NFL Teams Can Learn a Lot from the Predictable Collapse of the JaguarsNovember 27, 2018
The Jaguars are a laughingstock.
There's nothing new or unusual about that. The Jaguars were a punchline from 2008 through 2016. This season simply marks a return to their default factory setting as a less entertainingly dramatic version of the Browns.
But the Jaguars reached the AFC Championship Game last year and upset the Patriots in Week 2. They briefly reinvented themselves as running-and-defense throwbacks with a nasty streak. They were supposed to be Super Bowl contenders this season, which makes their relapse into pratfall comedy both surprising and a little sad.
The Jaguars fired offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett on Monday. While Hackett's offense looked like a junior varsity squad playing through a downpour, the Jaguars have myriad problems on both sides of the ball, in the coaching staff and on the salary-cap spreadsheet. Firing Hackett was just a sacrificial offering to the job security gods by head coach Doug Marrone, who has already received a temporary stay of execution, per NFL Network's Ian Rapoport.
Marrone then benched Blake Bortles, a move that would have been timely during the Week 9 bye, or perhaps the 2016 bye, in favor of Cody Kessler.
The Jaguars have lost seven straight games and eight out of their last nine. They lost 24-21 on Sunday to a bad Bills team in an ugly game marred by penalties and brawls. They coughed up a 16-0 lead last week by curling into a ball in the fourth quarter and hoping the Steelers would punch themselves out. They were outscored 90-28 during one three-game stretch. They couldn't even enjoy their annual trip to London without making pregame headlines for skipping out on a pub tab.
There's no hope for the Jaguars now: They'll shed coaches, shift quarterbacks and tumble back into the novelty bin while clutching their 2017 One Year Wonders banner. But other teams can learn a lot about how to avoid the same fate by studying what went wrong.
The 2018 Jaguars made a bunch of obvious mistakes. Those who learn from their history can make sure they avoid repeating it.
Never kid yourself at quarterback
The Jaguars signed Bortles to a three-year, $54 million contract extension in February. Bortles earned the extension with a late-season 2017 hot streak and by being a quarterback-shaped human with starting experience at the end of his contract in a quarterback-desperate league.
The hot streak came with more warning signs than a tanker truck full of methane: Bortles beat a lot of bad teams with the help of a defense that consistently gave him great field position and commanding leads. Careful self-scouting should have revealed to the Jaguars that Bortles didn't change in the second half of last season; his circumstances just got better.
Bortles went back to being Bortles after a promising start this season, and the Jaguars are now so distrustful of their own quarterback that Hackett was almost building whole game plans out of handoffs for the last few weeks.
Extending Bortles' contract and failing to secure a Plan B (Cody Kessler is not even a Plan Z) was a massive organizational blunder. But other organizations could make the same mistake as they decide what to do with unspectacular young quarterbacks.
The Buccaneers are nearing a decision on interception-and-scandal-prone Jameis Winston. The Titans must decide if Marcus Mariota's athleticism and effort are worth his injuries and unimpressive production. The Cowboys are poised to drop Jimmy Garoppolo money on Dak Prescott, who is on a hot streak not too different than Bortles' late-2017 surge.
Extending a young quarterback just because you don't want to start over is like proposing to someone you don't truly love but setting the wedding date for 2022. All it does is spread out regret over a longer period of time.
Don't get fooled by defensive touchdowns
The Jaguars scored seven defensive touchdowns last season, added an eighth in the playoffs and set up a lot of short scoring drives for their offense with turnovers. Their star-studded defense was indeed dominant for stretches, but a string of games against quarterbacks like Ryan Mallett, Blaine Gabbert, Jacoby Brissett, DeShone Kizer and T.J. Yates made them look like the 1985 Bears.
The Jaguars defense isn't bad this year, but with just one defensive touchdown, 11 takeaways and 21 sacks through 11 games, it has fallen off a pace that it had no real hope of sustaining.
There's nothing wrong with trying to build around a great defense, so long as expectations are realistic. The Jaguars entered this season expecting another historic defensive performance and then had no plan for what to do when they weren't generating two takeaways per game.
A team like the Bills—fine defense, defensive head coach, gifted-but-erratic young quarterback—might have been tempted to try to build their version of the 2017 Jaguars. One look at the 2018 Jaguars should ensure that they don't get carried away by a few great defensive performances.
Pass on the coaching leftovers
Hackett was a holdover from the Gus Bradley era who rose from quarterback coach to offensive coordinator when Greg Olson was fired. Prior to his stint in Jacksonville, Hackett coordinated the Bills offense for Marrone's forgettable Bills teams. Before that, he was a Marrone assistant at Syracuse.
Marrone himself glommed onto Bradley's staff as an offensive line coach in 2015 after leaving Buffalo for smokes and scratch-offs and never going back. Defensive coordinator Todd Wash, whose defensive game plans this year involve sitting back in coverage and waiting for stuff to happen, was Bradley's defensive line coach.
Spot a trend? The Jaguars fired Bradley and replaced him with his cronies and his cronies' cronies. Everyone looked like geniuses for a few months when everything went their way for a few months last year. Now that the stakes are higher and the opponents are better, a staff full of coaches who never had any answers suddenly has no answers.
Teams looking to avoid the Jaguars' fate must be wary of promoting from within or letting coaches/execs play the procrastination game. (Just give us two more years to really change the culture around here; then we'll compete for a wild-card spot maybe).
The Browns shouldn't consider Gregg Williams a viable head coaching candidate. The Bengals shouldn't even think about Hue Jackson or anyone else in the Marvin Lewis pipeline. The Packers and Ravens—a pair of continuity-loving organizations—must avoid the temptation to replace Mike McCarthy and John Harbaugh with any of their beloved lieutenants.
Keep an unimpressive staff in place because they won a few games or are buddies with the big boss, and you're bound to keep seeing unimpressive results.
Send the right messages
You don't have to re-read Jalen Ramsey's offseason trash talk manifesto in GQ to verify that the Jaguars let a little success go to their heads after last season. The proof is on the field every Sunday, where Ramsey and other defenders are better at grabbing facemasks and drawing unnecessary roughness plays than stopping big plays when it matters.
Tom Coughlin's primary purpose as executive vice president of football operations was to prevent the team from believing its own hype. After all, Coughlin didn't conduct a comprehensive coaching search when he arrived in Jacksonville (he retained his pal Marrone and the gang) or solve the Bortles problem (he exacerbated it). Coughlin is supposed to be Pappy Old-School Values, the guy who says things like don't get too big for your britches after playoff wins or before magazine interviews.
Teams like the Bears and Colts may have to deal with sudden success this offseason. Keeping players humble and hungry isn't as easy as hiring a designated grandpa. There's no magic formula, but an organization that doesn't want its players to decide they have nothing to prove should start by making sure coaches and execs haven't decided that they have nothing to prove.
The giant, overarching mistake the Jaguars made was convincing themselves that they were better than they really were. After years of futility, they hit a patch of winnable games in 2017, got some huge plays from their defense and ignored lingering deficiencies at quarterback and on the coaching staff.
No NFL team can afford to mistake a hot streak and some lucky breaks with success, the excitement of finally winning some games with actually achieving excellence, or press clippings and hype for reality.
The Jaguars did all of those things last year. Now we're laughing at them again. Smarter teams will learn from this and make sure that the joke is never on them.
Mike Tanier covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @MikeTanier.