NFL Reality Check: The Sad State of Pro Football in Florida

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NFL Reality Check: The Sad State of Pro Football in Florida
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Finally a man named Blackmon made headlines in Jacksonville for the right reason this season.

Will Blackmon—yes, the other Blackmon, who is actually still on the field for the Jaguars—literally stole the ball out of the hands of Titans backup quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick for a "strip-six" that put Jacksonville too far ahead for a late Tennessee comeback on Sunday. That gave Gus Bradley this first win of his head coaching career and, finally, something to celebrate.

The real difference in the 29-27 score? A safety on a holding call in the end zone midway through the fourth quarter.

Whatever works, Jags. Whatever works.

With the victory by the Jags, for the first time in 10 tries this NFL season, two teams from the state of Florida will win a game in the same week—that is, if the Monday Night Football game between Tampa Bay and Miami doesn't end in a tie.

Having seen the trajectory of both teams in 2013, the game probably will end in a tie. A scoreless tie.

Honestly, a scoreless tie—hell, even a one-sided blowout loss—wouldn't be the worst thing that happened to either of these franchises. Not even close.

There is tumult all around the three professional teams in the state of Florida, both on and off the field. To start, let's keep the collective calamity inside the white lines.

 

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On-Field Disaster

With Jacksonville getting its first triumph of the season in a statement-making game for Bradley's mantra of hard work being more important than victories, the Jaguars raised the overall number of NFL victories in the state of Florida this season to…five.

Five wins and 20 losses. Barring a draw on Monday, the state of Florida will be a collective 6-21 this season, with at least four of those victories—and perhaps as many as five—coming from the Miami Dolphins.

The Dolphins, Jaguars and Buccaneers are a combined minus-255 in point differential this season, with Jacksonville taking on the brunt of that despicable number at minus-176. The Jaguars will have to outscore their opponents by more than 25 points per game for the rest of the season just to break even in differential this year.

Jacksonville ranks last in team offense and team defense, and while both Miami and Tampa Bay have middle-of-the road defenses—ranked 14th and 17th, respectively, in scoring defense—their offenses are atrocious this year, ranked 20th and 31st in scoring and 29th and 31st in yards per game, respectively.

Through 25 games, the three teams in Florida have combined to score a total of just 413 points—16.5 points per game—which is only 42 points more than Denver has scored in nine games.

And yet, despite all those horrible numbers, off-the-field nonsense has derailed each team's season as much or more than all of the recent losing.

 

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Jacksonville's Gamble

When Jacksonville drafted Justin Blackmon with the fifth overall pick of the 2012 draft, many pundits questioned the move for a team to not only take a wide receiver with a problematic off-the-field history but to also give up a fourth-round pick to move up two spots in order to do so, especially given the multitude of needs the Jaguars had at every position on the field.

Those in charge of that draft no longer work for the team, but the new regime has certainly been saddled by the mistakes of those before them. Back-to-back first-round picks of Blaine Gabbert and Blackmon has unsurprisingly decimated the Jaguars, but for vastly different reasons.

Gabbert cannot stay healthy and has yet to prove that he can be an effective NFL quarterback when he has been able to stay on the field. Blackmon, on the other hand, is unquestionably talented—he is probably one of the 10 most talented receivers in the league—but his personal demons are keeping him off the field.

Blackmon was recently suspended without pay by the Jaguars and has reportedly checked himself into a rehab facility to try and get clean after another scrape with the league's substance-abuse policy.

Blackmon played in just four games this season, and speculation swirls regarding whether or not the 23-year old will ever play in Jacksonville again. Hell, if he can't get himself clean, it would be anyone's guess if he will ever play in the NFL again.

Surely, the Blackmon situation has been a distraction for the team, and missing his talent on the field has obviously hurt the Jaguars' chances of winning each week. However, it would be anyone's guess if Jacksonville's record would be any different with or without Blackmon in the lineup.

Even with the victory this week, it is very clear that Jacksonville has a resoundingly horrible collection of professional players. And unfortunately for Jacksonville, Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston—probably the best NFL-caliber signal-caller in the state of Florida—won't be eligible to be drafted for another season.

It seems odd, however, that of the three teams in Florida, a team with very little talent that has lost its most talented player to a struggle with substance abuse may have the least scandalous situation in the state.

 

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Tampa Bay Disarray

Greg Schiano may as well be coaching Monday Night Football from the surface of the sun. His seat is that hot heading into the prime-time tilt. With Jon Gruden "this guy-ing" his way through the contest from the press box, it will never have been more clear in Tampa than Monday night that an attempted change in culture may have changed too much to actually work.

Schiano's first year was not bad by NFL standards, and the future in Tampa Bay looked somewhat bright after he took the reins last season. But this season has been a nightmare from the start. They lost the first game of the season after a horrific penalty gave the New York Jets a shot at a game-winning field goal that ripped a season-setting victory away from the Bucs.

