After years of struggle, some experts thought the Jacksonville Jaguars could push .500 in 2016 and maybe even contend in a weak AFC South.
Those hopes were quickly dashed, as a brutal backslide by young QB Blake Bortles and an 0-3 start denigrated into a nine-game losing streak that eventually cost head coach Gus Bradley his job.
Still, through a disastrous 3-13 season, the Jaguars did play some pretty solid defense. And the offense still has some young, high-level talent. Can Doug Marrone rescue Bortles? Can Bortles recover and take this team on a long-awaited turnaround? Or will the next couple of years signal the need for yet another rebuild?
Luke Sims, editor of Black & Teal, shares his insights:
Zoneblitz: Heading into the season I don’t think I was alone in expecting the Jaguars to take a step forward this season. That didn’t happen. But there still seems to be some rising talent here. What was your assessment of the season?
Sims: 3-13 was definitely a disappointment, especially as the .500 goal was modest. Going from 5-11 in 2015 to 8-8 should have been achievable in the fourth year of a rebuild. Interestingly, the progress on the defensive side (the liability in 2015) did pay off. The Jags fielded a top defense in yards allowed and also managed to create some turnovers in the latter half of the season. There’s still room for growth, but the defense looks like it is in a position to be a strength going forward. The offense was the big letdown. Where there should have been progress, there was regression. With much of the same talent that brought an exciting 2015, it was easy to put blame on the coaches. Greg Olson was rightly canned and Gus Bradley’s long tenure as modern-era head coach with the worst record also deservedly led to his dismissal. If the Jags could combine 2016’s defense with 2015’s offense, they could be real contenders. There was just a disconnect there, even with 10 games being decided by seven points or less.
Zoneblitz: Was firing Gus Bradley the right move?
Sims: Yes. I like Bradley a lot, everyone does. From players to coaches to reporters, everyone liked Bradley. But he wasn’t about winning; Bradley was about getting better. That narrative was needed when he took over in 2013, it rang hollow four years later when the team was not demonstrably better in the win-loss column. Any way you slice it, that’s on the head coach.
Zoneblitz: What do you think of the additions of Doug Marrone as head coach and Tom Coughlin as executive VP of football operations?
Sims: While I wouldn’t say I’m excited about Marrone becoming head coach, I do think it was a prudent move. Clearly, with the outside eyes in Coughlin and internal assessments, the Jags think that there is a core worth believing in right now. That’s reflected in Coughlin and Marrone retaining key people like Todd Wash as defensive coordinator and Nathaniel Hackett as offensive coordinator. More importantly, both Marrone and Coughlin have talked about winning since day one. This isn’t about the Jaguars getting better anymore, this is now about winning. Four years of getting better just wasn’t good enough, now there is a clear measurable goal. If the wins come, they’ve achieved it. If not, time to shake things up again. The buck stops with Coughlin and there’s a level of accountability with him on board that the Jaguars haven’t had since…well, since Coughlin was head coach.
Zoneblitz: What happened with Blake Bortles? Is he fixable?
Sims: Yes, he is fixable. There are a lot of concerns with Bortles, especially in decision making, throwing motion, and (in my opinion) leadership through body language. I think with the right coaches and some continuity at offensive coordinator (Hackett is his third in three years and will fortunately not be replaced) we can see Bortles become a reliable passer. I don’t think he will ever be as polished as Drew Brees, but his gun-slinging ways bring favorable comparisons to Brett Favre. Where it gets concerning is in his decision making and leadership through body language. On the positive end of the gun-slinging spectrum is Favre who oozed leadership 100% of the time. On the other end is a sulky Jay Cutler. Bortles needs to be careful he doesn’t become more like the latter. Someone who turns the ball over as often as he does needs to quickly move onto the next play. Right now, his wild gestures, grimaces, and agonized reactions look more like pouting than like leadership. As a starter at the most important position on the team, that attitude can spread like a virus.
Zoneblitz: Same question, to a large degree, with Allen Robinson – was 2015 the aberration or was 2016 the aberration?
