- Jacksonville was a perennial ‘winner’ in free agency and a perenniel loser on the field. That changed this year, as the additions of Calais Campbell, A.J. Bouye and Barry Church helped turn the Jags’ D into a force. Credit players with the right mind-set, a coalescing of talent and leadership and a dose of discipline courtesy of Tom Coughlin
JACKSONVILLE — Each time a big fish hits the market in sports free agency, we’re all reminded there is no personal income tax in Florida. That $100 million contract looks a lot more like $100 million when you can keep those percentage points.
But at least one Florida team has been paying a different tax in recent years. Losers of 74 of their past 96 games entering last offseason, the Jaguars have had to pay a Bad Team Tax for years—a surcharge doled out by perennially poor teams hoping to attract top free agents. How do you snag the guy deciding between last place in the AFC South and a possible Super Bowl run elsewhere? You’ll typically have to pay him more than market price.
The Jaguars aggressively pursued the policy in recent years. Loaded with cap room, from 2014 to 2016 Jacksonville signed 28 free agents to a total of $488 million in contracts—more money than any other team in the league. The on-field results over those three seasons: 11 wins, total.
Undaunted, new EVP Tom Coughlin brought in another group of pricy free agents this offseason: defensive end Calais Campbell (four years, $60 million), cornerback A.J. Bouye (five years, $67.5 million) and safety Barry Church (four years, $26 million). This time the Great Free Agency Spend-All worked. The Jags made the playoffs for the first time since the Bush Administration, won a playoff game for the first time since the Clinton Administration and face a team this weekend that they drubbed earlier this year, with an AFC title game berth on the line.
“I came here because I knew it was possible—that this was the place for me because I knew this place had potential,” Campbell told The MMQB after last week’s 10-3 win over Buffalo. “We worked really hard to try to bring that potential to life. We earned this. There’s no mistake. I mean, we earned this.”
You can be forgiven for thinking at the start of the year that these would be the same old Jags. Quarterback Blake Bortles had declined noticeably in 2016, his third season; head coach Doug Marrone had a losing record going into his first full year at the helm; and no one was sure how Coughlin’s return to Jacksonville, where he’d coached from 1995 to 2002, would work. Veteran left tackle Branden Albert, whom Coughlin brought in through a trade with Miami, failed even before he had a chance to succeed—the oft-injured Albert retired four days into training camp. In Week 1, receiver Allen Robinson tore his ACL.
But there was that defense, constructed in earnest beginning in 2016 through the draft and free agency. With Campbell, Bouye and Church joining all-star corner Jalen Ramsey, the 2016 first-round pick, and defensive tackle Malik Jackson, the splash 2016 free-agent signing, a dominant defense took shape.
Marrone wasn’t afraid to admit that Jacksonville would be a run-heavy offense, with 2017 first-rounder Leonard Fournette the centerpiece. The NFL’s second-ranked defense has been fine with that approach.
“We just ask to get up by seven,” Bouye says. “Once we get up by seven, we know what we’re capable of.”
Bouye was a prime addition at cornerback, after the Texans chose not to franchise-tag him. He had six picks and was named second-team All-Pro. Church, the former Cowboy, had four interceptions and further helped solidify the secondary.
But the biggest catch was Campbell, the longtime Cardinal who chose Jacksonville’s offer over a smaller deal from his hometown Broncos. The 10th-year veteran had a career-high 14.5 sacks and was named All-Pro for the first time.
The free agents of years past who have succeeded in Jacksonville—Jackson, safety Tashaun Gipson and punter Brad Nortman—are far outnumbered by the failures: Dan Skuta, Prince Amukamara, Mackenzy Bernadeau, Davon House, Kelvin Beachum, Jared Odrick, Julius Thomas.
“As far as who we have in here, you know what you’re going to get every day,” says 12th-year tight end Marcedes Lewis, the only person in the locker room who knew what playoff football in a Jaguars uniform looked like before Sunday. “You know they’re coming in there fighting for the right reasons, and not putting their paycheck in front of the main goal. It’s been a blessing this year.”
On most Monday nights the defensive line will go out to dinner with each other. On Thursdays during the season, Bouye would host fellow defensive backs at his home, where they would watch Thursday Night Football while getting dry needling and other soft-tissue work done. The DBs will go out to eat on away-game Saturdays, though a player can be excused if he has family in town that weekend.
“A.J. is a very unselfish player,” fourth-year cornerback Aaron Colvin says. “I think that’s why he’ll just continue to elevate, because he puts others before himself. He’s been a huge blessing in my life this season and he’s trying to bring everyone along with him. It’s just another form of leadership. Sometimes it doesn’t get talked about because everyone doesn’t see it but week in and week out he’s taking care of us.”
If the infusion of this year’s free agents has helped build camaraderie, the return of Coughlin has brought discipline. Gone are the days of friendly Gus Bradley; this is the era of Marrone and Coughlin, both of whom are called “Coach” by the players.
Coughlin brought a level of discipline with him unseen in Jacksonville since, well … Coughlin. Players are to wear black socks, not white, around the building. In meetings at the hotel during road trips, players are to wear team-issued gear. There are no hats, beanies or hoodies up during those meetings, either.
“The other way didn’t work, so we need to see if this is it,” says Lewis. “If the feeling of having a little structure is going to make you tighten up in a way that you can perform and know you have to be accountable to this guy, then let’s do it.”
The Jaguars didn’t have to sell Bouye on Bortles when he came to Jacksonville. The two overlapped at Central Florida for two years, and the corner kept an eye on his Knights during Bortles’ big junior season.
“I saw him when they won the Fiesta Bowl and he did everything he could to take care of the ball. He had good defense at UCF,” Bouye says. “When I came here, I figured that’s what they were going to try to do. Everything hasn’t been perfect, but we’re AFC South division champs.
“He just has to stay hungry, ignore the noise, and he’s going to be one of the reasons we get to where we want to get.”
Bouye is being generous—Bortles was the 20th-ranked passer in the NFL this year—but the quarterback is at least protecting the football. He threw a career-low 13 interceptions this season. He was also sacked a career-low 24 times. In Jacksonville’s 30-9 win in Pittsburgh in October, Bortles had just eight completions for 95 yards and a pick, but the defense intercepted Ben Roethlisberger five times. All but three of Jacksonville’s points in that game came off turnovers, including two pick-sixes.
It’s difficult to imagine a two-time Super Bowl-winning quarterback will repeat that performance in the postseason, but Colvin says the Jaguars can take a lot from that game. The defense, finally coalescing after all those years of free-agent failures, played some of its best football in Pittsburgh, and it looks forward to showing it again Sunday.
“We love when the game is on our shoulders,” Colvin says. “It’s just a different look in our eye when the game is in our hands. I don’t think at any given moment we ever feel like we’re out of a game. We feel like we can make a game-changing play. If we’ve got to score all the points, we feel like we can do that.”
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