Live from Jacksonville: Jags buying into external optimism ahead of critical year

There's no stopping the hype train in Jacksonville. Now it's up to the coaches to get the Jaguars' young playmakers to perform with the consistency of a contender.
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JACKSONVILLE — Early into the Jaguars’ first team meeting of the 2016 season, coach Gus Bradley told his players to scribble their goals on a sheet of notebook paper. After five minutes, he told them to fold that paper up and put it away. Then he had the Jags write down their commitments—what they pledged to do every day—and told them to post those lists on the walls of the team’s facility.

“If you’re wondering why you’re doing this on a daily basis, that’s when you open the goal list and peak at it, as a reminder,” Bradley says. “That’s what we call a growth mindset. The process, really.”

Since Jacksonville hired Bradley and general manager David Caldwell in 2013, the franchise has focused more on process than results, as it overhauled a roster that more resembled an expansion team and gutted an organization that last completed a winning season in 2007. The result of that process? A locker room stocked with young talent. A team on the cusp of contention. The process without results won’t cut it anymore, not after five straight seasons of five wins or fewer.

That’s another thing Bradley told his team this summer: It’s O.K. to have high expectations, O.K. to expect to win. Trust the process.

“The fan base has been very patient,” said Mark Brunell, the Jags’ all-time passing leader, as he watched practice last Thursday. “They’ve continued to believe the franchise can get back to where it was—to winning. This is probably the most anticipated season in, golly, a long time. A decade.”

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Brunell then started to list the reasons for that optimism: a young star in quarterback Blake Bortles; a trio of talented third-year wideouts in Allen Robinson, Allen Hurns and Marqise Lee; tight end Julius Thomas; running backs Chris Ivory and T.J. Yeldon; a defense that finally got its own makeover this off-season. “Just a revived energy,” Brunell said. “All the potential in the world.”

Naturally, the quarterback with a franchise-record 144 touchdowns believes the Jags’ latest QB will lead the revival. It’s true that Bortles made great strides in his second season, throwing for 4,428 yards and 35 touchdowns, despite taking 51 sacks and tossing 18 interceptions. “The kid’s special,” Brunell said. “He could be one of the best in the business.”

Jacksonville loved Bortles heading into the 2014 draft. Caldwell and Bradley told almost no one; even their own scouts didn’t know until the day of the first round. Bradley is a defensive coach, but Bortles impressed him in particular at the combine. “You could see it: he played without fear,” Bradley said. “He took chances. And he was rapidly maturing.” The Jaguars took Bortles No. 3 without hesitation.

They plucked Lee and Robinson in the second round that year and signed Hurns from the pool of undrafted free agents. All three wideouts lived with Bortles in a team hotel that spring. They ate almost every meal together. They worked out every day together. Last season, still together (although Lee has struggled in the pros), they finished 18th in yards per game (348.8) and 14th in points per game (23.5). That was their first season under new offensive coordinator Greg Olson.

Should their progress continue, Jaguars could boast one of the best offenses in the league this season. “It’s our time now,” Bortles said, recalling a laid-back version of the scene from The Goonies. He’s right.

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Other training camp observations

• Robinson’s numbers last season (to the surprise of no one who played fantasy football): 80 catches, 1,400 yards and a league high 14 touchdowns. The Jaguars don’t see Robinson as the best receiver on their team. They see him as one of the best players in pro football. “He had three or four touchdowns against Tennessee,” Bortles said. “I was like, Jesus, this kid’s really good.” (For the record, it was three, on Dec. 6.)

• Bortles impressed veteran tight end Marcedes Lewis with his development this off-season. He said that enhancement was most noticeable in Bortles’s improved touch and accuracy, which may help push his completion percentage over 58% for the first time (most coaches like 60% as a benchmark). “It’s crazy because last year he had a really good season,” Lewis said. “Coming into this year he was just more poised in the huddle and owning it. It’s a good feeling that he knows he’s our guy.”

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• Jaguars players wonder if Bradley’s blood type is quad-espresso. They keep waiting for his energy to dip. It doesn’t. “It could be 5:30 in the morning, he’s on,” Bortles said.

