There are three teams that stand out in Jaguars history as the best in the team’s 26 seasons. All three went to the AFC Championship game, in 1996, in 1999 and in 2017.
And all three lost.
The ’99 team is one of the best I’ve seen assembled and clearly the best in Jaguars history. They were 14-2 in the regular season and probably the best team in the league that year. The 2017 team had a lot of good ingredients and talent as they battled all the way into the fourth quarter in New England only to be beaten by Tom Brady and a quick whistle.
That ’96 team is the one that’s an anomaly in the group. They weren’t overly talented, didn’t have a lot of veterans and came into the year with low expectations.
Very similar to the 2020 Jaguars. Young, with low expectations and maybe most importantly, no drama.
After Thursday’s loss to Miami, this year’s team is tracking much like that ’96 team. Both opened with wins and fell to 1-2. In ’96, they were 2-4, 3-6 and 4-7 before getting their act together.
Ninety-six was the second year of the franchise after going 4-12 in their inaugural season. They added some pieces to that team, Clyde Simmons, John Jurkovic and Keenan McCardell but the bulk of the team was made up of young players trying to establish themselves in the league.
This year’s squad doesn’t have a single player over thirty. The ’96 team had just four: Clyde Simmons and Dave Widell as starters, Paul Frase, a defensive lineman and Bryan Barker as the punter.
“We didn’t have any prima-donnas on that team, nobody we deferred to,” Kevin Hardy, the Jaguars first round pick that year said this week. “We had one, Andre Rison, and Tom (Coughlin) got rid of him.”
Hardy played all 16 regular season games that year for the Jaguars and through the playoffs. He remembers the team just going out and playing football.
“We were just young guys right out of college just out there playing football as hard as we could. We were 4-7 before we went on that run,” he recalled. “But we were in every game before that. We didn’t get blown out at all. The New Orleans game and the loss to the Rams, we could have easily won both of those games.”
Amazing how vivid his memory was of that season, 25 years ago And accurate.
Four games into the ’96 season Tom McManus took over at middle linebacker and started there the rest of the year. He finished the year third on the team in tackles. His memory of what happened that year is just as clear.
“Willie Jackson scored at the end of the New England game but they didn’t give it to us,” he recalled. “ We had New Orleans and the Rams beat but didn’t finish it. I knocked a ball down against the Saints that I should have picked. If I pick it off, that game’s over. But once we beat Seattle on Sunday night here to go 8-7 we were like, ‘Hey, this is real. It’s happening. We thought ‘We can beat anybody.’”
Only three games into the season, despite the disappointment against Miami, this year’s Jaguars squad has that same gritty feel the ’96 team displayed.
A couple of times in the past two weeks Head Coach Doug Marrone has said he feels really “close to this team.” I asked him to explain a little of that before Thursday’s game against Miami. He broke it down to good communication between the players and with the coaches and a common goal.
“The vision that you have for what you want to look like as a team, that I share with the players and we talk about quite a bit, is a shared vision,” he explained. “I think when you have that with no little groups on one side or a couple groups here and people trying to tear it down or question it, I really feel good about it.”
While you all can be on the same page and blend well, you still have to have talent and that talent still has to produce. This year’s Jaguars have shown some of that early in the season. The ’96 Jaguars also depended on some young players to get things done.
“That was my rookie year and I was just trying to come in and help the team,” Hardy. “There were guys like me, (Aaron) Beasley and (Tony) Brackens who were getting a lot of playing time as rookies and we were expected to contribute.”
“Everybody knows you need talent but it’s talent with the right personality,” McManus added.
“We had that in ‘96. We fit together. We were a tough team, mentally physically and emotionally.”
McManus likens this year’s Jaguars squad to that one from ’96 in a lot of ways. He particularly likes how they’ve ‘cleaned up’ the roster.
“We didn’t have any distractions (in ’96). These guys in 2020 been through a lot of upheaval with this team. They have a lot to prove. For years it was about ‘pay me money and showing up in Brinks trucks.”
Credit Marrone with creating an environment where the players feel free to play their best. There are consequences for making mistakes, but you can’t play worried if you’re going to make a mistake or not.
“I learned early on that you had to really work as a head coach to either create or break down those barriers so that you can communicate,” Marrone emphasized. “Communication’s obviously a two-way street so a lot of times you try to have conversations and you try to learn about people and it really has nothing to do with football. [It’s] just to get to know people and get a feel for them.
“This team is young and hungry,” McManus added. “A collective group like that can be dangerous. They have a lot of young guys they’re counting on. We had a lot of young guys who were contributing in ‘96. Draft picks that could play right away. Guys like Robert Massey and Travis Davis who nobody knows but they were a part of the success.”
“We didn’t have anything to lose,” he said. “We were 4-12 the year before. Same as these guys. Nobody expects them to do anything.”
Not every team is like that and not every team can be like that. Money, contracts, a lot of things can get in the way. In the professional game.
“Team success breeds individual success,” Hardy said of how things can start to fall apart. “Guys start looking around, thinking about getting paid. It just throws the team off a little bit.”
Not hard to think that happened to the Jaguars in 2000 and again in 2018. Marrone is committed to that not happening again.
“Everyone has a really good vision on how we practice, how we play, how we approach things and that’s what we’re talking about ,” he concluded. “I feel like we have a shared vision which I think creates the closeness.”
One thing they shared after the loss to Monday night: “We have to play better.”
“There seems to be, on all of us, that we just have to do a better job early on,” Marrone said. “This has been going on now for a couple weeks, as the game goes on, you can see where now all of a sudden, it’s starting to play the way we want them to play from the beginning. We just have to be able to get them off to that start.”