The Jacksonville Jaguars take the field for the first practice session of training camp in less than 72 hours. With players scheduled to report for work on Sunday, the dead zone for the National Football League will come to an end in Jacksonville. With so many questions searching for an answer, it is time to see where the team is on the field and not just on paper.
Regardless of your political viewpoint, the hope and change mantra has been a clever and well-worn bit of phraseology beaten into our heads for the past several months. Some people find joy in these words while others just gristle at the mere suggestion.
So it is with the coaches, players, staff, and fans of the Jacksonville Jaguars.
As the Jags get ready to report for the 15th training camp in franchise history, the same tags become the predominant theme for 2009.
First, there is the change.
A lot of change has happened since the end of the 2008 season. Like a cleansing shower to wash away the stench of a hard day’s work, the Jaguars worked quickly to shed the pungent funk of one of the most difficult seasons in franchise history.
From roster upheaval during the off-season, coaching staff additions and subtractions, or front office shuffling, significant change has been one of the main themes for the Jaguars in 2009.
When the Jaguars open the 2009 season, the team could have four or even five players starting at different positions on offense from the starters listed on opening day in 2008. Even more dramatic, there could be as many as seven players starting on the defense in positions where other names were attached on opening day a year ago.
The roster turnover was the necessary byproduct of a five-win season. For a team to stumble to a disappointing finish in the manner the Jaguars did, a good purging of the roster was the only option.
The chemistry which had been attributed as a major factor in much of the team’s success in 2007 failed them completely in 2008. All it took was a couple of bad apples being brought into the mix and things came apart quickly.
The purge targeted those problem areas with the intention of wholesale repair in very short order. The team tried to eradicate these weak links with surgical precision. The strategy appears to have worked extremely well, at least on paper.
The change seen with the coaching staff is expected to bring the philosophical approach more in line with what Jack Del Rio would prefer. The coaches who did not subscribe to his mindset have been replaced with guys who should be more simpatico with the boss.
The plan is to get back to basics, focusing on the fundamentals, with an eye on regaining the physical, punishing style of football that became the trademark for Del Rio’s teams here in Jacksonville.
It is not pretty or glamorous football, but it wins games and it is more in sync with what Jack Del Rio prescribes. The change is more of a return to what worked previously, undoing the changes which allowed the team to slip and get off track.
Then there is the hope.
There is the hope that the changes in the front office will reap big rewards. The corresponding philosophical shift in the approach the Jaguars are taking with both player acquisition and retention will quickly return dividends for the team.
There is the hope that these roster changes allow the team to rebound from a disappointing slide, eliminating the distractions and the attitude problems which bubbled up several times during the 2008 campaign.
There is hope that Jack Del Rio has finally found the right blend of coaching mindsets to compliment his own.
There is hope the team will spark enough interest from the fans locally to get the tickets sold to avoid at least some blackouts.
There is the hope these roster cuts have found the correct targets, and the players who were brought in to fill the void will do so seamlessly and successfully.
There is hope for one major change being the catalyst to spark a renaissance for the Jaguars in 2009. The release of Fred Taylor and the installation of Maurice Jones-Drew as the premiere back for the team is hoped to provide the impetus for a turnaround. Jones-Drew is the one player on the current roster with legitimate star power. If his fortunes continue to rise, the hopes of the franchise ride on his shoulders.
That is a lot of pressure for a young athlete, but Jones-Drew appears to be adapting well to the change, willing to carry the torch of hope.
The good news in all of this hope and change is the fact, unlike the leadership guiding this country, the group guiding the ship for the Jaguars is working responsibly to assure all of the adjustments made are done while practicing fiscal constraint.
The Jaguars are quickly getting the rookie contracts buttoned up, with the big ticket players remaining on the agenda. The crown jewel in the 2009 draft class, Eugene Monroe, appears likely to be the only player not under contract when the team takes the field on Monday morning. There is still hope a deal gets done, but with each tick of the clock it becomes less likely it will happen before camp begins on Monday.
The first-round draft picks around the league are starting to get their contracts ironed out, and the Jaguars have seen what other teams are doing. Oakland gave wide receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey $23 million in guaranteed money with the deal agreed upon yesterday. As the seventh pick in the draft, he received a 20 percent bump over the same deal signed by defensive end Sedrick Ellis last season.
A similar type of increase for the Jaguars would amount to a signing bonus on the plus side of $21 million for Eugene Monroe. Last year, when the Jaguars negotiated with Derrick Harvey, they stuck to the 10 percent rule which has traditionally been the expected bump from year to year for first-rounder picks. The Jaguars will more than likely take a similar position this year.
Harvey secured a $17.1 million signing bonus. This was in line with what the eighth pick in the 2007 draft received with the traditional annual bump. So, if the Jaguars stick to their standard approach, Monroe's signing bonus should be in the $19 million range.
This is the one area where change would be a bad thing for the Jaguars. The team dug in their heels last season when they negotiated the Harvey deal. Their approach should be exactly the same this year. Paul Vance and the front office staff have already shown in the past they will not bow to trends in the current salary patterns. They will adhere to their fiscally responsible approach.
It may not seem that significant to quibble over a million here or there, but these dollars add up quickly. The Jaguars are a small-market franchise already struggling to maintain a competitive balance with the more cash rich big-market teams. These deals have to fit their model in order to keep the team on an even footing. If the team does make a change and begin bending to get a player signed, it starts the team down a slippery slope that is difficult to escape from.
No hope is required for the final contracts to get done, and no change should be part of the equation in the approach the team is taking with their negotiations. The deal should come together fulfilling the expectations for the player, but also protecting the bigger financial interests for the Jacksonville Jaguars.
In the end, both sides need to come together and say, "Yes we can!"
With a fresh perspective and a preseason full of change, the Jacksonville Jaguars hope they have found the right mix with all of the moves they have made to get the team back on track quickly. The faster they can accomplish the task of getting back to winning, the more likely it is the fans will wake up and embrace their home team.
At least that is what the Jaguars hope will happen.