The 2017 NFL season was a special season for fans, players, coaches, and anybody who proudly supports the Jacksonville Jaguars. It was a season that caught even the most optimistic Jaguars fans by surprise. Prior to the 2017 season, the Jaguars were in a ten year playoff drought. They hadn’t hosted a playoff game since 1999. In the three seasons preceding the 2017 season, the Jaguars had a combined eleven wins. In 2017, the Jaguars had ten regular season victories, while adding two more victories in the postseason. The Jaguars reached the AFC Championship Game, a place NFL fans would have only envisioned the Jaguars reaching in Madden. But the question is, how did the Jaguars go from a 3-13 team in 2016 to narrowly missing the Super Bowl in 2017?
The offseason leading up to the 2017 regular season wasn’t full of sunshine and rainbows. The Jaguars added really good pieces to the defense via free agency in Calais Campbell, AJ Bouye, and Barry Church. They also added a couple of key cogs to the offense through the NFL Draft in players like Leonard Fournette and Cam Robinson to help improve what was a non-existent run game in 2016. While adding these players would seem to bring optimism to Jaguars fans, us fans are all too familiar with being crowned “Offseason Champions” every year. The Jaguars haven’t been strangers to breaking the bank in signing expensive free agents and drafting high profile college players. These types of moves used to excite Jaguars fans, but all that has happened in the regular seasons following these splash off seasons have been seasons filled with double digit losses.
There were a couple of things that happened last offseason that Jaguars fans were skeptical of. The hiring of Doug Marrone as the head coach of the Jaguars was the first issue. While I was a fan of the hiring, many fans were critical of the idea that the front office would retain a coach that was a part of the staff during the forgettable 2015 and 2016 seasons. To add on to that, the Jaguars retained the same coordinators that coached the Jaguars in 2016. Jaguars fans wanted new blood in the coaching staff. The fans were puzzled as to why you would retain a coaching staff that just finished the season with a record of 3-13 when there were high expectations for the team going into the season. The only major change in the coaching staff seemed to be getting rid of Gus Bradley.
The other issue Jags fans had was the fact that we had the same exact starting and backup quarterbacks that we had in the 2014-2016 seasons with Blake Bortles and Chad Henne. Blake Bortles was horrible in 2016, quite possibly the worst starting quarterback in the NFL. His mechanics were a mess, he was throwing interceptions off of players’ feet, and he had as many career pick sixes as wins. The Jaguars were getting no respect from those who follow the NFL, and why would they? The Jaguars were the biggest joke in the NFL and Blake Bortles was the punchline. Blake Bortles was the most made fun of quarterback in the NFL since the Mark Sanchez butt-fumble days.
The biggest sign of hope for the Jaguars was the fact that they hired Tom Coughlin as the VP of Football Operations. Doug Marrone and Dave Caldwell would now report to Tom Coughin. I will discuss the impact of Tom Coughlin later in the article.
Generally, in years past the Jaguars performed very well in the preseason before falling flat on their face during the regular season. The 2017 preseason was far from a good one. There was much cause for concern. Blake Bortles threw five interceptions in a training camp practice in front of season ticket holders. He was horrible in a preseason game against the Buccaneers. It looked as if Bortles hit a new low, which is pretty bad considering his level of play in 2016. This prompted the Jaguars to actually open a quarterback competition between Blake Bortles and Chad Henne. Blake Bortles ultimately “won" this competition, mainly due to his athletic ability to be able to escape pressure, extend plays, and make things happen with his feet.
Other position groups were bad in the preseason as well. The defense wasn’t impressive at all. Granted, the defense wasn’t at full strength due to players like Jalen Ramsey and AJ Bouye being injured much of the preseason. But regardless, the defense was a primary reason for any sort of optimism Jags fans may have had going into the season, and they didn’t look to be any sort of elite unit. The offensive line was also bad. I can remember the third preseason game against the Panthers where our starting offensive line was getting manhandled by backup defensive lineman. We really didn’t do anything to upgrade the OL in the offseason, besides replacing LT Kelvin Beachum with Cam Robinson, a rookie. So much for our run game being able to carry us. Good luck Leonard Fournette.
