From Worst To First: The Jacksonville Jaguars Blueprint To Make a Turnaround
To go from worst to first has the sound of a plucky underdog story. It goes well on Division Championship T-shirt’s and makes a great sound bite in post-game interviews.
How often does it occur though? And therefore what are the chances the Jacksonville Jaguars could be recipients of the turnaround this coming season?
In the past 10 seasons—since 2010—there have been 10 times the last team in a division went on to win said division the following season, or 12.5% of the time. In some divisions, the ascension has signaled a shift in power. For example, in 2011, the Denver Broncos won the AFC West after coming in last the season before. That began a five-year stretch in which the Broncos clinched their division.
The NFC East has seen three teams (the Washington Redskins, the Philadelphia Eagles and the Dallas Cowboys) make the swing five times in the past 10 seasons.
The Jags division, the AFC South, has been controlled largely by the Indianapolis Colts and Houston Texans since 2010. But there was that one year.
In 2017, the Jaguars shocked the world—and maybe even themselves—by going 10-6 in the regular season to become division champs and winning their first two playoff games before eventually falling to the New England Patriots in the Conference Championship.
The hat and T-shirt game was weighed down in some bittersweet shock, coming as the result of a Tennessee loss while the Jaguars fell to the San Francisco 49ers. But the feat Jacksonville had pulled off that season was still admirable. The blueprint is there to be followed again this fall, in not only the Jaguars turnaround, but other teams who have recently done the same.
In 2016, the Jaguars went 3-13. Only the Cleveland Browns (1-15) had a worst record in the the AFC. The Browns record was actually worst in the NFL that season. The San Francisco 49ers finished worse than Jacksonville with a 2-14 record in 2016.
The Browns went backwards the following year, not winning a single game, as they tanked for Baker Mayfield first overall in the 2018 NFL Draft. Mayfield hasn’t necessarily flipped the franchise on its head but he did go 6-7 as a starter his rookie year, lending itself to the theory that to make a franchise, you need a quarterback. It’s a theory the 49ers put into practice the year after that 2-14 record as well.
After starting 2017 much the same, they traded for Patriots backup quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo. Coming on to a team that was 1-10 at the time, Jimmy G started the final five games of the 2017, winning them all, including the aforementioned one over the Jaguars.
Jacksonville scrapped by, making its turnaround without the spark of a new quarterback. Blake Bortles’ stats didn’t change all that much from 2016 to 2017. The only noticeable difference in Bortles’ game was his sack numbers, which means credit must be given to the offensive line.
The passer is pointless if he’s on the ground, so in lieu of drafting a new quarterback that year, the Jaguars went for a running back in the first round, Leonard Fournette, to take pressure off of Bortles and then added Cam Robinson in the second round. Robinson started 15 of the 16 games his rookie season and helped the unit give up the lowest number of sacks in franchise history.
The top two Jags draft picks that season also were part of the team that led the NFL in rushing that year. Despite this and with Fournette being the only major offensive difference from 2016 to 2017, as a rookie, he still only averaged 3.9 yards per carry.
There is another aspect though that can help a team go from worst to first, and it was the strongest quiver in the Jaguars arsenal in 2017. A stout defense. The Jacksonville front office used free agency that offseason to bring in All-Pro defensive end Calais Campbell and Pro Bowl corner A.J. Bouye.
After suffering a negative margin of victory in 2016 (-5.1), the Jags were able to swing that to a positive margin in 2017 (+9.3). The offense helped by improving their points per game from 19.9 (2016) to 26.1 (2017). But the defense made the bigger swing, holding teams to an average of 16.8 points per game in 2017, an +8.2 difference from the previous fall.
With a strong front seven and secondary intact, the Jaguars defense held teams to an average of 35.6 yards per game fewer than the previous season. On the West Coast, the 49ers used the same tactic. They continued their momentum from the latter part of 2017 and bulked up their defense the following season by making moves like drafting Fred Warner and signing Richard Sherman. San Francisco lowered their opponents yards per game by 59.8 yards per game from the last place finish in 2016 to 2018.
The third facet to a turnaround is the culture. It was arguably the biggest change for the Jaguars from 2016 to 2017. When Doug Marrone officially took over as head coach in 2017, one of the first things he did was strip the locker room of distractions. He increased intensity in practice and demanded more all season from his roster. It resulted
"It was the toughest training camp I've ever been a part of," linebacker Paul Posluszny, in his 11th season, said at the time.
"Coach Marrone would talk to us and say, 'Listen, I have a plan and you have to trust me.' With that, guys were able to say, 'OK, we haven't gotten what we wanted in years past doing things a certain way, so we have to buy in, trust the head man and know that that'll bring us success when it's time.’”
Added defensive tackle Malik Jackson before the AFC Championship Game, “You remember guys in camp talking about this took a few years off their lives. It’s pretty funny just to see us now. I guess [Marrone] does know what he's doing.”
Having all three aspects simultaneously—a competent quarterback, stout defense and culture change—isn’t required to go from worst to first. Having one and a half will do the trick based on the Jaguars 2017 season. But to make the turnaround and then sustain it as the Broncos did and as the 49ers have (kind of) done in the NFC, it helps to work on all three.
Do the Jaguars have any of these going for them this season?
Going into his second year, quarterback Gardner Minshew II is the presumed starter. His 6-6 rookie record offered enough promise that the coaches are trusting him to fully take the reins this season. Pro Football Focus gave Minshew the highest grade of any rookie quarterback. But the same site also ranked the passer as the 28th best quarterback for the 2020 season.
Still, Minshew’s ceiling is higher than Bortles’, so even if he can simply sustain’s what he did as a rookie, it could be enough if the defense is able to do their part.
On the defensive side, the Jaguars put the majority of their franchise-record draft capital on that side of the ball. Eight of the 12 picks in this years draft were on defense, including the two picks in the first round—corner CJ Henderson and pass rusher K’Lavon Chaisson. They will join Pro Bowler Josh Allen who is heading into his second year. It’s the strategy that worked for the Jaguars with Campbell and Bouye three years ago (and for that matter the 49ers two years ago), albeit with younger faces.
Lastly is the culture. The front office hired Tom Coughlin as Executive in 2017 to help with that matter. They went to the other end of the spectrum this time around, firing him. But the difference it could wrought is the same. Changing the character was also a point of pride for the coaches and management during the 2020 NFL Draft and free agency. Each pick and signee was touted as being a “high character” guy by staff.
To go from worst to first is easier said than done. Pundits and experts don’t believe the Jaguars will do so this season. Pro Football Focus ranks the Jaguars roster for 2020 as the worst in the league. And the annual “Lindy’s Sports” publication predicts the Jags will finish last in the AFC South once again. Then again, 2017 caught most by surprise as well. The blueprint is there for the Jacksonville Jaguars to make it happen again; they wrote it in the first place.