Twelve months ago the Jacksonville Jaguars were up 20-10 in the 4th quarter of the AFC Championship game versus the Patriots. A place in Super Bowl LII was almost in touching distance. Then the Patriots did what they often do best in the playoffs, the Jags offence stalled, and the match was lost 24-20.
There were plenty of positives from that season; the Jags had made the playoffs for the first time since 2007, the defence was consistently ranked as one of the best in the league (2nd only to Minnesota in average points and yards allowed) and the offense was built upon a punishing run game led by rookie back Leonard Fournette. Tom Coughlin and Doug Marrone could look back on a successful first season at the helm with buildings blocks in place to dominate the AFC South in 2018.
But instead in the 2018 season the wheels fell off and the Jags went from first to worst, finishing 5-11, despite starting the season 2-0 which included revenge against the Patriots in week 2 (31-20).
Where did it all go wrong?
The run game ground to a halt. In 2018 the Jags slipped to 19th overall in total yardage (from 1st in 2017). This was in no small part due to devastating injuries on the offensive line throughout the season and the loss of Fournette for several games after a hamstring strain in week 1 which was then aggravated in week 4. Throw in his 1-game suspension for fighting with Shaq Lawson in the week 11 Bills game and he missed 8 games, half the season. His struggles have continued in recent weeks with the Jags seeking to void the remaining financial guarantees on his contract and discussions are ongoing between Fournette and the Jags top brass in order to repair the working relationship. Controversy has seemed to follow the Jags this season and taken the focus away from the field of play, not something Tom Coughlin is in the habit of letting continue.
The deficiencies in the run game put additional pressure on the passing the ball and 2018 demonstrated to the Jags that Blake Bortles is not the answer at QB. He seems destined to be replaced but by whom? The Jags are short on cap space, they currently stand around $3M over the cap. This appears to suggest that they will not be looking in the direction of a big money Joe Flacco or Nick Foles type free agency deal, and they may need to look to the draft for their new QB. They are well placed to do so in spot number 7 with only the New York Giants ahead of them who may also be looking to fill the QB spot. The Jags have made swift moves to upgrade in the coaching roles with the most eye-catching being John DeFilippo who worked as Eagles QB coach during the 2017 run to the Super Bowl (hence the Nick Foles chatter). His season as OC with the Vikings and Kirk Cousins has taken the gloss of his reputation and the Jags will be hoping they get the QB-whisperer who is credited for his work with Foles, Wentz and Derek Carr. It will be interesting to see how his play-calling impacts on the run heavy Jags.
The defense remained strong in 2018 and was again ranked in the top 5 in categories such as points or yards allowed. However, there are upcoming decisions to be made for the contracts of some of their defensive stars. For example, edge rusher Yannick Ngakoue enters the final year of his rookie contract in 2019 and cornerback Jalen Ramsey the year after that. With the team right up against the limit they will need to creatively engineer cap space in order to keep the defensive talent on the roster.
Finally, what of the Jaguars franchise more widely. Their long-term deal to play annually in London comes to an end in 2020 – so what then? Owner Shahid Khan made a play to strengthen the relationship with the UK bidding to buy Wembley Stadium, which would probably have cemented the link for at least one home game per season in the UK. However, that deal fell through. There is a strong financial incentive for the Jags to play in London as a guaranteed 90,000 crowd secures vital revenue for a team with a smaller home following. But moving the franchise to London? That still seems a long way off and not a viable option, for the moment. Numerous teams are realising the benefits of one game in London on their schedule, due to the huge commercial success, but this still feels more suited to a one-off relationship for each team than a full-on London franchise.
So, where do the Jags go from here to secure success in 2019? In short: solve the QB position, press reset on the culture including the issues around Fournette, get the run game healthy, navigate their way through a tight current cap position, and decide on how the Jags love affair with London and the UK fans can develop after 2020. Easy right?
The Colts, Titans and Texans all made improvements this season, making the AFC South more competitive than it has been for some time. They all start the offseason in much better shape than the Jags, and there is much to do for Jacksonville in order to be ready for their 2019 campaign.
Mark or MJ has turned his love of the NFL into sharing his thoughts and opinions on twitter @47yards and on 47yards.blog – He has been a New York Giants fan since their Super Bowl wins in 1986 and 1990 (47 yards is a reference to the distance Scott Norwood missed from in 1990 for the Bills – sorry Bills fans). He enjoys all things NFL and has extended that enjoyment to College football of late, following Ohio State. He is loving seeing the growth of the NFL fan base in the UK and finds September to February is the best part of the year!
Image credit: AP