Our perception of how an NFL team should go through its internal checklist after a bad season is at once probably far too optimistic and not optimistic enough. There are some owners who steep their organizations in complacency. Some who are more comfortable with the familiar. Some who blow it all up because some middling former quarterback on ESPN told them to. Perpetually good teams don’t normally have that problem because they are good at self-analysis. Of course, some teams get good for a little while and lose the ability to do that as well.
So that’s why we’re here. With each team that drops from playoff contention, we will answer a 10-part questionnaire on where they are, where they’re headed and how to fix the holes along the way. Some projects will be bigger than others.
Which brings us to the Jaguars, who have just one win this season and could be headed toward a complete regime change. They have already let go of general manager Dave Caldwell.
1. What went right this year?
Here’s an unpopular take: I think the Jaguars had some success with Caldwell at the helm and have actually done a decent job of populating the roster with good players, especially those who came from the middle and late rounds. The fact that they did not draft Deshaun Watson or Patrick Mahomes is difficult to place into proper perspective, given that it was squarely in the middle of the Tom Coughlin era as well. Most of the Jaguars’ non-quarterback problems stemmed from keeping players in Jacksonville, which is not necessarily the GM’s fault (and, again, the most significant exodus came amid the Coughlin fiasco where he was fining players more aggressively than a New Jersey governor with an axe to grind). So, what went right? Jacksonville has some talented young players. The wide receiver group, with some imagination schematically, is a potential top-12 unit. Myles Jack is great. I also liked C.J. Henderson a bit more than some other grading sites, which is fine. There is certainly the chance for him to develop into a top-tier player at corner.
2. What went wrong this year?
I think it’s difficult to compete realistically with the kind of situation that was hung around Jacksonville’s neck. They had to shed cap space and deal the rest of their unhappy talent. They sat out the quarterback carousel thanks to some late-season promise from Gardner Minshew in 2019. Their roster, which was a few plays away from a Super Bowl in 2018, had to begin paying off its credit card debt after three years of methodically aggressive free agency.
3. The Big Question this offseason
Who is coaching, quarterbacking and general manager-ing the Jaguars in 2021 and what direction does the team decide to lean in? For the record, I have more confidence in Jacksonville than some other franchises. I think owner Shad Khan and his son, co-owner and head of football analytics Tony, have a thoughtful approach and they understand the limitations of their market, which leads them to make certain decisions (even if their first three head coaches have struggled).
4. Coach/GM outlook
ESPN most recently reported that there is sense around the league that Doug Marrone could remain in Jacksonville. Maybe that will end up being the case, given how young and inexperienced the team is and that they’ve been in a few games this year, despite only winning one
If they do decide to move on, I would go collegiate with the hire and embrace the team’s status as the NFL’s version of the Tampa Bay Rays. When Jacksonville reached the AFC title game, it was because it dared to do things differently. It spent its cap space wisely and picked a good time to attack the market. It ran a ground-and-pound, quarterbackless offense at a time when every other team was heavily invested in defensive speed. The Jaguars can do that again (and are armed with some additional draft capital). The problem is fostering a culture that can match the young energy. Are they going to be able to lure someone like Pat Fitzgerald out of Northwestern? Probably not, but that is the kind of person I’m talking about. Someone who can come in and energize the youthful roster before the jaded veteran years set in.
5. Key free agents
• Cam Robinson, left tackle
• D.J. Hayden, cornerback
• Chris Conley, wide receiver
• Keelan Cole, wide receiver
6. Top priority
This is going to be the answer for a lot of teams this high up in the draft order, but securing the coach and quarterback of the future. Jacksonville is in a good place to do that (currently sitting at No. 2 in the draft order, with the strangely devious Adam Gase still at the helm of the Jets’ offense for three more games). Trevor Lawrence is not out of the equation. The Jaguars have been bouncing between drafted mishaps and highly paid veteran castaways for too long. They are finally in a place to have that top-three pick with a legitimately loaded quarterback class on hand.
7. Positions of need
Quarterback, tight end, one or two offensive tackles (depending on what happens to Cam Robinson in free agency), defensive line help across the board and additional edge rushing talent.
8. Sensible plan to fix them
Hire Brian Daboll and Joe Schoen from the Buffalo Bills and allow them a wide breadth to reorganize the roster and develop the rookie quarterback. What the Bills did for Josh Allen in Buffalo, from wild-horse rookie behind a dangerously makeshift offensive line to near lock for AFC East champion and a top-three seed, is nothing short of remarkable. While I am typically against the idea that you can pluck a few apples from a productive tree and recreate that same environment elsewhere, Daboll has a track record of success and a foot in the college game, which satisfies a lot of what we talked about above. Schoen is a rising star in personnel as well.
9. Outside-the-box idea to fix them
Hire Marvin Lewis as a coach and general manager with the stipulation that he brings along a hyper-young coaching staff (the plan being that one will eventually transition into the head coaching role and Lewis will back into a full-time personnel role).
This is sort of the polar opposite of what we suggested earlier, but the idea of Marvin Lewis as a personnel man has been bandied about in NFL circles before. And his time in Cincinnati was not without its talent, despite the owner’s complete unwillingness to keep said talent. Lewis was also beloved by his players and could be a breath of fresh air and stability for the Jacksonville locker room
10. Next time we'll realistically see them in the playoffs
The AFC South is up for the taking year after year. With a sound plan and a home run coaching hire, it wouldn’t be stunning to see Jacksonville back in the postseason in 2022.