JACKSONVILLE — The push notification blared across the smartphone screens of many Jacksonville Jaguars as they entered the stadium, took seats in front of their lockers and began to swap street clothes for warmup gear. BREAKING: ESPN's Adam Schefter reports the Jaguars will be open to trading all-pro cornerback Jalen Ramsey in the offseason. Players filing into the locker room or returning from pre-game tape jobs looked to Ramsey, alone at his locker, his head buried in a hoodie. He would say nothing. The team put out a statement describing the report as a “rumor” with no truth to it, but the damage had been done. The third-year pro, who had earlier in the week sparred with fans on Twitter, donned a black thermal mask usually reserved for cold-weather games and took the field.
“Everybody was like, Whoa, where’s this coming from,” says Jaguars linebacker Myles Jack, who sits about 10 lockers down from Ramsey. “Jalen went out there, put his mask on and embraced that villain role. I think he brought that mask out as his answer to that. Everybody knew about the report. It was the elephant in the room. And Jalen went out and addressed it.”
What followed was a team performance that typified this era of Jaguars football. Ramsey, criticized this season for his candor off the field and his slipping performance on it, turned in one of the finest defensive performances of the 2018 NFL season, picking off two Ben Roethlisberger passes and holding Antonio Brown in check for nearly the entire game. Brown would finish with five catches for 117 yards and a score, though 78 of those yards and the touchdown were the result of a blown coverage by safety Tashaun Gipson.
The Jaguars, remarkably, began three of their 14 drives in Steelers territory, and two more drives at better than their own 40-yard line, yet converted those opportunities into just six points (two Josh Lambo field goals). The defense held the Steelers to just 26 rushing yards, but Jacksonville’s offensive ineptitude, fueled by a struggling front five and the lackluster play of quarterback Blake Bortles (10 of 18 passing, 104 yards) allowed Pittsburgh to hang around until a game-winning end zone plunge by Roethlisberger in the final seconds to deliver Jacksonville its sixth straight loss, 20-16 to the Steelers.
Veteran safety Barry Church, when asked if he'd ever been a part of a better defensive performance in a loss: “Oof. Nah. Not like that.”
It was a game the Jaguars absolutely had to have to keep their playoff hopes alive, historically speaking. They are now 3-7, and no team with that record has ever gone on to earn a postseason berth. “This sort of thing starts to feel like quicksand,” veteran defensive lineman Calais Campbell told me Friday, two days before the Steelers game. “The harder you fight out of it, the more mistakes you make, the more you slip. Nobody is giving us a chance to go to playoffs, but we still believe. I still believe.”
Campbell’s is the voice you will hear making sense of all this, squinting at the light at the end of the tunnel as it slowly disappears. Ramsey has more trouble putting on a brave face. “I’ve been pretty pissed off,” Ramsey said after the loss. “I’m not going to lie to you. I have. S---, man, I’ve been battling with my emotions, trying to hold them in.”
It’s a feeling shared by many in this locker room and within the organization for some time, and it bubbled up even before the losing streak. Four weeks into the regular season, with the team sitting at 3-1 after wins over the Giants, Patriots and Jets, team captains called for a players-only meeting to discuss what felt like sliding expectations. Good enough, they said, wouldn’t be tolerated. They had higher aspirations. They discussed ball security—the team had turned the ball over three times in the most recent win, over the Jets—and playing within the framework of the offense and defense, not freestyling.
“We felt like with certain injuries, everybody needs to tighten up,” says defensive lineman Marcell Dareus. Adds Campbell: “We were winning but we weren’t playing well.”
Remarkably, this all happened three weeks before the more publicized players-only meeting (after a locker room scuffle following a Week 7 loss to the Texans), and four weeks before four players were arrested at 4 a.m. Saturday morning in London ahead of their Week 8 loss to the Eagles. The Jaguars had been a favorite of NFL prognosticators to improve upon last season's AFC championship appearance, but just a month into the season, player leadership could see the wheels beginning to slip off the track.