Jaguars fans' optimism going into the first game of the 2017 regular season seemed to be non-existent. Especially with the Jaguars playing against the two-time reigning AFC South Champions, in Houston, coming off of JJ Watt’s heroic fundraising efforts raising over $37 Million for Hurricane Harvey relief efforts. Houston was a place the Jaguars never played well at, and they were playing against a coach in Bill O’Brien who had never lost to the Jaguars. We knew the environment in Houston was going to be electric, and seeing how the Jaguars played in the preseason, nobody gave the Jags a chance to win this game, not even Jaguars fans.
The Jacksonville Jaguars ‘Stole the Show’ in Week 1 of the NFL season. Playing the ultimate spoiler role in Houston. The Jaguars dominated the trenches, breaking a single-game franchise record in sacks with ten sacks, as well as not allowing a single sack on offense. The Jaguars’ newest addition to the defensive line, Calais Campbell, broke a single-game franchise sack record with 4.5 sacks. The Jaguars put the NFL on notice with just how dominant their defense was going to be in 2017.
To start the season, the Jaguars were a team that needed to learn how to win consistently. They would have impressive, dominating wins such as the 29-7 throttling of our division rival Houston Texans, the 44-7 domination of the Ravens in London, and the 30-9 beatdown on the Steelers in Pittsburgh. But the Jags would follow those games with ugly losses, falling to the Titans 37-16 in Jacksonville and losing an OT game against a Jets team that everyone thought, at the time, was a tanking organization. They started the first six games of the season with a game-to-game record that looked like this: W-L-W-L-W-L. Once you thought the Jags were going to be a good team, it seemed we were brought back down to Earth. The Jaguars couldn’t figure out how to win back-to-back games.
Looking back, this was almost to be expected. The Jaguars haven’t had a winning season in a decade. The past ten years featured several of the worst teams this franchise had ever seen. The only player on the Jaguars that had ever been a part of a winning Jaguars team was Marcedes Lewis. Until the Jaguars could start stacking back-to-back victories, we were on pace to be an 8-8 team. Average doesn’t cut it in the NFL, just ask Jeff Fisher. The Jaguars proved to be able to dominate opponents, but they needed to be able to prove that they could win back-to-back games.
The next opponent the Jaguars faced was the Colts in Indianapolis. They handled the Colts before going into the Bye Week with a record of 4-3. After the bye week, the Jaguars finally started figuring out how to win consistently. Their next seven games, they went 6-1, before ending the season with two meaningless games going 0-2. The Jaguars finished the regular season as AFC South Champions and were set to host a playoff game for the first time since 1999.
The Jaguars beat the Bills in a rather unimpressive victory. The final score was 10-3 and the offense left much to be desired. Blake Bortles actually ran for more yards than he passed for, and finished the game as the team’s leading rusher. It seemed like going into this game, the coaching staff knew how great their defense was and that the unit could win this game for us if the offense didn’t turn the ball over. But the Jaguars were not going to be able to beat the Steelers the following week with the same offensive performance that they had in the Wild Card Round of the NFL Playoffs against the Bills. Offensive Coordinator Nate Hackett was going to have to trust Blake Bortles and his receiving options against a Steelers team loaded with more offensive weapons than any other team in the NFL. Hackett needed to open up the offensive play calling.
That is exactly what Nate Hackett did. The Jags defeated the Bills in a defensive battle and the next week beat the Steelers in an offensive shootout, taking down the Steelers 45-42. Blake Bortles was highly effective on third downs, keeping plays moving. When offensive players' numbers were called, they stepped up. Blake Bortles was 14/26 on the day, but had completions to nine different players. Leonard Fournette was also highly effective, eclipsing 100 rushing yards and scoring 3 TDs. Nate Hackett’s play calling was on point this game, allowing Bortles to throw more on first downs and even throwing some trick plays in there like a throw to a wide open fullback in Tommy Bohanan for a touchdown.
The next week, the Jaguars overcame all odds and were set to play the Patriots in Foxboro for a chance to win and move on to their first Super Bowl in franchise history. Unfortunately, the Jaguars were not able to capture this opportunity. You can point to multiple factors that led to the Jaguars losing this game. From the questionable officiating, to the defense letting up a 10 point lead with 9 minutes remaining in the game, to injuries along the defensive line. But the overriding factor that I look at that stopped us from winning, was the Jaguars coaching staff playing not to lose instead of playing to win.
