Speculation and debate runs rampant this time of year. During this dead period of the NFL preseason the biggest team news usually includes how someone coming off a down season is looking sharp and revampted or how a veteran is looking youthful and energetic again, as if we should expect trained professionals that are getting paid millions to look anything else but stellar in basic drills.
All 32 NFL teams consider themselves Super Bowl contenders in June. The sun is shining, injuries are minimal, and holes have been filled from last year’s rosters that are the missing pieces in everyone’s journey to the big game. Every playoff team is poised to go further and those that missed the playoffs have the pieces in place to make a charge at the division title.
The reason all teams have this outlook is that every season follows the same script. There are always a few teams that ascend from the cellar to the penthouse and one or two unfortunate franchises whose heavenly expectations come crashing back to Earth. This repetitive nature of the NFL is what makes it so great, because it isn’t what is going to happen but who it is going to happen to that piques so much interest.
Among the many roles that are filled by teams each season, the “picked to go 5-11 team that finishes 11-5” is one that should interest the Jacksonville Jaguars this year. There are countless reasons why “experts” have and will continue to predict the Jaguars to have a season similar to 2011. Having been ESPN’s punching bag for the past few seasons, the Jaguars will certainly continue to receive the same criticism until consistent results take place on the field. That being said, and in honor of Speculation Season 2012, I believe the Jaguars will emulate the 49ers from a year ago and take the division by storm.
This time last year, the San Francisco 49ers had a new head coach at the helm. hell-bent on changing the culture of the team. Jim Harbaugh had brief but significant history of developing young quarterbacks and arrived in San Fran with a rocky quarterback situation. The incumbent, Alex Smith, had yet to play to expectations and had the fan base debating on whether he was the guy that could lead their team to the Promised Land.
Elsewhere on the team, the 49ers defense was coming off an excellent performance the previous season and strengthened their pass rush in the draft. They had Pro Bowl-caliber running back Frank Gore returning and upgraded the position by bringing in Kendall Hunter to share carries and contrast Gore’s hard-running style.
The 49ers’ division, the NFC West, was in flux. The Cardinals brought in an overhyped, unproven quarterback in Kevin Kolb to fill the hole left by departed hall of famer Kurt Warner. The young and inexperienced Rams scared no one and the 2010 division-winning Seahawks were consistently inconsistent, as they had been for many seasons prior.
The similarities between the 2011 49ers and the 2012 Jacksonville Jaguars are hard to ignore. Mularkey is coming from a situation where he worked first hand with promising young quarterback Matt Ryan and is entering one with struggling young quarterback Blaine Gabbert who has yet to have the influence and expertise of a quarterback-focused head coach. He is changing the culture in Jacksonville, recently cancelling the Oklahoma Drill that was a staple during the Jack Del Rio era. Maurice Jones-Drew is returning stronger than ever and a healthy Rashad Jennings will help add depth to the running game. The Jaguars defense is coming off a top 10 performance and only got stronger by adding pass-rushing threat Andre Branch through the draft and retaining the starters from 2011.
The AFC South is as wide open as it has been in a decade. The Colts bring in golden boy Andrew Luck to fill in for departed legend Peyton Manning and expect the unproven rookie to somehow improve a disastrous team on both sides of the ball. The Titans are a legitimate wild card, still having to decide to go with young and inexperienced Jake Locker or 120 year old Matt Hasselbeck. Their defense lost All Pro defensive back Cortland Finnegan and wide receiver Kenny Britt is poised to injure himself on every snap. 2011 division champion Texans finally put together a consistent season on both sides of the ball and made the playoffs. They follow that up by losing their two best defensive playmakers in Mario Williams and DeMeco Ryans. Replacing that kind of production is a real gamble and with Andre Johnson coming off multiple leg injuries, Matt Schaub returning from season-ending foot surgery, and the potential for Arian Foster to become a complacent runner now that he has his big contract a la Chris Johnson, there is not much to rest easy on with Houston.
Then come the Jaguars. A top 10 defense that is returning all starters and adding two-time Super Bowl champion Aaron Ross and pass-rushing blue chipper Andre Branch. Maurice Jones-Drew returns as the current top running back in the game with his young ward Rashad Jennings back to add depth. The flawed passing game upgrades with the addition of wide receivers Laurent Robinson, Lee Evans, and Jack Daniel… I mean Justin Blackmon. The hungry new coaching staff paired with a full offseason should almost certainly improve Blaine Gabbert’s performance from his forgettable rookie year.
I may have teal blinders on, but when I look at the 2012 Jaguars and their division, I find it hard to argue that they won’t compete for the division title. The pieces are in place for Gene Smith’s “Master Plan” to finally gain traction and deliver results in its fourth year. The Jaguars are the only team in the AFC South that isn’t trying to fill glaring needs left from free agency. The Jaguars are the only team in the division with no more excuses. Like the 49ers from a year ago, this Jaguars team is ready to buckle up their chin straps and hit teams in the mouth, blow up the scoreboard, and shift the power of the division to northeast Florida.
– Lionel Joel
Tags: Aaron Ross AFC South AFC South Title Alex Smith Andre Branch Andrew Luck Arian Foster Atlanta Falcons Blaine Gabbert Cortland Finnegan DeMeco Ryans E3 Frank Gore Houston Texans Indianapolis Colts Jack Daniel's Jack Del Rio Jacksonville Jaguars Jake Locker Justin Blackmon Kendall Hunter Kenny Britt Kevin Kolb Laurent Robinson Lee Evans Mario Williams Matt Hasselbeck Matt Ryan Maurice Jones-drew Mike Mularkey NFC West NFC West Title Pete Carroll Peyton Manning Preseason Rashad Jennings San Francisco 49ers Seattle Seahawks Super Bowl