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Same Old Jaguars

By Scott Manze

 

“Rat Poison” is the phrase Nick Saban uses to describe it. Doug Pederson even admitted to it in the postgame after the Jaguars second-straight home set-back (and sixth in a row to the lowly, rebuilding Texans in The Bank). Is the biggest thing to blame for the team’s struggles so far this season really just a simple case of “reading the press clippings”?


We’ve seen this script before (perhaps this is a by-product of the Hollywood writer’s strike, though doesn’t the schedule release promo for the team seem kind of ironic now?). The Jacksonville Jaguars, fresh off of a surprise division title and playoff trip the year before seemed primed to take the next step. Young, ascending QB? Check. The addition of playmakers in the offseason to support him? Done. A division featuring rivals either rebuilding or watching their window for contention close? Yup, had that too. It all seemed to be laid out perfectly for this group. And everyone said so.


There is part of this equation that does have to take into consideration who the main characters of this play are. Most notably, the franchise itself, which has not stacked together consecutive winning seasons since 2004-05 and have not been to the playoffs in back-to-back seasons since a stretch of four-straight appearances from 1996-99, when the entire operation was so new it did not know any better. Which is sort of the point of this entire exercise, right?


Early success was unexpected and fun. The Jags really had no right to be as good as they were so quickly. It was like the rookie who comes into the league and takes it by storm because it does not know any better than to play free and loose and leave it all out there, success or failure be damned. The 1999 season ended with the best team in franchise history losing in the AFC Championship game as a favorite, and it felt like the freewheeling, upstart nature of the club died at the conclusion of that season as well.


Since then, there have been just four playoff appearances in the ensuing 23 seasons, though there have been some wins to make them memorable at least, capturing wild card round victories in 2007 and 2022, and the miracle run to the conference title game in 2017. The follow-up to those seasons? Not so great. The combined record is 19-32 in the three full campaigns and this year’s partial one so far. The common thread? No longer having the freedom to sneak up on people.


This offseason was not unfamiliar to fans of the Jaguars, but it was unique it its own way. Sure, there was the whole “one-play away” and “Myles Jack wasn’t down” fervor following the 2017 season, but deep down, I believe most fans felt that it was a tenuous situation at best. The QB was not the guy, the offense relied on big plays and a defense that capitalized on turnover luck to score plenty of points itself. I’m not an analytics guy, and even I know that is not really sustainable from one season to the next. This year’s storyline tracked a little closer to the tale going into the 2008 campaign, in which they were even picked to go to the Super Bowl by some national pundits, including Mike Greenburg of ESPN’s enormously popular Mike & Mike in the Morning radio show at the time. Ultimately, a QB that had avoided turnovers to a historic level and an injured and fractured bunch under questionable leadership fell on its face the next year, the beginning of the end for Jack Del Rio and company and arguably the start of the wilderness that the franchise has wandered through for the last 15 years.


This season felt different. The quarterback is different. Same with the Super Bowl-winning head coach. And the path was easier. Still, why have things not gone according to plan? No one knows the answer for certain, and it almost has to be a collection of many things, all coming together. Ultimately, the biggest one seems to be pressure. A fanbase, starving for a winner. A media group, which locally has no other big fish in town to have to split coverage with and can and will cover every step (and misstep) of this team ad nauseum. The result is a collection of players who seem so desperate to make a play every time out, they end up making a mistake even more often.

Haven't seen a lot of smiles from these two so far this year.

There are other franchises going through this as well. Ask Buffalo what it is like to think Super Bowl or bust in recent years (and have busted in their quest each time so far). Or Cincinnati. Or Cleveland. Or, even this year, Detroit. It is not easy to build a winner in the NFL. It is even harder to live up to the lofty expectations that come after you manage to do so.


After the Kansas City game, I did not feel a sense of doom and gloom. It certainly felt like a missed opportunity, but one that could ultimately lead to a learning experience. Seven days later, the feeling is different. Now, I sense a team, and ultimately, a franchise, that is stuck in a pressure cooker that it keeps turning the heat up on itself. Part of me still believes that one big release, one big performance, one quality start that snowballs into a day of reckoning for an opponent, could free this group up to realize its true potential, and get back on-track to achieving its lofty goals. For now, perhaps a chance to get away from the spotlight, which at home has to feel more like a naked lightbulb in an interrogation room, and figure out some things across the pond the next few weeks. If the team doesn’t, then consider this the latest chapter in what has long-been a sad, repetitive series about the Jacksonville Jaguars.


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