• Also notable, re: Bradley: In the Jacksonville cafeteria, the head coach eats with someone different for lunch every day. Last week, it was the equipment manager one day, his assistant coaches (including senior advisor Tom Coughlin) the next. He even sat down with some of the local reporters. Imagine Bill Belichick doing that.

• Brunell said Shahid Khan has proved in four-plus years of ownership that he wants to keep the team in Jacksonville, despite persistent rumors to the contrary. Brunell pointed to stadium, locker room and weight room upgrades, along with plans to build a new practice facility and amphitheater adjacent to EverBank Field. Khan hopes to host an NFL draft in that amphitheater someday. “He’s determined to not only put a winning product on the field but to really make the Jaguars stay in Jacksonville—that’s reality now,” Brunell said. “No one can argue with the fact that their every intention is to stay right here and win a championship.”

The latest indicator of relevance for Jags fans: ESPN set up shop in Jacksonville as part of the network's training camp tour.

The latest indicator of relevance for Jags fans: ESPN set up shop in Jacksonville as part of the network's training camp tour.

Five questions with general manager David Caldwell

Q1: Do you feel like the last three seasons you’ve been building toward now and a chance to contend?

DC: It is, in some respects, faster than we anticipated; in other respects, maybe slower than we hoped. But this year, I don’t know what it’s going to look like, but I know that we have a fighting chance in any game we play. And I couldn’t say that the previous three years. And a lot depends on the health of your team and staying healthy. But we have a legit-caliber-NFL franchise now.

Q2: When you arrived, I’d imagine you saw the roster as more of an overhaul than a remodel?

DC: I remember I thought that when the time came, or if the time came, that if we were fortunate enough to make the playoffs I thought there would be very few if any players left on the team. As it is, I think we have five or so.

Q3: Even for the NFL that’s a little intense, no?

DC: Pretty extensive. Wanted to build through the draft. We wanted to draft young talent, knowing they would have to have baptism by fire for the first couple years. And save our cap space, hoard our cap space. And be fiscally responsible with our owner’s finances so when the time came that we felt like we had a chance to compete that we would invest in the players that could make a difference in free agency. That’s kind of what we’ve done the last two years, really.

Q4: Does Gus every turn it off? He’s like an energy tsunami.

DC: Occasionally. Maybe late at night after a big meal.

Q5: What’s it like around here now that people are talking about you guys as a potential playoff team?

DC: They’re talking about us as a playoff team? Editor’s note: that’s a sixth question.

Second editor’s note: Here’s a seventh.

Q7: Aren’t they?

DC: At least they’re talking about us.

Biggest turnaround: Defense

These were the positions the Jaguars used draft picks on in the first three rounds over the past three seasons:

2014: QB, WR, WR, G
2015: OLB, RB, G
2016: CB, OLB, DE

See the difference? A team that spent much of the past two seasons building up its offense focused on the other side of the ball—Bradley’s specialty—this off-season. The Jags signed DT Malik Jackson, S Tashaun Gipson and CB Prince Amukamara. They welcomed back pass rusher Dante Fowler Jr., the No. 3 pick in ’15 who tore his left ACL on the first day of rookie minicamp last season. Then they drafted two players they coveted in ’16—CB Jalen Ramsey (No. 5) and versatile OLB Myles Jack (No. 36). That Jack was still around surprised the Jags and the rest of the NFL. Bradley said they considered taking him with their first selection, especially if they traded down. “Like getting two first-rounders,” Bortles said.

“We do feel like this is the most competitive roster we’ve had,” Bradley said. “We have strong competition at all positions.”

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The Jags may still be a year away from seriously contending, but that hasn’t slowed the hype. “Everything else is in place,” Brunell said. “Listen, man, we have pools! In our stadium! Nobody else has pools!”

“The only thing that’s missing is having a team that’s going to win a lot of games,” Brunell said. “And I have every reason to believe they’re going to do just that. I’d be surprised if they didn’t win 10 games this year. I really believe that. I would say they’ve got to stay healthy. They’ve got a tough schedule. But they should win 10 games this year.”

He’s asked: Doesn’t their division look fairly open? “Yeah, it is,” Brunell said. “I mean, there’s no sure thing. Couple years ago, with Andrew Luck and the Colts that was going to be tough. Now? I think the division is theirs.”