Rookie head coach Gus Bradley already making his mark in Jacksonville
JACKSONVILLE -- No team in the NFL has undergone as much change and upheaval in the past two years as the Jacksonville Jaguars, who since the start of the 2011 season have churned through four head coaches, two general managers and two owners, while also trying to break in a young, franchise quarterback. Do all the math and you'll see that the Jaguars experienced about as many significant changes in 2011 and '12 as they did wins -- an NFL-worst 7-25 record over that span.
"It's been crazy,'' is how third-year quarterback Blaine Gabbert, the team's first-round pick in 2011, succinctly put it to me last week in training camp. "This team has been put in some unique situations.''
But rather than finding a beaten down team wearied from its lack of continuity and success, I found during my trip to Jaguars camp one of the more hopeful, upbeat football environments I visited this summer. The origin of all the optimism was pretty easy to identify. It was the still emerging Bradley Effect, as in the steadying and confident presence of Jacksonville's energetic rookie head coach, Gus Bradley.
It's difficult to overestimate the degree of enthusiasm the Jaguars players have for Bradley and the atmospheric change the former Seattle defensive coordinator has brought to a deflated locker room in his few short months on the job. In my years of covering the NFL, I can remember witnessing only one other similar honeymoon between a first-time head coach and the perennial loser he inherited: Tony Dungy's inaugural offseason in Tampa Bay in 1996, when his calm and consistent approach with the Bucs helped lay the foundation for the turnaround of the NFL's worst franchise.
To a degree that defies easy explanation, the mantra in Jacksonville is already "In Gus We Trust.''
I know. Every new head coach brings fresh hope and a sense of the possible to a downtrodden team starved for success. Every coach has a five-point plan, a message and reason to believe. Then the games that count start, the stakes get raised and you find out which coaches can stop the bleeding when it starts, and which ones run out of answers very quickly. That all-important part of the job still awaits Bradley. But change often starts to unfold before you can see it, and Bradley seems like the right guy, preaching the right things to the right team at the right time.
"After the past two years here, this was a tough situation for him to come into,'' veteran Jaguars tight end Marcedes Lewis said, after a recent morning practice. "At first, I was like, 'C'mon, man, this can't be real. You can't be that kind of guy every day.' Because this is my eighth year now, and I've seen it all. But he is like that every day. His energy is contagious. He's refreshing. He's a breath of fresh air. He set the tone for us in understanding that it's not about expectations or what everybody else thinks. We don't talk about wins or our record. We talk about our effort and our attitude and getting a little bit better every day.''
After last year's franchise-worst 2-14 finish under one-and-done head coach Mike Mularkey, Jacksonville is no quick fix. From the sound of things, both Bradley and the man who hired him, Jaguars rookie general manager Dave Caldwell, know it. Their focus is not on the standings right now. It's about taking the long view and building a program, piece by piece. The first step is to build a culture of accountability and improve the roster, then trust that the wins will come in time. This season is in large part about Bradley and Caldwell finding out which players they want back next year and who can be counted on in the future.
Bradley spent most of his energy this offseason trying to win the trust of his players who lived through the tumult of Jacksonville's past two seasons. Losing begets a whole host of problems in the NFL, and suffice to say Mularkey and his coaching staff's standing in the locker room was badly damaged by the end of 2012. Mularkey's motivational style was less than encouraging at times, and it didn't wear well with his players as the losses mounted.
"It was tough, and it started early,'' Lewis said. "And when you lose your locker room, everybody starts checking out. When we had the coaching change last year, right away you buy in because you want to believe in the new start. But day after day, when things get tough, it's a little different story.
"But this year, it's like night and day. It's like the coaches really give a [hoot] about you, and you can see it. It's one thing to have good coaches, and it's another thing to have good coaches who are good people, and he's definitely a good person. When you have that, you have a lot. He's someone who didn't take a long time to get used to.''
Bradley knows it's a bottom-line, results-oriented business he's in, but he believes there's only one way to get those winning results: Be who you are as a head coach, every day, the same way, until your players know what to expect on the good days and the bad.
