Quo Vadis Jacksonville Jaguars?

When Gene Smith took over as General Manager of the Jacksonville Jaguars, he said he needed about 4 years to make this team a competitive unit year in and year out. In his 4th year, this team looks like a total mess. After 6 weeks the Jaguars are last in 3 major offensive categories (points, total yards, passing) and in 1 defensive area (sacks). Right now there is maybe no other team in the NFL which is worse than the Jaguars. This team hasn’t played well for a full 60 minutes in ’12 (they’ve maybe had three good halves).  The team has lost at home 3 times and those losses were all blowouts with a combined score of 20-95. Why is this happening?  Is there any hope?  Here’s my take.

It’s amazing what a change of scenery can do for a safety like Nelson.  Source: Fernando Medina-US PRESSWIRE

When Gene Smith took over the Jaguars had major issues in the pass rush, the team and it’s QB were far too inconsistent, some key players got old on defense, the WR position was a mess, as well as the safeties, both lines had holes (LT was a major problem), and some players had off the field issues over and over again. In conclusion this team lacked talent. Yet even with the best draft class Gene Smith put together in his 4 years with some smart FA signings (Torry Holt and Tra Thomas), the Jaguars entered their final four games at 7-5 and had a decent shot at a wild card. They did that without any pass rush (they had a franchise low 14 sacks in ’09), with terrible safety play (FS Reggie Nelson was everyone’s “favorite” player, not to mention Brian Russell as starting SS for a while). The Jaguars lost their final 4 games, and finished 7-9, but there were plenty of reasons to be optimistic. Maurice Jones-Drew became a real starting RB, the drafted rookies (plus Russell Allen) contributed – Derek Cox was the team ‘s interception leader, Terrance Knighton looked like a lock for the next couple of years as a fixture at DT, Monroe and Britton started to play well  in the 2nd half of the season, Mike Thomas and Rashad Jennings looked like really good backups. It even looked like the Jaguars had finally found a true Nr. 1 WR in Mike Sims-Walker. Although the fanbase had issues with the head coach and QB (remember this was season with the 9 blackouts thanks to the disaster ’08 season and the recesion) it looked like Wayne Weaver made the right call to promote Gene Smith as the GM and the future looked bright.

In ’10 the Jaguars main focues was totally understandable – improve the pass rush. They hired d-line coach Joe Cullen, signed the first relativly big name in the Gene Smith era in free agency with DE Aaron Kampman and drafted 4 defensive linemen with their first 4 picks in the 2010 draft. Sadly, none of the 5 players became what the Jaguars hoped. Kampman had 8 great games with 4 sacks and plenty of Qb hits, but tore his other ACL and was never be the same again. From the 4 picks the Jaguars got little production. Larry Hart was cut after 1 season. D’Anthony Smith was on IR in his first 2. Austen Lane has injury issues (though he is showing signs of being a decent backup with starter potential). The their is the shocking pick of Tyson Alualu.  He has never missed a game, despite playing with a bad knee (thanks to a really stupid Oklahoma Drill injury) for the first 2 seasons. In ’10 he looked like he was worth the 10th overall pick. He had 3.5 sacks and was selected to the all rookie team. He was (and still is) good against the run, and everyone thought he and Knighton would be the new Stroud and Henderson in the Gene Smith era. Sadly that knee injury is really limiting Tyson, who is doing exactly what he did in his rookie year: good against the run, but not much of a threat in the pass rush (and he was drafted to be that). The Jaguars wanted him to become what Geno Atkins is (from the same draft calss selected in the 4th round with the 120th pick) today: a major threat to the QB. Since Alualu’s knee had a microfracture injury, which is basically a killshot for linemen, the Jaguars might never get the production they hoped for. So in both Kampman and Alualu’s case the team had bad luck. As for the rest of the draft pick,s other than maybe Austen Lane, Gene Smith blew it. He drafted 2 returners, both of whom weren’t worth it. He traded a 4th round pick for Kirk Morrison to be the anchor and leader of the defense at MLB. He became a leader at the LBs, but production was just not there and the Jaguars let him go after 1 year.

If only the Jaguars had been able to beat the Colts in 2010 like they did this year…Source: Thomas J. Russo-US PRESSWIRE

The ’10 season was by far the best in the Gene Smith era, despite some QB issues early (Garrard was benched in Week 2, but Luke McCown tore his ACL in that game, had a horrible MNF performance and a concussion) and inconsistency by the team overall (a trademark of the Jack Del Rio era). Yet in the second half the Jaguars became red hot.  After being 3-4 and looking like a mess, they won 5 out of the next 6 (the only loss was in New York against the Giants, who won the game in the last few minutes). At 8-5 the Jaguars were 1 win away from becoming AFC South division champions and make the post season for the first time since ’07. But Maurice Jones-Drew’s knee was injured again in the last victory against Oakland and he was not the same player in Indianapolis when the Jaguars lost the “AFC South Title Game”. Then they lost in overtime at home against a bad Redskins team, and then without Jones-Drew and the injured Garrard they had no chance in the last game vs the Texans. The Jaguars finished 8-8, and despite Garrard throwing a franchise TD record (25), the fanbase wanted a new starting QB and head coach. Also the defense needed a facelift, since in many times and cases they could not stop anybody. The safety play was horrible (Don Carey became the new Reggie Nelson). Justin Durant, who was in his contract year, had concusion issues.  As mentioned previously, Kirk Morrison did not fulfill expectations so the Jaguars cut him.. Mike Sims-Walker had a season similar to Durant and his contract wasn’t extended in the offseason.

