It’s a crossroads for the Jaguars franchise, again, against Tennessee in Nashville this week.
There are a lot of factors that go into the cauldron of who the Jaguars are now and who they’ll be in the future but they’re all lined up for the game against the Titans. How they perform could set the course for the foreseeable future. A win and there’s hope. A loss and they’re looking again to the future.
In back-to-back games, sandwiched around the bye, the Jaguars have been outperformed, outpaced and outclassed by division opponents. It’s not a good look for a team that’s been specifically built to compete in the AFC South. The Texans looked more talented, faster and smarter while dismantling the Jaguars in London. Last week, the Colts flat-out manhandled the Jaguars defense, pushing them around at will.
The team is healthy, outside of the tight end position. They’ve gone “back to the fundamentals” according the Head Coach Doug Marrone. The attitude is good in the locker room and they have six games left to right the ship on the 2019 season. Jaguars’ radio color analyst Tony Boselli predicted the team would go on a 7-0 run after the bye. Right now, going 4-2 to finish the season would look like a massive victory.
There’s a lot of finger pointing outside the stadium, a lot of it directed at Marrone and his coordinators, Todd Wash on defense and offensive coordinator John DiFillipo. Wash says, “We have to get off our blocks,” DiFillipo says, “We have to be better on third down.”
“It’s scheme, it’s motivation, it’s culture,” is the cry from interested, ticket-buying parties.
And while those things might be a factor the answer is actually simpler than that:
Looking around the Jaguars roster, they’re pretty talented. But they’re not playing to what the roster looks like on paper.
The offensive line hasn’t developed the way it should with a combination of high draft picks and free agents involved. D.J. Chark is having a breakout year at wide receiver but the rest of that position looks pretty ordinary. On defense better play at linebacker would change their run stopping ability as well as help with pass rush up front and pass coverage behind.
Going to Nashville isn’t the exact recipe for the Jaguars to get well. They’ve lost five straight there, including last year’s embarrassing, Thursday night, nationally televised 30-9 loss that included a record tying 99-yard touchdown run by Yulee’s Derrick Henry.
In another Thursday night contest earlier this year the Jaguars beat the Titans here behind two TD passes from Gardner Minshew and a stout performance on defense.
Oh, how things have changed since then.
Switching quarterbacks and getting healthy seems to have invigorated Tennessee. Their improbable come-from-behind victory against Kansas City two weeks ago has buoyed their confidence. They’ve won three of their last four and are coming off their bye week. In contrast, the Jaguars had gotten to 4-4 but have looked miserable since.
With Nick Foles returning, the Jaguars have a few more options on offense and should have a level of consistency a veteran quarterback can bring. But with only nine rushing attempts last week against the Colts, they became predictable and easy prey. Leonard Fournette is frustrated, Foles says don’t press and freak out, and DiFillipo says it’s a “fair question” to ask about getting away from the running game so quickly in Indy. (As if he has some secret in his pocket that none of us know about.)
At least Head Coach Doug Marrone was straight forward in shouldering the blame.
“I thought we needed to score points in a quicker fashion and I think that’s what led to the increased pass attempts, so that’s on me as the head coach,” he said this week. “And I know we need to be more balanced moving forward. I was wrong, I made a mistake.”
Doug is easy to like and his quality as a “stand-up guy” is laudable. But that’s the kind of mistake a coach of his experience shouldn’t make. And it’s an unforgiving game. Opponents exploit your mistakes and make you pay. It’s a results oriented business and now, the Jaguars aren’t getting results.
But you can’t just point at Marrone and say he’s the problem. You have to go deeper into the organization to give his position some context.
When Owner Shad Khan tapped Tom Coughlin to run the football operation, Coughlin said there were two coaches he could work with. One was Marrone, the other reportedly was former Jaguars defensive coordinator and former Falcons head coach Mike Smith. Both have distinct personalities and styles, but their core ideas on how to coach align with Coughlin’s. No matter who the head coach is for the Jaguars, with Coughlin in charge, he’ll be expected to coach a certain way.
“I look at the situation as being perfect, at least for me,” Marrone told Sports Illustrated last year. “He takes some things off my plate that are a little outside the realm of the team.”
When Khan assembled Coughlin, Marrone and General Manager Dave Caldwell, the decision was met with skepticism throughout the league. Khan was advised against it. Too many egos, too many cooks in the kitchen his friends said. But the success in 2017 and a trip to the AFC Championship game quieted the critics.
For a while.
Earlier this year Khan was asked about Coughlin’s future with the franchise and he said something like, “I couldn’t imagine anyone better.”
Although Khan gave the Jaguars brass a vote of confidence after last year’s 5-11 season, he did set some parameters.
“There were far too many long Sundays over the last three quarters of the season,” he said when he announced Coughlin, Marrone and Caldwell would be retained for this year. “And that cannot repeat itself in 2019.”
But is it?
There’s no denying Coughlin’s success in New York, winning two Super Bowls in 2008 and 2012. But those are both nearly a decade ago and the league has changed. While the Jaguars are built to run the ball, throw it off play action and stop the run on defense, the rest of the league has gotten faster and more innovative on offense. You’re not going to beat the elite teams 17-9 any longer. You’ve got to be able to score points in bunches and the Jaguars aren’t built that way.
Is the current Jaguars decision-making brain trust willing to move in that direction? Probably not. Do they believe a team built to win the Super Bowl a decade ago can still win in the NFL? Probably so.
I don’t buy into noted NFL scholar Jalen Ramsey’s assessment that Coughlin didn’t care to understand “this generation of guys — us as players or as people in general.” Do you think Bill Belichick is worried about understanding “this generation of guys?” Football is about blocking and tackling, not about whether or not you’re hurting somebody’s feelings.
Which leaves Khan with the ultimate decision. Let this group add a few pieces (including two first round picks in 2020) and see what happens or blow it up and start over.