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Every week seems to display a different kind of heartbreaking loss for the team. By and large, the Buccaneers have been competitive in a lot of their games—despite their minus-66 point differential—losing four games by three points or less, with six of their eight defeats coming by two scores or less.

Sometimes the close losses are worse than the blowouts from a morale standpoint, especially after Schiano jettisoned starting quarterback Josh Freeman in favor of rookie Mike Glennon, who has looked good at times but has still presided over the second-worst offense in the game.

And even if the Bucs were winning, it's anyone's guess if Schiano could possibly have better control over his locker room, what with all of the off-the-field insanity going on in Tampa Bay.

Freeman was stripped of his captaincy before the season, and many inside and outside the team suggested Schiano rigged the vote. Others have gone so far as to suggest that Schiano ostensibly set Freeman up to fail this year in an effort to more easily replace him as the starter in Tampa's untenable quarterback-coach controversy.

Some—including the NFL Players Association—even went so far as to suggest it was Schiano who leaked private medical information about Freeman in an attempt to sully his standing as a viable quarterback and a leader for the team.

Looking in from the outside, to say that Schiano has lost his locker room would seem to be the understatement of the NFL season.

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In early September, Schiano reportedly met with big-ticket acquisition Darrelle Revis to discuss some of the team's struggles. A month later, amid mountains of controversy, job speculation and reports of impropriety, Revis told reporters that he didn't know if the Bucs backed Schiano.

"I don't know" is as bad as a no.

All of that, by the way, is on top of a host of injuries the Bucs have faced, most recently losing star running back Doug Martin for the season to a shoulder injury.

Oh, and this is all in addition to an outbreak of MRSA in the Tampa Bay facility in which three different players were infected, one of whom, Carl Nicks, needed surgery to remove the staph infection. The health scare got so serious during the month of October that opponents questioned whether or not it was safe to play a game down in Tampa.

That's not exactly what Schiano had in mind when he talked about the locker room culture in Tampa Bay. The entire situation is a disaster, and even if Tampa Bay can manage to run the table and finish .500 on the season, it may not be enough to keep Schiano in pewter next year.

Another loss or two might have him out before Thanksgiving.

 

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Miami Fiasco

And then there's Miami.

One might think, with all of the issues going on in Jacksonville and Tampa Bay this season, that Miami—at 4-4 and right in the thick of the playoff hunt after beating Cincinnati last week—would be the toast of Florida football in the NFL this season.

One might think.

It's amazing to fathom that if Miami beats Tampa Bay, it will be 5-4 and in line for a playoff berth with seven games remaining. For a team that started the year on such a high note, winning its first three games, the wheels in Miami have been wobbling for some time, seemingly ready to fall right off.

The Richie Incognito and Jonathan Martin saga has been well documented, and the fallout from the story continues to overshadow everything going on in Miami. Despite the distraction, the Dolphins were able to win a huge game over the Bengals last Thursday, but that victory came right at the beginning of this hazing-turned-bullying-turned-misunderstanding-turned-public-relations-disaster for Miami.

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Will the remaining players fall apart amid the scrutiny, or will they band together in the face of adversity? It's anyone's guess at this point.

If Miami can survive the fallout from this scandal over the next few weeks, Joe Philbin should be named the Coach of the Year. At the same time, there are many inside and outside football who blame Philbin and GM Jeff Ireland for fostering a culture where the kind of behavior Incognito admitted to is not only allowed, but encouraged.

From NFL.com:

NFL Media columnist Michael Silver said on NFL Network's "NFL GameDay Morning" that the coach and general manager aren't expected to make it through unscathed.

"Unlike that scandal (the New Orleans Saints bounty scandal), where ownership stood resolutely behind Sean Payton and Mickey Loomis, Jeff Ireland, the general manager, and head coach, Joe Philbin, in league circles, are not expected to survive this," Silver said. "Jeff Ireland already has the reputation in league circles for being a guy who 'we can't believe he still has his job.' They're 4-4, but there's clearly a void here. Expect somebody to pay."

Heck, even Don Shula is chiming in on the Incognito story, telling Greg Cote of the Miami Herald, "You win with good people on and off the field…[t]hey took a chance on a guy with a bad reputation and it backfired on them."

That story underlines a litany of mistakes and near misses under Ireland's stewardship—a tenure that surely will be coming to an end at some point soon, regardless of the Dolphins' playoff standing at year's end.

Jacksonville has one win and a host of internal issues. Tampa Bay has no wins and fractured locker room that has lost faith in the process. And then there's Miami.

The NFL is almost always about wins and losses. Sometimes—like this year with the three professional football franchises in Florida—success and failure can be about so much more.

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