Sims: Something was just “off” about Robinson right when the regular season began, but I don’t think 2016 was ultimately that outside the realm of his growth. In 2015 he won a lot of 50/50 balls that were thrown up by Bortles. Those led to big plays and big hype for Robinson. His ability to beat a defender on those balls is what makes him valuable. Yet his overall catch rate on targets was just 53% (179th in the NFL). In 2016 he had the same number of targets (151) but caught just 48.3% of those passes (just seven less catches). To my mind, that speaks to worse quarterback play more than worse wide receiver play. Yes, there were some more drops but many of the drops were on balls that only the best of the best can catch and the balls weren’t in spots that were as good as 2015. We’re learning that Robinson is a big-play receiver, not a sure-handed possession guy. He needs some more help from his quarterback if he wants to put up 2015-type numbers again. I think he can grow to be more sure-handed and I think he can grow to win even more 50/50 balls no matter how poorly they’re thrown (which speaks to his talent) but his 2016 numbers really weren’t outside the realm of possibility based on 2015.
Zoneblitz: The Jaguars have spent heavily on RB the last couple years with TJ Yeldon through the draft and Chris Ivory in free agency, yet not gotten a ton in return. How do you fix that?
Sims: This is a frustrating situation. Tevin Coleman, Todd Gurley, Melvin Gordon, Ezekiel Elliott, and Jay Ajayi all have great success and Yeldon just seems like a dud. Is that his fault or is the offensive play calling and the offensive line? The best indication that it is the latter is the addition of Chris Ivory. Ivory was a dominant, bruising back in a 2015 Pro Bowl season. He regressed and looked hamstringed by the offense in 2016. Bolster the O-Line, change the game plan, run the ball more (24th in attempts, 17th in yards per attempt), and see if Ivory and Yeldon can actually deliver. If they don’t, make sure someone good is ready to step in. The risk on not taking a top running back in the 2017 NFL Draft is that 2018 may not yield someone better if the running game flops again. I’m not certain there’s a better option than “wait and see” while investing in the guys who run block.
Zoneblitz: This team has some interesting young talent on defense – where does the team have strengths on that side of the ball and what steps remain in order for the Jaguars to take it up a notch on defense?
Sims: Strengths are definitely at defensive tackle (particularly when Roy Miller is in), linebacker with Telvin Smith and Myles Jack ready to dominate, and at cornerback with Jalen Ramsey and Prince Amukamara (free agent this year). Defensive end still isn’t locked down and the two safety positions are in a similar position. Can SS Johnathan Cyprien be a consistent top performer and more than a sure tackler? Can FS Tashaun Gipson return to his ball-hawking form? More importantly, is there a good defensive end on the team aside from Yannick Ngakoue? Dante Fowler needs to step up, Jack needs more playing time, Paul Posluszny needs the fountain of youth. I think taking it up a notch requires a change or competition at free safety and at least one more young, explosive defensive end.
Zoneblitz: What do you want to see the Jaguars do in free agency and the draft?
Sims: My preference would be: O-Line, free safety, defensive end, tight end, and (in the right situation) running back. The talent is there in free agency this offseason, it’s all about priorities at this point. GM Dave Caldwell and EVP Tom Coughlin are good and they’ll need to be wise in their selections. Keep in mind, the Jags can (once again) literally throw money at the problem if they want. I’d expect no more than two big signings, though. One of those should be at defensive end.
Zoneblitz: How far off is this team from fielding a contending team?
Sims: I think 2017 can be competitive. The AFC South is weak and the records are inflated by winning against each other. The Jags plays 10 competitive games in 2016. If they win half of those in 2017 and get more competitive in the other six, they have a real shot at first or second in the division. That could mean playoffs. If not 2017, then 2018. The decision to retain so many coaches and commit to Bortles suggests the team thinks along similar lines. Hopefully they’re right.
Zoneblitz: Is there anything you would like to add?
Sims: These are uncertain times for the Jags. It’s a new regime and new structure. Priorities need to be established and it will take time for the team to settle in. Check back in a month or two before the draft and there should be much more established to talk about!