It seems like it was basically yesterday the upstart Jacksonville Jaguars were taking the league by storm in 2017. They finally had an identity under the direction and guidance of Tom Coughlin, an old school football guy with a long track record of success. That identity was bought into and enforced by coach Doug Marrone, and the players followed suit. They even had a cool nickname; “Sacksonville.” The organization looked like it was in sync from the top down, and with the amount of talent and youth on the roster – the rest of the AFC South feared the Jags were now going to become the team to beat for years to come.
To put in perspective just how good that '17 Jags team was, they beat the 13-3 Steelers not once, but twice. A team that featured the Killer B’s – players like Ben Roethlisberger, Le’Veon Bell, Antonio Brown, and Martavis Bryant. They were up late on the road in Foxboro in the AFC Championship against Bill Belichick, Tom Brady, and Rob Gronkowski in the peak of their powers. They out-possessed the Pats by five minutes in that game, and in 19 games, lost the time of possession battle just six times total. They accomplished all of this with a quarterback in Blake Bortles who, as harsh as it may seem, just isn’t a starting NFL quarterback.
The team was good, so what happened in ’18 and ’19? How did they fall so sharply off a cliff? To find out, we must go back to the start. After the 2016 season, Jacksonville underwent sweeping organizational change. Their 17-63 record at the time was the worst in the NFL since 2012. The organization desperately needed leadership and stability, so they hired Tom Coughlin, the most successful coach in franchise history – and a model of consistency – back in an executive role. He oversaw football operations and although Dave Caldwell was technically still the GM (since 2013), he reported to Coughlin, who reported only to the owner Shad Kahn. They fired Gus Bradley and elevated Doug Marrone to head coach, and at last it appeared the Jags had a three-headed monster of leadership in the front office that would build a winner.
Duval County didn’t have to wait long. The team crushed the off-season, adding players like Calais Campbell, A.J. Bouye, and Barry Church in free agency before drafting Leonard Fournette and Cam Robinson. The direction was clear. From there, Jacksonville was off and running, and they’d continue to run nearly to the Super Bowl. So again, what in the world happened to this team?!
I said you must go back to the beginning, and while the beginning of the team’s leadership structure occurred in 2017, the malfeasance of the franchise before Coughlin and Marrone got to town was ultimately the first hole in the ship. Dave Caldwell, who became the GM in 2013, picked in the top five every year until Coughlin arrived, and came away with little to show for it. Chronologically, he selected Luke Joeckel, Blake Bortles, Dante Fowler, and finally Jalen Ramsey in the first round. He was able to save the roster somewhat by hitting on players like Allen Robinson, Telvin Smith, Myles Jack, and Yannick Ngakoue in later rounds – but the damage was done. While those players went on to become solid starters, the Jags lacked blue chip talent aside from the Ramsey pick. Plus, as it turned out, Caldwell couldn’t have missed much worse drafting QB Blake Bortles to be the next face of the franchise, and by the time Coughlin arrived, the organization itself already knew it.
For how good the team was in 2017, they won despite their quarterback play, rather than because of it. Coughlin and the leadership knew they could only go so far without a solid QB, and the stinging AFC Championship loss highlighted that. Part of the reason Jacksonville was able to make the conference title game that year was because Bortles did have some moments, but he was far too inconsistent. Still, the front office had their hands tied. They had far too good of a record to draft a viable replacement, and because of how much money they spent improving the roster before the 2017 season, they couldn’t buy a free agent QB that was clearly any better than Bortles had been.
So, the Jaguars extended Bortles heading into the 2018 season. Mistake one. Coughlin and co. hoped Bortles could build on his 2017 season, and while the headline was $54 million dollars, the guaranteed portion was only $26MM and the contract length was just three years – a bargain compared to most franchise QB’s. Unfortunately for Jacksonville, not only did Bortles fail to build off 2017, but that season turned out to be a mirage. He was downright awful in 2018, and the same pieces that made the Jags a success in ’17 were their downfall a year later. Their workhorse RB Leonard Fournette, coming off a rookie campaign that saw him rush for over 1,000 yards, fought injuries all year in 2018 on his way to just 439 yards, averaging an abysmal 3.3 yards-per-carry. To make matters worse, it became painfully obvious that not only did the Jaguars make a mistake drafting a runningback in the top-5, they took the wrong one – as Christian McCaffrey set the league ablaze in '18 just a few hours north. Mistake two. The reigning division champs went from being a few short minutes away from a Super Bowl berth to the cellar just like that, limping to a 5-11 record – half as many wins as ’17.