Lets look at the offensive side of the ball. The Jaguars had the ball at the end of the first half with 55 seconds remaining and two timeouts at their disposal. Instead of trying to run any sort of play, even a draw, they decided to knee the ball and take it to the half. The Jaguars possessed a 10 point lead in the fourth quarter and decided they would try to sit on it the rest of the game and try to beat the clock. They had four possessions in the fourth quarter,that started in a first and ten and they continuously ran a RB dive right up the middle, that only led to minimal gains. Ultimately putting us in uncomfortable, obvious 3rd and long passing situations.
On the defensive side of the ball, you look at the Jaguars secondary and see that they have the best two cover corners in the NFL with Jalen Ramsey and AJ Bouye. Yet, DC Todd Wash elected to play soft Cover 3 and Cover 4 coverage schemes. Brady had all the time in the world to stand in the pocket and deliver strikes to his weapons. The Patriots scored 14 points in the 4th quarter and stole this game from the Jaguars.
Season Ending Thoughts
If there is anything that you learned from the 2017-18 NFL Postseason it’s that you can’t play not to lose. Look at Doug Pederson with the Eagles. They were aggressive from start to finish during their Super Bowl matchup with the Patriots. Whether he had a lead, or was playing from behind, the play calling never became conservative. He trusted his backup quarterback Nick Foles. Nate Hackett seemed to trust Blake Bortles all four quarters against the Steelers and for the first three quarters of the AFC Championship Game. However, for whatever reason, it seemed all trust for Bortles went out the window in the fourth quarter of this game, which ultimately led to the Jaguars downfall.
Blake Bortles, I thought, played fairly well in 2017. While he didn't start the year off very good, he seemed to play better as the season went on and really elevated his play in the two most important games of his career. The quarterback situation for the Jaguars is very tricky going into next season. There are all kinds of free agents that will be available this offseason and the NFL Draft is stacked with quarterback talent. Blake Bortles is a player who has a very high ceiling. But his consistency hasn’t been there. He has stretches where he plays very well but he follows it up with stretches of games where he has multiple interceptions. Did Blake Bortles play well enough down the stretch to keep his job? We’ll figure that one out in March. Whoever the quarterback is, he needs to have the skill set to allow Nate Hackett to not hold back his play calling in an effort to not expose his quarterback’s weaknesses.
The Impact of Tom Coughlin
How could I go this entire article without mentioning the Godfather Tom Coughlin? Tom Coughlin was the head coach of the Jaguars during the best years of Jaguars history. He took over as the VP of Football Operations with one goal in mind: To win. He made this clear from his first press conference, talking about how he wants to win everything, including lunch.
When Gus Bradley was Head Coach of the Jaguars, he took over a very bad roster. The mindset was to “Get Better Everyday”. With the roster the Jaguars had, it was clear they didn’t have the type of talent other teams in the league did. If you were to be promising wins to the franchise in Bradley's first season, then the fans would leave empty-handed.
However, after four years of the Gus Bradley tenure, it was clear the Jaguars needed to head in a new direction. The Jags roster got better every season, but the win column stayed around the 3-5 mark, with Bradley’s final season ending at 2-12 before getting fired with two games left in the regular season.
Gus Bradley imprinted an improving culture with the team, while Tom Coughlin looked to build a winning culture. With an improving culture, you tend to accept mediocrity, look at bright side of things, and look at where you can improve. In a winning culture, you have one goal in mind and you do whatever you can to reach get that win. You saw the Jags win games ugly this year. In years past, 50/50 games seemed to go against the Jaguars because the team seemed to lack a killer instinct. Not in 2017, as the team was tough, physical, and one of the most intimidating in the league.
Going into 2018, the Jaguars have a lot of momentum. With 10/11 defensive starters still under contract and an offense that is filled with young playmakers, the Jaguars will be the favorite to win the AFC South. In 2017, Jaguars fans did not have very high exceptions for the team. Fast forward to 2018 and the Jaguars have Super Bowl or bust type of expectations.
2018 should be . . . fun . . . Go Jaguars!!
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