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Coaches with the most to prove: Gus Bradley needs record to back rebuild

The mere fact that Gus Bradley is back for a fourth year shows the Jaguars’ patience, but the time for results is fast approaching.

There were eight NFL head coaches hired during the 2013 off-season: Bruce Arians, Rob Chudzinski, Chip Kelly, Andy Reid, Doug Marrone, Marc Trestman, Mike McCoy and Gus Bradley. Seven of those coaches either have made the playoffs or been fired since then (in Kelly’s case, both). The eighth is Bradley.

The Jaguars own a 12–36 record under Bradley’s watch—a .250 win percentage that places Bradley’s career mark among such coaching royalty as Dennis Allen (.222), David Shula (.268) and Lane Kiffin (.250). So the mere fact that Bradley is back for a fourth year takes him and the Jaguars into rather uncharted NFL waters when it comes to a franchise showing patience.

“I think, for us, we’ve always targeted year four and year five in this building of this team,” GM David Caldwell said recently on the NFL Network, via ESPN. “We wanted to make good, safe, sound decisions and build a foundation for the first three years, and then take a little bit of risk this year going into year four.”

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Caldwell, who like Bradley was hired following the 2012 season, has to play the company line a bit. If Bradley cannot produce an uptick in the near future, the GM’s job figures to be on the line, too. All parties involved have committed fully to a multi-year rebuilding project.

And Jacksonville has done well to take meaningful strides forward. Last season, the offense catapulted into a top-10 passing ranking, led by the 35 touchdowns thrown by Blake Bortles (second-most in the NFL, one back of Tom Brady). The receiving corps of Allen Robinson, Allen Hurns, Rashad Greene, Marqise Lee and tight end Julius Thomas is among the most dangerous in the league. The backfield boasts impressive second-year runner T.J. Yeldon and veteran free-agent addition Chris Ivory.

“The way the drafts were set up, the last two years [2014 and ’15] were offense-heavy,” Caldwell said. “So we said, ‘Let’s take advantage of that. Let’s get our quarterback. Let’s build around him. Let’s get him some playmakers.”

That approach did not stop Caldwell from using his 2015 first-rounder on defensive end Dante Fowler, and it set the table for him to spend picks in the first, second, third, fourth, sixth and seventh rounds of this year’s draft on defense. Fowler, back from the knee injury that knocked him out of commission as a rookie, will team with Jalen Ramsey and Myles Jack—assuming both can recover from their own knee injuries in time for the ’16 season—to form the nucleus of the Jacksonville defense.

This is really where Bradley comes in. He was hired away from Seattle not because the Jaguars wanted to kick-start their offense, but because he had established himself as a sharp NFL mind over four seasons spent as the Seahawks’ defensive coordinator. He was supposed to bring a variation of that defense-first approach to Jacksonville.

Thus far, Bradley has failed to deliver. His 2015 team ranked 31st in points allowed and coughed up an even 6,000 yards of total offense to opponents. Fowler’s devastating preseason setback staggered the Jaguars last year, to be sure, and Ramsey’s recent injury could provide a similar obstacle, but the time for excuses is wearing thin.

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While Caldwell may not have spent as much in free agency as he could have, he did land big-name defensive lineman Malik Jackson, as well as cornerback Prince Amukamara and safety Tashaun Gipson. Between those additions and a defense-heavy draft, the Jaguars have poured substantial resources into repairing their defense this off-season.

Should it still fail to come together, eventually, the Jaguars will have no choice but to take a closer look at Bradley.

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The front office deserves credit for staying the course, in spite of the disappointing results thus far. Few organizations have the self-control to undertake a lengthy rebuilding process, let alone the vision to actually pull it off. On as many as 31 of the other teams in this league, Bradley would have been shown the door by now, another coach brought in to cash the chips he had collected from 2013 to ’15.

If the next two seasons are what Jacksonville had circled on its calendar, though, the team’s record has to start reflecting that quiet confidence. Maybe another 5–11 season would not spell the end for Bradley, but such an outcome would make it increasingly difficult to defend him.

The current roster has far too much talent for the Jaguars to limp home again, several games under .500. In an improving but winnable division, they have the elements to compete: an offense capable of lighting up the scoreboard and a defense that, on paper, looks talented and athletic.

The outlook has changed for Bradley and Caldwell, which is mostly a testament to their diligent work since joining the organization. But “wait and see” won’t cut it for much longer. At some point, a rebuild has to produce a finished product.