We’ve called the Steelers the Jaguars big rival for a long time. When the Jaguars began in the AFC Central, Head Coach Tom Coughlin molded the Jaguars in the Steelers’ image, knowing the only way to the division title was through Pittsburgh.
In the past couple of weeks, I’ve seen those television commercials showing Fred Taylor, Rashean Mathis and other Jaguars of a bygone era beating up on the Steelers. Some were night games on national television. Those were fun. They were exciting. It’s hard not to yearn for those “good ole’ days.” Equally as difficult is to imagine those kinds of games for the Jaguars “under the present circumstances.”
Because they’re just not good enough.
And they know it.
When asked about beating the Steelers in Pittsburgh twice in 2017, one of those wins in the playoffs, Marrone explained how that happened.
“I think it was something that we had, a lot of good players, a lot of people that had a lot of confidence, believed in themselves, a defense that created turnovers. And then in the second game when we needed to score, we were able to score and run the football. So, it was a great moment for those players and those coaches that were there.”
In other words, “We’re not that same team. They might still be good, but we’re not.”
But give Marrone credit. He says losing “rips a part of his soul” that he never gets back. He also knows and has said often it’s a production business. The only thing that counts is winning and losing.
“I don’t want to be one of these guys that (BS’s) and tries to [explain] the philosophy and doing all that stuff; I do see improvement but it’s obviously not at the rate that we need,” he said when asked about the team getting better.
He added, “I don’t want to be that guy that comes out after you lose a game and is like, ‘Oh, we’re getting better.’ I think people don’t want to hear that (stuff), at least in my opinion.”
“A lot of times, the big difference with some of those things is some guy will just make a play, make a catch, break a tackle,” Doug said recently when I asked him if it was about making the difference on game changing plays.
“You see the explosive plays that we had given up, guys that are able to make a play where we can’t get a guy down, things like that,” he added. “I think it’s easier for everyone to kind of look and see you’re in position, but who’s going to be the playmaker? Is it you or is it your opponent?”
When I followed up, asking if it’s just a matter of the players stepping up and making plays, Doug thought for a second and said, “No, we have to do a better job as coaches. I’ll just stick with that.”
Marrone knows that the sum of the pieces deleted, and pieces added since that winning year in 2017 don’t add up. To be fair, no team is the same three seasons out from a championship game run based on the salary cap. But the decisions made by the teams that stay relevant year after year are different than the one’s made by Jaguars General Manager Dave Caldwell.
His moves have been well catalogued and dissected. Letting players like Marcedes Lewis and Calais Campbell slip through their fingers when they still had plenty of gas in the tank are glaring mistakes.
His drafting acumen has been rightly called into question, including missing on character issues when drafting Jalen Ramsey and Dante Fowler. Add Tom Coughlin’s decisions to take Leonard Fournette and Taven Bryant with their first-round picks in ’17 and ’18, adding pieces he thought would complete the puzzle, and the Jaguars cupboard in 2020 is not bare, but a Costco size shopping list is in order.
When Shad decided two years ago to keep Marrone and Caldwell to run his football team, I’m convinced it was Marrone that helped keep Caldwell around. Usually, the General Manager makes the decision on the coach, but I think in this case it was the other way around. My admiration for Marrone as a coach and a person is no secret. And I don’t know Caldwell well enough to have an opinion on anything else but his body of work. But I do think Khan listened to and bought into Marrone’s vision on how to run the team after Coughlin was dismissed and then asked the coach who he thought should run personnel. Marrone has plenty of loyalty and I believe he told Khan he was very comfortable working with Caldwell.
In my colleague Gene Frenette’s column in today’s Times-Union outlining the history of the Steelers and how they went from laughingstock to perennial contender, he defines how Pittsburgh has “set the bar for excellence as high as anyone.” He credits the Rooney’s “impeccable reputation” on and off the field for keeping the Steelers competitive.
“Shad Khan and the Jaguars may never get there,” he added.
I think the easy question is, “Why not?”
I’d agree that under, as Gene notes, “present-day circumstances” it would be, “hard to envision the Jaguars ever becoming the Steelers.”
And those “present day circumstances” include how Shad Khan is operating as the owner of the franchise. It’s a far cry from how the Rooney’s are fully invested in the Steelers. While admittedly, the Jaguars are one of Khan’s forty or so enterprises and the Steelers are the sole business of the Rooney’s, the two franchise couldn’t be run more differently from the top down.
On the business side and on the football side, the Steelers have figured out how to not only be a part of their community but reflect what their community is about.
There were times under Wayne Weaver’s ownership of the club that the team got close to that, but the Jaguars, too often in their history, have felt like an alien entity that happens to operate in our stadium.
Their level of philanthropy is certainly laudable, probably unmatched. But somewhere along the way there has to be a closer connection that differs from a straight line to the checkbook.
Perhaps this column would be better served at the end of the season. But whenever I’m out, if there’s conversation about the Jaguars at all, it’s whether they’ll win another game this year.
With their recent play, yes, they are playing better. But they’re still a double-digit underdog, at home, to the Steelers today. Remaining games against the Browns and Bears here seem within reach, as does the road game against the Vikings. But Indianapolis, Baltimore and Tennessee have plenty of motivation against a Jaguars squad that’s been depleted by injury and personnel moves.
One of the top three draft picks in 2021 would ensure that Trevor Lawrence or Justin Fields could be wearing black and teal next year. No matter who’s making that decision next April, they should hope it’s their “Chuck Noll/Terry Bradshaw” moment of fifty years ago that started the Steelers on the path they continue to blaze.