It was jaw-dropping to say the least. But outside the Leonard Fournette pick, it wasn’t really Coughlin or Marrone’s fault. The team had the second-worst scoring offense in the league (15.3 PGG) for the reasons already laid out, but the defense was still elite. Jacksonville had the 4th best scoring defense (19.8 PPG), and didn’t need to over-correct the course drastically. They just needed a quarterback. The Jags released Bortles a year after signing him to an extension, and this time decided to fish in the free agent waters for a QB. Who better to sign than a Super Bowl champion in Nick Foles? Mistake three.
The Jaguars admittedly didn’t have many options, and they clearly didn’t like any of the quarterbacks coming out in the draft that year. Looking back, who can blame them. However, even given all Foles’ success in Philly – the NFL had already tried this experiment. Anywhere outside the Eagles organization, Foles had been bad. So bad to the point he nearly retired before his historic Super Bowl run – but Coughlin and co. thought they could capitalize on his success. They signed him to be the starter in 2019, and it turned out to be the beginning of the end. Foles was hurt in the opener, and the bad taste the ’18 season left in Jacksonville’s mouth was back just like that. They plunged through another dark fall, en route to a 6-10 record, just a single game better than their abysmal 2018.
The fourth and most crucial mistake the Jaguars made wasn’t necessarily an event. It was their inability to purge dysfunction from the locker room. Coughlin was never a player’s coach, and he wasn’t a player’s executive either. Before the ’19 season began, Coughlin criticized his players publicly for missing voluntary OTA’s. Throughout training camp, he also had very public spats with Yannick Ngakoue and Jalen Ramsey over contract extensions. The players hated being there, and Coughlin more than played his role in that. He shipped off both Dante Fowler and Ramsey to L.A. It’s fine to not get along with your players, but Coughlin let his disdain for his players eek into his decision-making. Keep in mind he was the top personnel executive – not a coach. Imagine Howie Roseman getting in a public dispute with Jason Peters, or Ozzie Newsome having a knock-down, drag-out with Ray Lewis. Functional organizations don’t handle business that way, and it’s clear now that Coughlin’s behavior in that regard is likely what got him fired this past December.
The Jags are hitting the reset button - again. GM Dave Caldwell is back in the driver’s seat as the final say so in personnel, which Jags fans can’t be thrilled about. Since the firing of Coughlin, it’s been painfully obvious ownership is going full Miami Dolphins in their rebuild effort. They traded A.J. Bouye to Denver, Calais Campbell to Baltimore, Nick Foles to Chicago, and both Yannick Ngakoue and Leonard Fournette are sure to be close behind. From the 2017 defense alone they’ve lost: Calais Campbell, Malik Jackson, Dante Fowler, Telvin Smith, Jalen Ramsey, and A.J. Bouye. All except Smith, who left football for undisclosed reasons, are still significant contributors in the league today.
So, where does Jacksonville go from here? The way I see it, they have a year to get it figured out, but they’ve already made some head-scratching decisions if they want to start over – which they very clearly do. Caldwell hasn’t proven he can lead the personnel department at all, which is why ownership felt the need to bring Coughlin into the fold in the first place. Retaining him instead of starting fresh seems out of place, especially considering they need a culture change. They also decided to hold onto Marrone as coach, which is fair. Of all parties at play, Marrone is least to blame for Jacksonville’s floundering the past two years. He’s proven he can win if the team is good, even if his QB is Blake Bortles. However, if ownership decides to hire a new coach after what will likely be another losing season – it’s malpractice. The necessary changes to hit reset should be occurring right now.
The Jags will trot out QB Gardner Minshew with one of the worst rosters in football this season in an effort to accumulate draft capital and start fresh. If all goes according to plan, they’ll spend what they hope is a high first round pick on their QB of the future, while drafting and acquiring other pieces to gear up for 2021. This past off-season they tried to jump-start the defense again, taking EDGE K’Lavon Chaisson and CB C.J. Henderson, who they hope will become cornerstone players. They also took a chance on WR Laviska Shenault, who could become the top target for their future franchise QB if he’s successful as a rookie – similar to what Denver was able to do with Courtland Sutton and Drew Lock.
The rise and fall of Sacksonville was meteoric and volatile. They disappeared from relevancy as quickly as they arrived. They should’ve been competitive for years and examining the why is key. To avoid repeating their mistakes, the Jaguars must implement a stronger foundation from the top of the organization down. Only time will tell if they changes they’ve made have done that, or if the carousel of mediocrity will continue to spin round.