“We said we were going to build this team,” Gus Bradley said last week, “And now it’s built.”
And with that statement, Bradley raised expectations for the Jacksonville Jaguars in 2015.
Building the franchise has been no easy task, winning just seven games in the first two years. While he wasn’t given a chance to do the same, former Head Coach Mike Mularkey knew it was a long-term project. “We’re going to take our lumps,” Mularkey said before he embarked on his lone season running the team.
He was right. They won two games.
“At the end of our first training camp,” one coach still with the franchise told me, “We were in the meeting for the final cuts and all of the position coaches submitted who they thought should make the team. We put those names on the big board and wee thought we were done until somebody noticed we only had 46 players. We had to go back and find seven guys to keep just to fill out the roster.”
While that’s a pretty funny story now, it’s also indicative of the state of the franchise at the time. In his first year of ownership, Shad Khan listened to his football people who told him signing Jerry Porter and Aaron Ross as well as re-signing Jeremy Mincey would make the team competitive.
“So what did I get for that,” he said recently. “Two wins. I knew something had to change. I just wish I had started it sooner.”
Khan brought in Dave Caldwell as the GM, who in turn hired Bradley as the process began. They tore the roster to the bare bones and started to rebuild. I thought the one guy they should have kept was Montel Owens. Veteran player who could have guided the way and would have flourished and help create the culture Bradley was looking for. Nonetheless, at the end of that first training camp they only had 46 players deemed NFL worthy. Chad Henne probably deserves some kind of medal just for sticking around.
“Quarterback, left tackle, offensive and defensive line,” is how Caldwell categorized the important building blocks in the franchise re-make. Thus, Luke Joeckel, Blake Bortles and Dante Fowler have been his 1st round picks in three years.
Having said this roster is now built, both Caldwell and Bradley admit they are still looking for depth but believe they have enough talent across the roster to compete. The 2015 version of the Jaguars might be a bit young to expect a post-season berth but you can see how they can be a team on the rise. You don’t expect everybody to have a career year at the same time (those teams go to the Super Bowl) but even incremental improvement over last year’s performance would put this team in games.
How many games do they have to win? I don’t think Khan has a number in mind. When asked how he’ll judge Caldwell and Bradley last week, the Jaguars owner said, “It’s pretty simple. Are we better than we were two years ago? The answer to that is yes.” Still, winning more than three or four games is expected and to be competitive in the rest will be very important. No more 30-0 halftime scores like last year at home against the Colts. No more double-digit blowouts.
A couple of key cogs won’t be available for the opener. Julius Thomas, a real difference-maker, should be available in week 4. It could be week 4 as well before Sen-Derrick Marks is ready to play. Losing Fowler for 2015 is an obvious setback. But the additions of Jared Odrick, Dan Skuta, Davon House and Sergio Brown made the defense better. On offense it all revolves around Bortles but the addition of Stefan Wisniewski and Jeremy Parnell up front should keep him upright more often than not. He won’t be sacked 55 times this year. And the kind of running backs available will give new offensive coordinator Greg Olsen more options.
You can look at the cuts made this year to get down to 53 players and see guys like Cap Capi, Ike Igbinosun, Ben Koyack, Neal Sterling and Tony Washington on the outside looking in. In the past three years, they make the Jaguars roster. Capi is a good example of where they are. He had a nice preseason, some sacks in games and “flashed” a few times as Bradley likes to say. But his ability to set the edge and stop the run was in question, so he didn’t make it in 2015. He’s another example of how good you have to be just to make it to the 53rd spot on an NFL roster.
All teams like to get off to a fast start, but it’s especially important for the Jaguars this year because of how the schedule is set up. Opening with two home games, they need to beat either Carolina or Miami before they go on the road for three at New England, Indianapolis and Tampa Bay. Going 2-3 in that first five game stretch would make the rest of the season look bright as they get some players back and start to figure out how to play together. Anything less than that and 2015 could be no fun at all.
With Atlanta, Buffalo, the Jets, Houston (twice) and Tennessee (twice) in the second half of the season, you expect the Jaguars to win some of those games. Everybody expects road trips to New England, Indianapolis, Baltimore and New Orleans to be difficult.
Saying and doing are two different things. So while this team is better, they need to go prove it on the field.