Is this kid really the answer?  Source: Phil Sears-US PRESSWIRE

In year 3 of the Gene Smith era, the rebuilding got the most important piece of the puzzle – it’s QB, Blaine Gabbert. The Jaguars also spent almost $100 million in free agency exclusively on the defense. They brought in Paul Posluszny, Dawan Landry, Clint Session, Dwight Lowery, and Drew Coleman and defensive coordinator Mel Tucker became fully responsible for the defensive playcalling. But despite the defense jumping from 31st to 6th the season was a disaster thanks to a perfect storm situation. The lockout, the lame duck coaching situation (other than Jack Del Rio everybody had 1 year contracts), the bad offensive coach decisions (Johnny Cox and Mike Sheppard as WR and QB coach) were bad signs before the season. Releasing Garrard 5 days before the season, then starting the totally unprepared Blaine Gabbert after a bad game by Luke McCown, with no help at all from the WRs and Marcedes Lewis in the passing game resulted in the second worst offensive ranking in total offense and pass offense and a 5-11 record. The Jaguars were the best proof that defense and the best RB performance in the NFL is not enough to succeed. During the season Wayne Weaver fired Jack Del Rio, extended Gene Smith and sold the team to Shahid Khan (the 1st owner of the Jaguars did this in 1 day).

Before this season, the Jaguars brought in an almost new coaching stuff lead by new head coach Mike Mularkey, offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski, QB coach Greg Olson and WR coach Jerry Sullivan. Gene Smith drafted the best WR prospect in Justin Blackmon, a new much needed pass rusher in Andre Branch, and, thanks to the major issues at punter position in ’11, Bryan Anger. In free agency the Jaguars signed Laurent Robinson as their new X receiver and Aaron Ross to compete at the CB position. After the preseason games it looked like the offense (which was concern Nr. 1) was competitive even without Maurice Jones-Drew. But the regular season has showed us a different story. I know injuries have piled up on both sides of the ball (offlensive line, DE position, Daryl Smith, Derek Cox and Rashad Jennings) but the Jaguars might be the worst football team right now in the entire NFL. I know it’s harsh, but I don’t think this team would beat without any question the Chiefs, the Browns, the Titans, and Sunday’s opponent, the Raiders. So we are in  Year 4 of the rebuilding, and the Jaguars now have the look of a team which will draft in the Top 5 (maybe Top 3) next spring instead of being a legitimate playoff contender. What are the reasons for this fallout? Here are some of them:

Alualu isn’t the impact player Smith was hoping for when he drafted him.  Source:  Fernando Medina-US PRESSWIRE

One of them is obvious – bad drafting. And that’s really bad because Gene Smith was (and sometimes still is) a scout. I never thought I would write this, but Shack Harris had more impressive drafts than Smith in 4 years. Sure Harris had bad 1st round misses like Reggie Williams, Matt Jones and Byron Leftwich, but he also drafted impact players who contributed in a high level right away. In year 4 of the Harris era, Rashean Mathis had an All-Pro season. Daryl Smith, Josh Scobee and Greg Jones were major contributors. In ’06, Harris had his best draft by far with Marcedes Lewis and Maurice Jones-Drew. Some of the Harris draft picks where  impact players from the very early days. Something which is very rare in the Gene Smith era. Some of the players from the ’09 draft could produce that (Knighton and Cox both made all-rookie teams). Since then only Alualu has made the all-rookie team.  The jury is out on the ’12 picks (and Bryan Anger is making his case to be sure), but that is not much. The two best Gene Smith picks right now are Eugene Monroe and Derek Cox. Both players really found their feet after year two or three.  Meanwhile JJ Watt (who has played in 22 games so far) is considered as a serious candidate as defensive player of the year,  if not MVP. I haven’t even mentioned the (mostly small school) busts who are just not producing (Jarett Dillard, Larry Hart, Deji Karim, Scotty McGee, Rod Isaac, Chris Prosinksi, and I guess we can put Brandon Marshall and Mike Harris on this list as well).  Other than Rashard Jennings and maybe Austen Lane, Gene Smith has picked busts in the later rounds. To be fair with him, the GM has found some gems among the UDFAs through the years: Russell Allen, Cameron Bradfield, Mike Brewster, Kevin Elliott, Antwon Blake). Bottom line is other than maybe Eugene Monroe (Derek Cox is injured too often to call a home run) Gene Smith hasn’t hit a home run in the draft, which  speaks for itself, especially when the GM’s calling card is that he is a scout.

