Jacksonville Jaguars (2011 record: 5-11)
What went wrong?: Jacksonville lost the final three games of the 2010 season, breaking even at 8-8, and missing the postseason. Lamentably, had the Jags beaten Indianapolis in Week 15, Jacksonville would have won the AFC South outright. Instead, the Jaguars lost 34-24, and the team from North Florida would lose out, while Indy won out.
At age 32, quarterback David Garrard had strung together one of his finest seasons. In fourteen games, Garrard posted a 64.5% completion percentage, with 23 touchdowns and a slightly unhealthy 15 interceptions. In fact, in the loss to the Colts, as well as the overtime loss a week later to Washington, Garrard put up quality numbers. It was the running game that failed Jacksonville, capped off by Maurice Jones-Drew injuring his knee against Indianapolis. He would miss his first game since 2007 the following week, an unfortunate occurrence that helped doom their playoff hopes.
Jacksonville would draft Missouri quarterback Blaine Gabbert in the first round the following April. Despite the pick, coach Jack Del Rio insisted that Garrard was his starter going into 2011.
Yeah, that’s not how it worked out.
Mere days before the season began, Garrard was cut by the Jaguars, just hours after being introduced as the team’s starter at a luncheon. Del Rio had apparently grown tired of Garrard’s inconsistency, and his play in preseason didn’t do anything to dissuade him.
Del Rio turned over the audio-helmet to journeyman Luke McCown, who led Jacksonville to victory against Tennessee in Week One, in a pedestrian, field goal-laden performance.
One week later, McCown threw four picks against the Jets, in a 32-3 loss that saw Gabbert come in to gain experience in garbage time.
Del Rio chose to roll the dice and let Gabbert take a stab at leading the team. The Rapunzel-haired rookie would go 4-10 as a starter, barely completing more than half of his passes. Gabbert never had a 300 yard game. In those fourteen games he started, he only went above 200 yards three times, peaking at 217 against the Buccaneers. He was also sacked forty times, and he fumbled the ball fourteen times. The only real positive is that he threw more touchdowns (12) than interceptions (11).
As David Garrard chose to have surgery on a herniated disc while sitting out the 2011 season, he sure had plenty of time to laugh at his ex-employer’s predicament.
Jones-Drew was the lone offensive star, capturing the league’s rushing title with 1606 yards, in addition to eight rushing touchdowns and three receiving. Sadly, Jones-Drew was tied for the team lead in receiving touchdowns with wideout Jason Hill, who only played ten games. Tight end Marcedes Lewis led the franchise in receiving yards with 460, which is a number you’d expect out of your #4 wide receiver.
Jacksonville had the fifth worst scoring offense in 2011, averaging 15.2 points per game. That’s a full touchdown worse than the previous year. Had Maurice Jones-Drew held out for the 2011 season for any reason, a team may have yet come along worse than the Columbus Panhandles (look em up).
The sad part is that the defense had greatly improved from 2010. They were the inverse of the offense, going from giving up 26.2 PPG to 20.6. From 2010 to 2011, Jacksonville had four more INTs, five more sacks, and a mind-blowing 15 more fumble recoveries (from 14 to 29). In 2010, Jacksonville had eight games in which they allowed 28 or more points. That number dropped to four in 2011.
The defense and running game did their jobs exceptionally well. Had Garrard not had the herniated disc (which one could speculate caused his putrid preseason performance), and Del Rio had the faith in him to go one more year, maybe Houston doesn’t get their first playoff berth.
What have they done to fix it?: Irony as a story device slapped Jack Del Rio hard last fall. The man who criticized Garrard for inconsistent play would watch his team lose its 2010 identity, and would be fired in mid-season, after a loss to the Texans sunk Jacksonville to 3-8. Defensive coordinator Mel Tucker guided the ship the rest of the way, garnering two more wins (one less than Del Rio). For his resurrection of a shaky defense, Tucker, a disciple of Romeo Crennel, would be retained as defensive coordinator for 2012, with additional title of “assistant head coach.”
The man he’ll now answer to is Mike Mularkey, who has a penchant for gadget plays and a power running attack. In other words, Maurice Jones-Drew couldn’t have found a better soulmate on Match.com.
As offensive coordinator in Pittsburgh a decade ago, Mularkey not only employed a beastly running assault with Jerome Bettis, Amos Zereoue, and Chris Fuamatu-Ma’afala, but he also favored plenty of end arounds, and option passes from wideout Antwaan Randle-El. In two of those seasons, Pittsburgh was in the top ten in both yards and points.
Those three seasons came with previous NFL washout Tommy Maddox under center.
In Atlanta, Mularkey was the offensive commandant for four years under Mike Smith. During that stretch, Michael Turner (there’s that power running game) ran for 1300 yards three times (peaking at 1699 in 2008), and the team ranked the top ten in points scored three out of the four years.
In other words, Mularkey’s demonstrated the capability of putting together a unique blend of brutality and finesse on offense. He can provide whatever it takes to get Blaine Gabbert comfortable, and mask his weaknesses.
Gabbert will be pushed by former Dolphins quarterback Chad Henne, who has strung together some consistent performances, marred only by his tendency to throw lots of picks. If Gabbert needs more time, Mularkey could certainly build the offense around the four year veteran, and let the sophomore sit by the learning tree some more.
But whoever gets the starting job will be imbued with perhaps the deepest group of receivers in Jacksonville since the days of Jimmy Smith and Keenan McCardell. Oklahoma State’s Justin Blackmon went fifth in the draft to the River City. One of his biggest skills is his ability to turn bad passes into catches, which should suit the sketchy quarterbacks in Jacksonville nicely. His physical style, along with his ability to excel at both sideline and slot, provides many openings for Mularkey to apply his mad scientist approach to the offense.
In addition to Blackmon, Jacksonville still has the pint-sized Mike Thomas at their disposal, along with two other helpful additions: Laurent Robinson, who comes off a career year in Dallas where he had eleven touchdowns, and Lee Evans, who comes off an unproductive year in Buffalo, but can serve well in four receiver sets with the Jaguars.
Mularkey’s devotion to his offensive feng shui arrangement hasn’t led to him ignoring the defense. The team used its second round pick on defensive end Andre Branch of Clemson, who’s the favorite to replace the injury-prone Aaron Kampman, who was released shortly thereafter. Two time Super Bowl Champion with the Giants Aaron Ross was also signed, who had a stellar 2011 after two injury-plagued seasons prior to that.
2012 outlook: The AFC South may be the hardest division to predict. You could probably rule out Indianapolis, unless Andrew Luck finds himself in a Matt Ryan/Joe Flacco predicament, which doesn’t seem likely. Houston’s grip on the division title isn’t all that firm, with Tennessee finishing just slightly behind them in 2011, and Jacksonville working to restore balance to a team that’s lacked it in Del Rio’s final years.
Don’t count Jacksonville out of anything. In some years, there’s that odd, never-mentioned team that wins the division, and the talking heads on Fox, CBS, and elsewhere seem stunned by the development. Jacksonville isn’t guaranteed anything, but if Mularkey sparks the offense with his unorthodox approach, they’ll be in position to fight for the AFC South title.