WINDS OF CHANGE: What do you get after three straight losing seasons and a so-so 53.1 percent winning percentage in eight years as head coach? Very little job security.
To rejuvenate the Jaguars organization and fan base, CEO Wayne Weaver fired the Jaguars' first-ever head coach Tom Coughlin and replaced him with Jack Del Rio. In Del Rio, the Jaguars have a fiery and dedicated former NFL linebacker who demands respect and has had success as a defensive coordinator with the Carolina Panthers.
Unfortunately, the new approach Del Rio has brought to Jacksonville has yielded the same old results. With already three losses against the Carolina Panthers, Buffalo Bills and Indianapolis Colts in this young 2003 season, the Jaguars are well on their way to their fourth consecutive losing season.
The Jaguars' early troubles can be partially attributed to their team chemistry. The toughest task for new head coaches is to implement their system and quickly develop a rapport and a level of comfort with their new team. It is even more difficult when a coach adopts players that have not spent significant time playing together, or in the NFL.
On defense, Del Rio starts two free agent linebackers, a free agent defensive end, one rookie safety and three other players that have a combined four years of NFL experience. On the other side of the ball, the Jaguars start two free agent wide receivers, as well as two offensive tackles and a guard that have played a total of three years in the NFL.
While critics may contend that the Jaguars have too big of a hole to dig themselves out of, there is hope if you're a Jaguars fan. Wide receiver Jimmy Smith will return later in the season from a suspension, and running back Fred Taylor has stayed healthy and shown flashes of brilliance. If Del Rio's style of play as an NFL linebacker is any indicator of how he coaches, the Jaguars will fight to the bitter end, no matter what the scoreboard says.
END OF THE ROAD? With their first-round pick in the 2003 NFL Draft, the Jaguars selected Marshall quarterback Byron Leftwich despite already having the services of three-time Pro Bowl quarteback Mark Brunell on their roster. With the high selection of Leftwich, everything pointed toward an out-with-the-old, in-with-the-new quarterback scenario in Jacksonville. However, Brunell won the starting quarterback job during training camp. It is important to note, however, that Leftwich hurt his own cause by holding out and missing a significant chunk of the preseason.
Brunell, who has thrown for 484 yards, 2 touchdowns and no interceptions this year, is joined in the backfield by five-year veteran running back Fred Taylor. Talent has never been Taylor's problem - staying on the field has. Through last season and three games into this year, he has remained uncharacteristically healthy. He is currently averaging 5.1 yards per carry on 53 attempts and he leads the Jaguars with 13 catches.
With the absence of Smith, the Jaguars have had to make up for his production with a patchwork bunch of wide receivers. J.J. Stokes arrived in Florida after eight mostly under-achieving years with the San Francisco 49ers.
Opposite Stokes is Matthew Hatchette, who the Jaguars signed after he completely outplayed the competition during the 2003 NFL Europe season. With the Amsterdam Admirals, Hatchette made 61 catches for 790 yards with 7 touchdowns. Currently, he leads the Jaguars with a modest 117 yards receiving and two touchdowns.
The Jaguars recently signed wide receiver Troy Edwards, who should provide some added depth. He spent last season with the St. Louis Rams, where he caught 18 passes.
The Jaguars' offensive line is not overpowering and they are extremely
young. Between the five starters, they only share 12 years of NFL experience. Durable guard Chris Naeole leads the line. He has started every game but one during the past five years.
**BUILDING A FORCE:** All of Del Rio's past coaching experience has been on the defensive side of the ball. As a result, since his arrival he has put serious emphasis on bringing in players that fit into his defensive philosophy.
The biggest defensive acquisition of the Jaguars, and maybe the NFL, was when they signed three-time Pro Bowl defensive end Hugh Douglas from the Philadelphia Eagles. Douglas had 12.5 sacks for the Eagles in 2002 and was one of the main reasons why their defense ranked fourth in the NFL last season.
Other than Douglas, who already has one sack this year, the Jaguars signed linebackers Mike Peterson and Keith Mitchell from the Colts and the Texans, respectively. Peterson, who has started 54 of the 57 games that he played in during his NFL career, led the Colts in tackles last year and currently ranks third on the Jaguars with 15 tackles.
Defensive end Tony Brackens is the Jaguars best returning player on defense. Along with Douglas, the Jaguars have arguably the
best defensive end duo in the AFC. The seven-year veteran has one Pro Bowl to his credit and leads the Jaguars with two sacks through three games.
The Jaguars' secondary is a serious liability. Starting cornerbacks Fernando Bryant and Jason Craft are mediocre at best. In 55 starts, Bryant has just four interceptions, while Craft is only in his second year as a starting cornerback.
At free safety is rookie Rashean Mathis. Apparently, the Jaguars liked Mathis enough to say goodbye to their 2002 interception leader Marlon McCree, who they released last week and has since joined the Texans.
**HOPING FOR THE BEST:** Compared to what the Texans have faced the past two weeks against the New Orleans Saints and the Kansas City Chiefs, the Jaguars' special teams do not seem too intimidating.
Former Texans' returner Jermaine Lewis has a torn anterior cruciate ligament and will miss the remainder of the season. As a result, second-year running back David Allen will be the primary returner, with rookie running back LaBrandon Toefield getting an opportunity as well. In the first three games, Toefield shared kickoff return duties with Lewis, averaging 22.9 yards on seven returns.
Punter Chris Hanson returns after a Pro Bowl year in 2002. He led the AFC in both gross and net punting. Rookie place kicker Seth Marler will handle all other kicking duties. So far, he has only converted four out of the eight field goals that he has attempted.
**ON THE ROPES:** With three straight defeats to begin the season, fans have become restless. Brunell, once a fan favorite, has drawn ire in spite of putting up solid numbers. With the reaching the playoffs a stretch, fans want to see the future - in other words, Leftwich.
With the Jaguars' remaining schedule, those calls for Leftwich may continue throughout the season.
The Jaguars still have remaining games versus the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Indianapolis Colts, New Orleans Saints and the Miami Dolphins at home. They also have to travel to face the Atlanta Falcons and New England Patriots. Above all, they have not began their home-and-away series against the Tennessee Titans.
For the Jaguars to have any hope of making the playoffs, they must win at least nine of those games, which seems highly unlikely considering none of those teams are pushovers.
Ultimately, the Jaguars' season should be judged on how well Del Rio establishes a team identity and develops talent and chemistry. If Jacksonville fans can stay patient, the Jaguars' future looks bright. However, that might be asking too much after three straight losing seasons.