Kampman looked good in teal!  Source:  US-Presswire

Another problem is the big free agent whiffs. Aaron Kampman was a gamble which looked very good after 8 games, but now looks to be one of the biggest financial busts of the franchise. To be fair Kampman was a great leader on the D-line and a 2nd line coach for the young players even when he was injured. Another sad case is Clint Session, who will most likely never play another snap in the NFL because of his concussion problems. He was a huge investment and I think the Jaguars must reach a decent injury settlement with him considering he will face serious health problems the rest of his life. It’s still very early, but Laurent Robinson could be the next high priced free agent who’s career is ravaged by injury. Robinson has suffered 3 concussions since August. It’s still early, but neither Aaron Ross nor (and I hate to say this) the two starting safties bring great performance to the table. Landry and Lowery played every snap until the Bears game, Lowery now will miss some time due to injury. He, and especially Landry, don’t stand out as above average players. Ross is now a nickel corner also (and looks like he’ll be a punt returner too). Free agents under Gene Smith bring limited success at best.

The biggest issue by far is the development of Blaine Gabbert. In my article back in the summer I gave him a pass for his rookie year mostly because his situation was everything but ideal. He should’ve learned behind Garrard with much better coaches, receivers, and protection. The media labeled him soft and afraid of the pass rush. Yet he never complained about it and worked as hard as he can. This year is a bit different. I don’t agrue that he’s improved. His footwork and pocket presence are both much improved.  Still, he has yet to have a great game where he puts the team on his shoulders and carries them to victory.  Yes, I remember his two last minute touchdown passes. Yet the game winning TD against the Colts does not stand out as his best thus far.  Instead, his best performance came in a loss to the Minnesota Vikings.  His inability to make this team win bothers me. Every starting QB from his draft class and even this rookie class has produced at least 1 game where they played the main role. Gabbert has 5 career victories. He can thank all of it either to the defense or Maurice Jones-Drew. He had his moments, but those were small roles compared to what Luck did against the Packers, or what Robert Griffin III and Brandon Weeden did this past week. Ryan Tannehill has 3 victories and his much better than anybody expected (except the Dolphins apparently), and Russell Wilson just out-dueled Tom Brady.  Those guys are all rookies. Among last year’s QB class, Andy Dalton made the playoffs, Cam Newton was offensive rookie of the year, Ponder has played well this season. The AFC South QB picks from last year (Jake Locker and T. J. Yates) showed flashes last year. Gene Smith and the Jaguars fanbase are still waiting on Gabbert.

The Jags could have waited for Locker in the draft, but they jumped for Gabbert instead.  Source:  Troy Taormina-US PRESSWIRE

Sometimes statistics don’t tell the whole story but in Gabbert case they are more than worrying. The 2nd year QB has 19 starts under his belt yet hasn’t had a single 300+ yard game or a QB rating better than 100. His best performance was against the Vikings this year with 260 passing yards and a QB rating of 96.1. That is not much. He is dead last in passing yards and although some of that is a result of drops and conservative play calling, it still worries me. Of the current starting rookies, with the exeption of Russell Wilson, every one has already had a 300 yard passing game. Wilson, a 3rd round pick, passed for 293 yards and 3 TDs with a passer rating of a 133.7 against the New England Patriots! Tannehill had a 400+ passing game already, and I think his receivers are not much better than the Jaguars have right now (although Gabbert does not have a clear Nr. 1 WR right now like Tannehill has in Brian Hartline). His development must be dramatic in the last 11 games or he and Gene Smith will be in trouble.

Despite the major issues (pass rush, run defense, pass protection, receiver production) the main issue is Gabbert’s development. Although I know what happened in Mike Mularkey’s first season as a head coach in Buffalo (the team started the season 1-4 but ended up 9-7 – the most recent positive record of the franchise), I don’t see that hapening here in Jacksonville this year. The remaining 11 games will be big. Although the Jaguars must improve in every major area, the key (and many people’s fate in the organization) is in Gabbert’s hands. If he improves and can duel with anybody in the remaining games (no matter if it’s Jake Locker/Ryan Tannehill or Matt Schaub/Tom Brady) then he and the GM will get another year and chance in ’13. If Gabbert can produce 300+ yard games and game winning drives in the 2nd half of tthe season, I say he can return for another 16 games. However if things do not improve with the young QB and this team will pick in the Top 5 I say it’s time blow up the Gene Smith rebuilding project. He must go and most likely Gabbert (and maybe Mike Mularkey) will follow him. Just as in David Garrard and Jack Del Rio’s case, Gene Smith’s fate is tied to his QB. Unless Gabbert starts to produce, many people will feel Khan’s wrath.

- Zoltan Paksa

 

Topics: Blaine Gabbert, Gene Smith, Jacksonville Jaguars, Justin Blackmon, Mike Mularkey

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