Jaguars' revitalization continues under rookie head coach Gus Bradley
At the halfway point of their season, the Jacksonville Jaguars were 0-8 and appeared headed toward an historically bad finish. Now? Well, they might not quite be in the AFC playoff race yet, but they're certainly not out of it either.
And if nothing else, that says something about the work rookie head coach Gus Bradley has done in a short time.
The Jaguars won Thursday night for the third straight game -- and for the fourth time in five games overall -- by fending off the Texans, 27-20. That victory all but guaranteed that Jacksonville would not pick No. 1 in the 2014 draft, meaning that the franchise may have to search a little harder for its next potential quarterback.
Such success may leave a few Jaguars fans feeling conflicted. But it's becoming clearer by the week that Bradley's earned his team's trust and effort, which means that 2014 could be better than 2013, even if someone like Teddy Bridgewater's sporting another uniform.
"The biggest challenge will be to keep doing what we're doing, stay convicted to our process," Bradley told the NFL Network's Alex Flanagan. "We're a young team that's learning how to do this."
Bridgewater actually may wind up in Texans' red, white and blue. Houston, the two-time defending AFC South champions, lost its 11th consecutive game after a 2-0 start. While the Jaguars continue to build positive momentum, the Texans are inching closer to a total team makeover this offseason.
Their latest setback included another mid-game switch at quarterback from the struggling Case Keenum to Matt Schaub, arguably the most hated man in Houston. Schaub then nearly brought his team back from a 14-point deficit, before ending in fitting fasion: with an ugly interception and then an absolutely boneheaded sack.
As a reward for their ineptitude, the Texans may lay claim to the No. 1 overall pick come next May -- a spot that seemed destined to belong to the Jaguars a mere five weeks ago.
Instead, Jacksonville now has a legitimate shot to finish 7-9 (games with Buffalo, Tennessee and Indianapolis remain), and there are several scenarios out there in which that mark would send Bradley's team to the playoffs. Even if the Jaguars cannot complete that miracle turnaround, though -- heck, even if the Jaguars do not win another game and finish 4-12 -- enough tangible progress has been made to say with confidence that this franchise finally may be headed in the right direction.
"He finds a way to find the positive out of negative," running back Maurice Jones-Drew said of Bradley. "There's been some days -- I've had bad days, other guys have bad days -- he'll come over and rile you up. One thing about Gus a lot of people don't understand: I don't know if there's a coach or a person that can match that intensity."
There remains plenty of work to be done in Jacksonville, as you might expect of a team that entered December with nine losses under its belt. The product on display Thursday surely is not the finished version Bradley had in mind when he took this job.
Finding a QB (no offense to current starter Chad Henne) will be among the most important tasks toward that end this offseason. But would the Jaguars have been better off tanking to, say, 1-15 and landing a Teddy Bridgewater? Or does finishing the season strong, building some confidence and exploring other avenues at quarterback lay a better foundation?
Watching the Jaguars in recent weeks, it would be hard to argue that this team should have thrown in the towel.
"Our guys just really believe right now, really believe," Bradley said. "To come out and finish like that ... it's quite a tribute to them."
Bradley's task never had the feel of a quick fix. The Jaguars finished 2-14 last season and 5-11 the year before. They have not had a winning record or qualified for the postseason since 2007, when David Garrard was the quarterback and Jack Del Rio the coach. The time since then has been lean and frustrating, with a decrepit roster greeted by declining attendance. The franchise badly needed a spark, someone to restore a little moxie to a team the league had almost forgotten.
Up until about early November, the safe assumption was that Bridgewater or Derek Carr or Johnny Manziel would have to be that guy, an Andrew Luck-style savior. Turns out, however, that the Jaguars may have had the leader they needed all along in 2013. Gus Bradley just needed a few extra weeks to get his team playing the way he knew it could. "It's been amazing," Jones-Drew said. "Starting off 0-8 was tough, but Gus did a great job believing in us ... and we kind of just came into our own after that."