By the middle of this week, all thirty-two NFL teams will be in training camp. Hope springs eternal in the league this time of year. Fans are pouring over the schedule, looking at the starting lineups, the injuries, the rookies added, and the veterans traded to come up with idea about what their team could be in 2021.
For Jaguars fans, it’s a difficult prediction because of all the new faces wearing teal and black. While most teams turn over about forty percent of their roster every year, the Jaguars number will be much higher than that.
Toss in a new head coach and a new system, and while the Jaguars have better personnel on paper than in the past, who knows what kind of actual team they’ll be come?
A couple of weeks ago in Las Vegas, a friend asked me to put $200 on the “over” for Jaguars wins this season. The oddsmakers have that number at six and a half.
“I’ll take $200 on number 128,” I told the clerk behind the cage in the sportsbook at The Wynn, giving her the line number of the Jaguars over win total on the board.
“One twenty-eight?” she asked as if she’d never heard anybody make that bet before.
“Yes, Jacksonville over,” I said with a laugh, acknowledging her question.
“OK!” she said with a rue smile, shaking her head as she printed the ticket.
At the time you had to bet $105 to win a hundred if you thought the Jaguars would win more than six games. You had to plunk down $140 to win a hundred if you thought the “under” would come through.
“Oh, we’ll win at least seven games,” my friend “Foul Ball” told me without the slightest bit of hyperbole last week. “We could win ten,” he added.
“Where do the wins come from?” I asked, echoing the question my friend “The Ghost” always asks.
“We’ll beat the Texans twice,” he explained. “And split with Indy and the Titans, so that’s four right there. Plus, we play the Bengals and the Lions, and we’ll beat the Dolphins in London so that’s seven. At least.”
All of that is easy to say, and certainly plausible. A 1-15 team improving to seven wins might not be unprecedented, but it certainly would be unusual. When the Browns went 0-16, they drafted Baker Mayfield with the number one pick and went 6-7 in games he started his rookie year. A significant turnaround that gave Browns’ fans hope and proved to be a building block for making Cleveland a contender.
Checking with my reporter colleagues in other NFL towns, they’re not impressed with what has happened in Jacksonville, at least not yet.
“The Cowboys were an established team, they had gone to the playoffs in the ‘90’s,” one scribe told me. “They brought in a super successful college coach in Jimmy Johnson and used the number one pick on Troy Aikman and they went 1-15. They eventually won three Super Bowls and they’re both in the Hall of Fame but it’s an adjustment. It’s a different game.”
“For the first time in a long time Urban Meyer will step on the field and not ‘out-talent’ the opponent,” another scribe noted. “Even with the changes they’ve made this year to the roster, at best in their first year, he’ll have a team that’s equal in talent to the guys on the other sideline. Nobody’s worried about the Jaguars except maybe the Texans. At least not this year.”
In the last decade, teams who finished last in their division one year and won it the next has happened ten times. The Jaguars are one of those teams, going 3-13 in 2016 and flipping that to 10-6 the following year, winning their first AFC South title during a run to the AFC Championship game
Two of the biggest turnarounds have happened in the Jaguars division. The Indianapolis Colts went from 3-13 in Peyton Manning’s rookie year to 13-3 the following season. And the year Manning was hurt, the Colts used their first overall pick on Andrew Luck and went from 2-14 to 11-5 with Luck as their starting quarterback.
Changing the quarterback is one of the common threads for teams with big turnarounds. The Cowboys put Dak Prescott in the lineup when Tony Romo was hurt and went from 4-12 to 13-3 between 2015 and 2016. The Chiefs changed their coach and their quarterback between 2012 and 2013 and went from 2-14 to 11-5 with Andy Reid and Alex Smith.
Winning with a rookie quarterback is the exception and not the rule in the NFL. But it is possible. Prescott is one example. Winning thirteen games in his rookie year ties him with Ben Roethlisberger for the most wins by a rookie quarterback. Luck won eleven times as a rookie. In the last twenty years Russell Wilson, Joe Flacco and Matt Ryan did the same. Lamar Jackson won ten games as a rookie in 2018 for Baltimore and Kyle Orton won ten for Chicago in 2005. Jaguars’ fans no doubt would take the nine wins Robert Griffin III, Andy Dalton and Chase Daniel all posted in their rookie campaigns.
Where do the wins come from? Looking at the schedule they need to come early in the year for the Jaguars. While Jaguars fans have W’s and L’s next to this season’s opponents, there’s not one fan base, maybe outside of Houston, that looks at the schedule and sees the Jaguars and doesn’t say, “Ok, that’s a win.”
“If you break the season down into quarters, you hope they go 2-2 in the first four games,” the “Ghost” said, dissecting the schedule with his regular analytical way.
“In that second quarter, they probably have an advantage over the Dolphins playing in London and in the third quarter between the Colts, Niners, Falcons and Rams you hope to get two wins there,” he added.
According to Ghost’s calculations, getting to six or seven wins comes down to the final five games against Tennessee, the Texans, Jets, Patriots and Colts.
“Optimistically you come up with seven,” he concluded. “I think they play better from the middle of the year on. What happens when they face some kind of adversity? Urban Meyer hasn’t faced that in the pro game. I’m hoping they’re just competitive and entertaining in every game, that’s all.”
“If I’m going to bet, I’ll bet the under. That way if I’m disappointed by the season at least I win some money. I think it’s the under, but I hate to root that way.”
With the Texans in disarray and rebuilding, the Jaguars are about a three-point favorite in their opener at Houston. That’s different since the Jaguars were not favored in a single game during last year’s 1-15 season. From there, the Jaguars have two home games against Denver and Arizona where they’re already underdogs in both. From a preseason perspective, it’s hard to see where the they would be favored the rest of the season outside of a trip on a Thursday night to Cincinnati, playing the Dolphins in London or perhaps when the Texans visit here.
And experienced handicapper, my friend “Wooly” has the rare ability to be a super fan but never bets with his heart. He has different hopes for the Jaguars in 2021.
“When I looked at the schedule it just says to me 5-12,” he said somewhat disappointedly. “But I think the losses will be more exciting. You have to learn how to win in that league. The only way to do that is to not be out of the game by halftime. If they lose some of the games in the fourth quarter, that’ll give them an idea about how they could win those games.”
Breaking down the schedule, Wooly admitted it got tougher as the year went on, especially having to play the NFC West. All four teams in that division could be playoff contenders.
“You hope they have some last possession games, and they have some excitement in the fourth quarter,” he added. “Even if they lose, it could give them some optimism. I’m hoping their progress outmatches their record.”
And there’s one other thing Wooly would like to see change if the games are competitive. Right now, nobody’s afraid to come to Jacksonville.
“Outside of 2017, they’ve been a dull team for over ten years,” he explained. “If they provide some kind of entertaining football, playing in Jacksonville will again be a tough place to play for visitors to come here and try to win.”