"Consistency in the NFL creates credibility,'' said Bradley, 47, "I have some convictions about how to go about doing this. One of my coaches said, 'Gus, this is going to be a tough sell,' and I'm like, 'I'm not selling anything.' We're going to stay true to who we are and remain consistent in our approach. Hopefully through that we'll gain the trust of the players. So far they've been open and willing to listen. Do they believe what they're seeing? I think belief comes after adversity hits, when they come back stronger. We'll have to wait and see on that.''
Maybe that first test of adversity came last Friday night, in the Jaguars' uninspiring 27-3 preseason-opening home loss to Miami. In the second quarter, Jacksonville receiver Justin Blackmon and veteran defensive end Jason Babin got into an argument on the Jaguars' sideline, when Babin told the inactive receiver to tone down his trash-talking of Dolphins cornerback Nolan Carroll. Tempers flared and Blackmon wound up being escorted off the field and to the locker room by running back Maurice Jones-Drew, who was also inactive due to injury.
Bradley met with both Blackmon and Babin in his office Saturday morning, before downplaying the spat as fairly typical mid-game sideline emotions getting out of hand. But Blackmon's ongoing issues with immaturity, combined with his off-field issues (he's set to serve a four-game league suspension at the start of the regular season for a substance abuse violation) presents Bradley with one of his biggest challenges, and tests his attempts at culture change in Jacksonville.
Babin, one of the characters in Friday night's little melodrama, admits he was skeptical of Bradley's approach at first, having been in the middle of a toxic locker room situation in Philadelphia last year, before ending the season in Jacksonville.
"I'll be honest, it took me a while to open up, because I'm, generally speaking, a guarded person,'' Babin said. "I don't just give trust, and in the culture of football coaches, I was like, 'Who is this guy? Is he really going to do what he says?' But now I've finally let him in the circle of trust, and I think he's let me in his circle of trust, and it's working well. When you have genuine approach and sincerity with players, it's not a matter of buying into it, it's a matter of wanting to be a part of that culture.''
The "circle of trust'' might make for a good punchline in the Jaguars' locker room and a nice pop culture reference to act as a catch-all for the Bradley Effect in Jacksonville, but players also need to see a head coach who is making the right calls on the football side of the equation. And so far, Bradley and his coaching staff have gotten high marks for that part of their makeover as well.
Jacksonville is remaking its roster with a blend of youth and new veterans, and clearly the Jaguars' offense is trying to get more versatile this season, adding more speed and multi-purpose players who fit with the times in the NFL, like receiver-return man Ace Sanders and "offensive weapon'' Denard Robinson, the former Michigan quarterback. New offensive coordinator Jedd Fisch has made the job of tailoring the offense to Gabbert's strengths -- rolling out and throwing on the run, getting the ball out quickly like he did in the spread formation at Missouri -- his most pressing concern.
"We've got a lot of different stuff we're doing that we really haven't done in years past,'' said the team's elder statesmen, center Brad Meester, who has played for all five of Jacksonville's head coaches, from Tom Coughlin on. "I don't want to say we've been too conventional, but we haven't been pushing the envelope.
"And the problem was sometimes when we were conventional like that, people were loading the box against the run game and you're running up hill at that point. Now we've got so many things we can do, and different options to get into the right situation at any time, depending on what the defense shows us.''
In other words, the Jaguars are in the beginning stages of building an identity for themselves. And the Bradley Effect is the biggest part of that equation.
"I don't know what it's going to look like in wins and losses, but our focus is to get better,'' Caldwell said. "And we're going to have fun. We're going to be interesting to watch. We're going to be scrappy. We're going to be energetic. And we're going to have some urgency. That starts with Gus. He's already made me better at my job and I think he's done the same thing with all 90 players and the 20 coaches we have on our team.''
Getting better in Jacksonville isn't a particularly high bar to shoot for, of course, after last year's 2-14 nose-dive. But with Bradley in charge, and his players on board, the Jaguars have made a change that might finally make a difference.