Six seasons. Six seasons without a playoff appearance. Six seasons without so much as a winning record. Six seasons in which the Jacksonville Jaguars regressed from consistent mediocrity to being among the worst handful of franchises in the NFL.
It's a streak Gus Bradley and Co. stop before hitting the lucky No. 7.
The Jaguars head into 2014 coming off their latest season near the bottom of everyone's NFL power rankings. With a 4-12 record and again without skill-position talent that makes anyone blink twice, Jacksonville was again a place where offensive innovation went to die.
Football Outsiders ranked the offense as 29.8 percent worse than league-wide replacement level, nearly eight percent worse than any other team. The Jaguars' 15.4 points every Sunday were almost two points worse than any other team. Tampa Bay was worse in terms of total yards, but that was one of just a few areas Jacksonville didn't look up at all its contemporaries.
Things are so bad that, at the moment, Toby Gerhart and Chad Henne are expected to be their starting running back and quarterback, respectively, and folks aren't overwhelmingly displeased.
Draft day is still upcoming, and it's likely the Jaguars do something to improve one or both of those positions in the first few rounds. It just goes to show, for all the talk about parity throughout the NFL, sometimes the journey toward competitiveness is a lot more arduous than you realize.
If there is any sense of optimism among fans, it comes from their faith in the team's brain trust. Head coach Gus Bradley has already developed a strong liking from folks around the league after coming over last season from Seattle. Bradley developed a patient way of teaching, understanding that win-now moves aren't always in order and buying into the process. General manager David Caldwell told Bleacher Report's Dan Pompei at the Senior Bowl:
Knowing where we were as a franchise, we knew we were going to go through a lot of adversity. We knew it was going to be a slow build and there were going to be some ups and downs. So to have a guy who was consistent and consistently positive with a lot of energy was going to help us through those times.
Caldwell has made a few moves this offseason designed to reward Bradley's (and the fans') patience. Jacksonville added defensive linemen Chris Clemons and Red Bryant to an anemic pass rush and offensive lineman Zane Beadles at guard. Gone is offensive stalwart Maurice Jones-Drew, but the Jaguars expect production from Gerhart and Jordan Todman.
Will it combine to end the team's playoff drought? Ehh. But now that the NFL schedule has been released, we have a good idea of the trek Jacksonville will take in its push.
|1||Sept. 7||@ Philadelphia Eagles||1 p.m.||CBS|
|2||Sept. 14||@ Washington Redskins||1 p.m.||CBS|
|3||Sept. 21||Indianapolis Colts||1 p.m.||CBS|
|4||Sept. 28||@ San Diego Chargers||4:05 p.m.||CBS|
|5||Oct. 5||Pittsburgh Steelers||1 p.m.||CBS|
|6||Oct. 12||@ Tennessee Titans||1 p.m.||CBS|
|7||Oct. 19||Cleveland Browns||1 p.m.||CBS|
|8||Oct. 26||Miami Dolphins||1 p.m.||CBS|
|9||Nov. 2||@ Cincinnati Bengals||1 p.m.||CBS|
|10||Nov. 9||Dallas Cowboys||1 p.m.||Fox|
|12||Nov. 23||@ Indianapolis Colts||1 p.m.||CBS|
|13||Nov. 30||New York Giants||1 p.m.||Fox|
|14||Dec. 7||Houston Texans||1 p.m.||CBS|
|15||Dec. 14||@ Baltimore Ravens||1 p.m.||CBS|
|16||Dec. 18||Tennessee Titans||8:25 p.m.||NFLN|
|17||Dec. 28||@ Houston Texans||1 p.m.||CBS|
As is the case with the rest of the AFC South, Jacksonville's schedule looks relatively undaunting. The Jags have the fourth-easiest schedule in football based on 2013 records, an obviously skewed stat without much year-to-year carryover. All you need to know is that at this time last season, we were discussing what a cakewalk the Broncos had through the AFC West.
Not our best call in the world.
Nonetheless, even without the backing of 2013 records, Jacksonville's slate engenders itself to the team approaching something near respectability. The AFC South faces the NFC East and AFC North in its common non-divisional matchups, which is about as good of a draw as one can get. (The AFC South, of course, remains the best. And, luckily, AFC South teams get to play one another six times as well.)
The NFC East is never particularly awful but remains in that thoroughly mediocre muck. Washington, a walkover patsy a season ago, should be a more difficult road tilt in 2014. The Jaguars also received some bad luck by having to head to Philadelphia. The Eagles are no guarantee to repeat their division-winning success of 2013, and Chip Kelly is going to have to continue altering his offense to combat NFL defensive coordinators. It just would have been a far better arrangement to head to Dallas or New York.
Within the AFC North, Jacksonville also has some dispiriting matchups. Baltimore and Cincinnati are pretty clearly the best teams in the division, and both will host Henne and Co. The Colts, on the other hand, host both Baltimore and Cincinnati. Sometimes life ain't fair even within your own division.
Where the Jags' schedule eases up a bit is in their non-common opponents. San Diego was a shaky 9-7 last season and was relatively quiet in free agency this spring. The Chargers may be a regression candidate. Hosting Miami likewise looks uninspiring, though the Dolphins have enough talent to hang around the .500 mark.
If the Jaguars had done much this offseason to inspire instant contention, we could be talking about them as a team approaching a No. 6 seed. While the defensive line boost should improve the defense overall, there just isn't enough offensive firepower. Even with a weak schedule, Jacksonville will likely walk into most games as an underdog.
When assuming a team will hang near or at the bottom of its division, it's typically difficult to find games that stand out as must-win. The Jaguars are one of those teams, and their schedule doesn't lend itself to too many games that will make it on barroom televisions.
The most obviously difficult contest is a trip to Cincinnati, where Andy Dalton and Co. will be trying to enter the Super Bowl conversation. The Bengals have made the playoffs each of the last three seasons, but Dalton's postseason struggles have helped push them to one-and-out status. This is a particularly interesting campaign for the fourth-year quarterback with long-term contract negotiations looming.
How will the Jaguars fare in 2014?
With A.J. Green and Giovani Bernard giving him solid offensive weapons and the Bengals boasting one of the deepest young defenses in football, the excuses for Dalton are starting to run thin. Cincinnati is also a bit of an aspirational building model for Jacksonville (and any team for that matter).
Otherwise, the Jaguars merely need to improve their standing within the division. Houston had the worst record in football last season and already looks like it has moved past its Floridian rivals. Indianapolis is attempting to quick-build a Super Bowl contender before Andrew Luck's upcoming mega-extension talks begin. And Tennessee has become known as a perfectly mediocre team willing to mill about in the middle of the division.
For all of their efforts, the Jaguars still look a step behind. Bradley already named Henne the starting quarterback, which is either a smokescreen before they draft Johnny Manziel or Teddy Bridgewater or they're honest to goodness thinking Henne is an NFL starting quarterback. Yes, the same Chad Henne who was less productive than Thaddeus Lewis, Matt McGloin and Kellen Clemens last season, per Football Outsiders.
Gerhart is 27 years old and has never received more than 109 carries in a season. He had 86 in 2012 and 2013 combined. What we've seen of him throughout his career has rarely been bad, but it has also rarely been transcendent. The receiving corps should be better if Justin Blackmon can stay out of trouble, but I'd be shocked if we weren't looking at the worst offense in football again in 2014.
You just can't compete when one side of the ball is so far behind the other. The Jaguars will be improved next season. Just not enough.
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