Do Jaguars have what it takes to go 0-16 this season?
The Jacksonville Jaguars are staring 0-16 in the face, and will probably stare long enough to draw a delay of game penalty, which would be one of their best offensive plays. Good gracious, the Jaguars stink. They lost to the Chiefs in Jacksonville, 28-2. They lost in Oakland, 19-9. They lost in Seattle, 45-17. That's three losses in three cities by an average of three touchdowns. I'm starting to think the location of the games is not the problem.
Can they really go 0-16? Well, they can't score, they aren't competitive and an Orlando television station recently apologized for having to show their games, so there are all sorts of reasons to feel good about their chances. But trust me when I tell you: Going 0-16 is hard.
The Jaguars might think they are awful enough to go 0-16, but doing something historic takes more than a lack of talent. You have to be doggedly lousy. Something separates all-time losers from most-of-the-time losers. I learned this from watching the best of the worst. A lot of people complain about bad luck, but the 2008 Detroit Lions taught me that in life, you have to make your own bad luck.
A history lesson:
Five years ago this month, Matt Millen asked for a stay of professional execution. Detroit Lions owner William Clay Ford Sr. was firing Millen, at least four years after most owners would have done it. Millen understood completely. His only request: Wait until the end of the season.
As Millen later told me: "I told Mr. Ford, 'Look: You're going to fire me, fire me. Don't do it now. Not for my sake. As soon as the players see that you can me, they're going to see the season is done. You don't want to put your coach in that position.'"
Millen didn't get much right in Detroit, but he was dead-on about that. Ford fired Millen, and then the Lions did all sorts of things to ensure coach Rod Marinelli's place in history. They put starting quarterback Jon Kitna on injured reserve, even though Kitna looked healthy to a lot of people, including himself. They traded their best receiver at the time, Roy Williams, for draft picks, which was a great long-term trade but really hurt them that year. They started Dan Orlovsky at quarterback and he famously ran out of the back of the end zone for a safety without realizing it.
It was pretty clear early that season that the Lions might be the first NFL team to finish 0-16, but more amazingly, it felt like they were trying to go 0-16. They ended up doing it, of course, and landed the No. 1 overall draft pick that turned into franchise quarterback Matthew Stafford. But I didn't think they were tanking for a draft choice. The Lions had already had a lot of high draft picks. And the players clearly wanted to win. It just felt like the Lions organization was trying to go 0-16 as a point of inverted pride; the Lions had been pretty bad for a long time, and then really bad for a while, so what the hell, they might as well go for none of the marbles.
If the Lions had kept Millen, Kitna and Roy Williams, I have no doubt they would have won at least one game, and maybe two or three. Instead that team became a very rare beast in the NFL: It had no strengths. The Lions could not run or pass, defend the run or pass, outscheme anybody, or bribe the officials. They were so bad that, when reporters asked Marinelli how he could believe in a team with no visible signs of hope, he said, "I believe in the invisible." How fantastic is THAT? I get a tear in my eye just thinking about it.
And this brings us to the Jaguars. I have to be honest here: I don't want Jacksonville to go 0-16. Maybe I'm just biased because I covered those 0-16 Lions for the Detroit Free Press. But this whole Jags' pursuit feels cheap and wrong to me. It's like when we made a big deal out of Mark McGwire breaking Roger Maris's home run record, and then three years later Bonds passed McGwire. If the Jags go 0-16, I'm going to test them all for performance-diminishing drugs.
How bad are the Jaguars? Well, they have one of the worst offenses in the recent history of the league. It probably won't get better this week with the return of quarterback Blaine Gabbert, who couldn't hit the broad side of a barn if he spent a month throwing footballs in Kansas, and who appears to make his decisions in the pocket via Ouija board. Gabbert completed 16-of-35 passes in the opener and led the offense to zero points, and remember, he is supposed to be the solution.
The total defensive numbers are not quite as bad, but some of them are skewed by the fact that other teams start running the ball to preserve victory late in the first quarter. Opposing quarterbacks have a 108.9 passer rating. Opposing runners average 5.2 yards per carry. So ... uh ... maybe Gabbert really will have to be the solution.
And yet, I'm still skeptical that Jacksonville can match those 2008 Lions, for this reason: Their coach, Gus Bradley, is in a very different position from Marinelli. He was a great defensive coordinator for Seattle, and this is his first season in Jacksonville. It is safe to assume he will be back next year, regardless of Jacksonville's record. As the season wears on, players will know they need to impress Bradley to keep their jobs. That will keep them playing hard.
Now, look at the December slate. The Jaguars visit a lousy Cleveland team. They host the Texans on Thursday Night Football, which will surely be a loss, but will give them 10 days to prepare for a home game against the Bills and rookie quarterback EJ Manuel. Then they get another home game against the Titans and Jake Locker, who are unlikely to blow out anybody on the road.
I believe that at some point in that stretch, the Jaguars will win a game, and the 2008 Detroit Lions can start pouring champagne. I assume it will be flat.