By: Rajan Nanavati
The more and more I watch football, the more and more it’s become apparent: somewhere around 80% of the things we think we know after the first month of the season are dead wrong.
For instance: with a 3-1 record, and the one loss coming in a wonky game against a division rival, the Jacksonville Jaguars looked like they were not only the front-runner for back-to-back AFC South division crowns, but a strong contender to make another run deep into the AFC playoffs.
Fast forward to Thanksgiving weekend, and you’d be hard-pressed to find a team in a more rapid tailspin than those same Jaguars. Since beating the New York Jets on September 30th, and holding them to less than 180 yards of total offense, the Jaguars have lost their last six games in a row, going from the top of the AFC South standings to dead last in the division, two full games behind the 3rd place Tennessee Titans
One of those “elusive obvious” situations that often gets lost on NFL media types and fans alike is the fact that it’s a lot easier to be “the hunter” than “the hunted.” Coming into 2017, the Jaguars were a 3-13 team that had overhauled its entire front office and organizational philosophy. They were retaining their interim head coach from the year before, had a major question mark at the quarterback position, and featured an admittedly talented but still unproven defense. It was easy for them to sneak up on unsuspecting teams that continued to think of them as “the same old lousy Jaguars.”
The confluence of events that took place in 2017 were damn near perfect. Jacksonville’s defense turned into one of the most suffocating pass defenses in recent history, featuring a lethal pass rush with just their front four guys, and a secondary featuring two of the best cornerbacks in the NFL. On offense, they bludgeoned teams with rookie running back Leonard Fournette, and minimized the chances for self-inflicted damage that quarterback Blake Bortles could cause.
This year, it’s been the exact opposite. The Jaguars have been without Fournette for most of the year due to a nagging hamstring injury, and thus have had to put the ball in Bottles’ hand more often. In the first half of 2017, Bortles averaged less than 30 passing attempts per game; this year, he’s throwing just under 35 attempts per game. More importantly, he’s making the same horrible decisions that make every Jaguars’ staff member and fan want to smash their head into a cement brick.
After spending the offseason giving every interview he could and publicly declaring himself to be even greater than sliced bread, while also publicly excoriating every quarterback he’s ever gone up against, Jaguars’ cornerback Jalen Ramsey has been the perfect metaphor for Jacksonville’s defense this year: not as good as everyone thinks they are, and more importantly, not as good as they think they are.
Jacksonville’s passing defense, which finished #1 in FootballOutsiders.com’s DVOA metric last year, is currently ranked 7th. That’s not bad, but that’s not as lethal as what we though it should be. After tallying an NFL-high 55 sacks last year, the Jaguars are on pace to finish with less than 34, which is a 38% dropoff.
Jacksonville’s most recent loss to Pittsburgh this past Sunday, when they blew a 16-0 3rd-quarter lead, only to lose 20-16, had to be an absolute gut punch. They had 179 yards rushing, limited Bortles to throwing only 18 passes, held Steelers’ running back James Conner to only 25 yards rushing, picked off Ben Roethlisberger three times, and still lost the game. In other words, they executed their blueprint for success almost flawlessly, and it still wasn’t enough.
Understandably, this team faces a lot of questions both over the remainder of the year, and entering the offseason. Can they salvage this season, with a slate that features a handful of tough opponents after Thanksgiving? If not, what’s the future of this team at quarterback? And what are they going to do with Ramsey, who’s slowly turning into a life-force-draining malcontent?
As of right now, the Jaguars are the latest individuals to find out why many people joke that the NFL secretly stands for “not for long.”