For nine straight games, the Jacksonville Jaguars (1-9) have bumbled to a variety of losses. Some close, some featuring good defense but heavy-laden with offensive struggles, and vice versa. A blowout sprinkled in to keep the level of hope at a manageable level. Still, they haven’t looked necessarily, well, bad. Until now.
On Sunday, in a 27-3 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers, whatever iteration of football you want to call it showcased a team that is past the point of fraying and now ripping apart.
Players and coaches maintain the locker room itself is still fine, at least in theory. Linebacker Joe Schobert admitted the mood after the ninth straight loss was, “not great.” But the narrative remains the players on the roster aren’t turning on each other or their coaches and instead to them.
“People really understand trying to play hard for each other, going out there, leaving it all on the field. I think you see that on the field. There can’t be any questions about the effort that guys are putting out there,” remarked Schobert.
Added Head Coach Doug Marrone, “this team has done everything they can. Like I said, I have zero issues, none. Everyone comes to practice, everyone works hard, everyone supports each other. It’s—the record is obviously bad, I get that. I wish I could do something for them. But they’re close, they’re going to play for each other and the coaches, and the coaches are going to coach. For lack of a better term, we’re all going to make sure that we do our job. But I think there’s something in there with these guys. They care, you can tell. I mean, you don’t play like they’re playing if you don’t care.”
Unfortunately for Marrone and company, their play is what is causing the current losing streak and issues. Because while the effort he and Schobert referenced can be seen, the consistency is not, nor is the game-changing talent there to make up for it.
The Steelers out-gained the Jaguars in total yardage 373-206, first downs 23-14, sacks 2-0, and turnovers 4-1. Oh, and time of possession 36:29-23:31,. for good measure.
“If I knew what it was, I think I’d be able to help solve the problem a little faster,” admits Schobert.
But it’s more than just the sheer numbers. There have been other lopsided losses this season. Yet they had a sense of being the result of better talent, better coaching and/or better scheme. This loss felt more self-inflicted than most, the first bubbles of a sick dog turning the corner from wounded to outright rabid.
Defensive end Josh Allen, who has been taking it upon himself to handle the pass rush since no one else will, left the game with a knee injury. He has battled injuries already this year, with Sunday being the latest.
Linebackers Joe Schobert and Myles Jack are doing all they can to cover as much of the field as possible, but they can’t do the job of the defensive line and the secondary while also holding down the middle of the field. And as teammate after teammate on defense was helped off the field against the Steelers due to injury—joining the several already in street clothes nursing various issues—the duo sat facing each other on the bench in the fourth quarter, alone and silent, the knowledge sinking in that no cavalry is coming for the final six games.
Receivers DJ Chark and Keelan Cole can be a receiving threat anywhere on the field, but there’s little they can do when passes are thrown five yards off target. That frustration, plus the lingering simmering flames of a contentious 2017 series, began to bubble over on Sunday and saw Chark having to be pulled away from Pittsburgh cornerback Steven Nelson twice.
On the first offensive drive of the second half, Luton went deep down a middle seam for Cole. The receiver had split the safeties and had both beaten by a good step or two. All he had to do was haul in the pass and he had a clear shot at an easy touchdown. Instead, he watched the ball sail over his head and land upfield.
The normally refrained Cole couldn’t help but throw his hands up to his sides in confusion and exasperation.
Then there’s running back James Robinson. Poor James Robinson. He passed 1,000 scrimmage yards on Sunday, continuing to reset the record he already broke for most scrimmage yards for a rookie undrafted free agent. Even Marrone feels bad for the breakout superstar who doesn’t deserve the offense with which they’ve surrounded him.
“He gets the most out of everything. I mean, there’s not much more we can ask from him. He’s a bright spot, obviously, and he does well. I just feel bad that we can’t get a lead and get him more carries. I think his production would be even higher.”
Sitting at 1-9, even in a pandemic-ridden season, it’s safe to say Doug Marrone’s hot seat has cooled off…because he’s up from it to pack his bags.
One can’t help but feel for Marrone and his staff, as well as argue that he was given a task too tall for his ability. To listen to him talk for even 30 seconds, it’s clear he cares more about the individual players than their overall performance on the field no matter what it means for his job security, and it’s hard to be negative about what is otherwise an admirable quality.
Even he would admit that’s the case.
“I told them after the game, I said, ‘Hey listen,’ I said, ‘I love this team.’ and I do. I really do. I mean, there’s an appreciation, despite the record—and everyone can say what they want—I’m not trying to defend anything. But there’s some type of appreciation for when you get hit with all the adversity that we’re getting hit with. You have a bunch of young men in that locker room and they’re young guys.
“Their resiliency is really starting to show, and it’ll continue to show—I really believe that—for the remainder of this season. And it’s not a credit to me, it’s a credit the locker room, because that’s the one thing you can’t really control as a coach. You can control practice times, you can control scheduling, you can control a lot of things, but you cannot control the heart and the soul of what goes on in that locker room. And it’s such a fragile part of what we do as coaches and players, no different than the coaching staff. So I believe this team has it and I think that whatever happens in the future, these types of situations, they’ll put a callus on some guys.”
Asked after that if his concern was greater for the players well-being than his own future, Marrone quickly answered, “Oh absolutely."
"I’ve never been about whatever holds me. I never have, never will. The one thing I’m motivated by is that one: someone’s got to take charge and someone’s got to be a leader. I know that people are going to say what they want, and I know what the record is, and it is what it is, I get it. Again, I’m not making any excuses. But in the same sense, when you see people trying it’s very easy to give back. When you see people giving effort, it’s very easy to give back.
“And whatever happens, at the end of the day—and I’ve said this a million times—at the end of the day, I’m going to have to look in the mirror and say, ‘Okay, have I done everything I possibly can? Have I exhausted every avenue? Have I motivated to the best of my ability? Have I kept everything together?’ And I’m not going to say that’s a win, that’s part of my job, that’s my responsibility—and that’s one I take a lot of pride in. And I haven’t always been able to do that. And you guys know about the past, so I haven’t been able to keep things together at times. But I feel like I owe these guys everything that I have. That’s just how I feel.”
Despite workers pulling out the paint to put the writing on the wall, Marrone says he and Owner Shad Khan—who “earned” his 100th loss with the franchise on Sunday—have not discussed the future of his job. Asked whether Khan had given him any assurance for the rest of the season, Marrone simply responded, “No” but added their weekly talks just center around the game plan for the next opponent.
For as together as those in the locker room feel right now, Schobert also admits that knowing how the NFL works means that same locker room will soon look different.
“I think everybody understands that the NFL stands for ‘Not For Long.’ When things aren’t going your way, it’s a quick turnaround for whoever; players coaches, front office. They try to figure out things to get back to success quick. I think the guys in the locker room understand that this is the last couple of weeks that the locker room’s going to be the same, whether through players, coaches, whatever.
“Obviously, things aren’t going our way, but people understand that this is their livelihood that’s on the line and the guys’ next-to-them livelihood, and they’re playing their hearts out for each other.”