“We’re winning but we’re still giving up some things,” says defensive lineman Malik Jackson. “I think it showed self awareness to see that coming and try to stop it. Now, we didn’t do it, but it’s good to be proactive instead of reactive. I think Kansas City is when we first hit that bump, and then after that, s---, I don’t know what happened.”
At Kansas City in Week 5, the Chiefs put up 424 yards of offense, the only team to crack 400 yards against the Jaguars in 2018. It was the first test of a young roster’s ability to bounce back, and they failed, losing to Dallas 40-7 the next week. The London episode came two weeks later—Barry Church, D.J. Hayden, Jarrod Wilson and Ronnie Harrison were handcuffed outside of a London nightclub. If that stretch was an assessment of their mettle and maturity, they failed.
Three weeks later, pockets of the locker room didn’t seem to be approaching their days with the singular focus and stern urgency typical of a presumed Super Bowl contender in the midst of a six-game tumble. On a Friday afternoon, between meetings and practice, Ramsey and six or seven young teammates were performing a favorite ritual; a simulated boxing game where one person punches the air in one of four directions—left, right, high or low—and another person facing him six feet away bobs his head in the opposite direction to avoid being “hit.” Guess wrong three times in a row, and you’re knocked out. Their excitement can reach a fever pitch that drowns out any and every other conversation in the room.
Tom Coughlin and Marrone may have banned video games and ping pong from the locker room, but the young guys’ sense of whimsy remains.
“We’ve got a lot of young players,” Jackson says. “Being upset and moping around here is going to make the days longer. We understand we haven’t been playing up to par, but the only way to change that is on the field. It’s important to have camaraderie, because, f---, this is a hard business, man.”
Directly outside the locker room, posted on the wall in front of the entrance, are reminders of three other losses. Three large letter L’s with corresponding logos for the Titans (Week 3), Texans (Week 7) and Colts (Week 10) remind players of their last three performances against division opponents. The messaging from the top couldn’t be clearer.
What’s less clear is the origin of the Ramsey report. Schefter did not cite Jaguars sources, indicating that someone outside of Jacksonville told him Ramsey could be for sale. Trading away a player at the peak of his abilities, among the league’s elite at a premium position, would hardly be without precedent: Look no further than the Oakland Raiders, dealing Khalil Mack to the Bears. But Ramsey still has two years left (including the fifth-year option) on his rookie deal, and the Jaguars have considerably more pressing personnel issues. At the top of the list: What to do with quarterback Blake Bortles. The quarterback has done nothing to justify the three-year, $54 million investment the Jaguars made in him last winter. It’s a low-end contract for a veteran starting QB, though Jacksonville—shaping up to be one of the NFL’s most cash-strapped teams this offseason—can save $4.5 million against the 2019 salary cap if they let him go early in the offseason.
On the field, Bortles has completed just over 60% of his passes with 12 touchdowns and eight interceptions during a time of offensive explosion across the NFL. Injuries to the offensive line haven’t helped—with left tackle Cam Robinson and center Brandon Linder on injured reserve Bortles was sacked six times vs. Pittsburgh—but Bortles has consistently disappointed since the start of last season, failing to throw for 200 yards in 11 starts since the beginning of 2017. He has also yet to emerge as a vocal veteran leader for an offense yearning for one, with several players describing Bortles as more of a “show you” leader as opposed to a “tell you” leader. Yet, all he showed Sunday was the ability to squander one of the finest defensive performances of the 2018 season.
It’s the type of thing that can put offenses and defenses at odds and rip teams apart, a fate the Jaguars have been spared in part due to their own inconsistency on defense. Just two weeks ago, Andrew Luck passed for 285 yards and three touchdowns with an interception in a Colts victory over the Jags. “We have no room to talk after last week,” Church said after the Steelers loss. Says Jack: “I think we’ve gotten over that as a team. It was once a topic. I think we realized that we get nowhere pointing fingers.”
In the dour postgame locker room, a theory emerged surrounding the Ramsey trade report. Some players wondered if perhaps the Jaguars put it out there on purpose, part of another effort to motivate: “Maybe they need to do that every game,” one player says, “but to everyone in this room, not just Jalen.”
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