a good core group of guys,” echoed Malik Jackson. “We changed a lot of peoples minds, got them thinking about us in a positive light.”
“I think these guys can’t wait to get back to work,” former Jaguars quarterback Mark Brunell explained. “When you have a team like that and you get that close, you can’t wait to start again and finish the job.”
Every year is different and the Jaguars were blessed with good health, especially on defense throughout the year. That doesn’t always happen so it’s difficult to project that they’ll just pick up where they left off.
“We’ll start all over again,” head coach Doug Marrone explained. “You have to build that foundation. Right now what you feel is the end. It’s sad.”
Although most analysts didn’t give the Jaguars much of a chance this year, the turnaround was remarkable. From 3-13 to the AFC Championship from the outside looked impossible. But the team thought they were something special from the beginning.
Marrone explained that’s why this one especially stings.
“We wanted more and we knew we had the ability to do it in our hearts.’ That’s what hurts. I think if you feel lucky, like you feel like, ‘oh gosh, we were lucky’ or, ‘oh gosh, that was unbelievable,’ then maybe you don’t feel like you’ve earned that right in some capacity. Then I think you can let it go quicker. When you feel like you’ve earned it, you were there, you feel you’re good enough, you feel all those things.”