Over the past decade, team construction and dynamics have changed drastically in the National Football League. The high flying passing offenses that flourished under coaches like Mike Martz were countered by savy, creative defenses orchestrated by coaches like Dick LeBeau, and both became increasingly prevalent. Speed and quickness became increasingly more valuable traits, even at the expense of size and strength. The change affected not just the skill positions but all positions – linemen, linebackers, and even quarterbacks. The Wes Welkers of the league have made the slot receiver an increasingly valuable position. The Jake Longs and Dwight Freenys have seen their positional values skyrocket with these changes. Furthermore, rule changes by the NFL have augmented this process. A number of rules in the past decade have been instituted favoring the offense, particularly wide receivers and quarterbacks. Due to these factors, passing offenses and blitz-happy defenses have gained staggering popularity in today’s NFL.
For a team like the Jaguars, who built (or attempted to build) an identity as a power football team, the changes in NFL team construction and dynamics forced them to play with an inadequately dealt hand. That is, the strengths of their defense, such as big strong defensive linemen that could swallow up the run, started to have less of an impact as teams were passing more and more. Their huge offensive linemen could dominate in the run game, but the quick-strike offenses pervading the NFL forced the Jaguars to pass more and more as their grinding offense often couldn’t keep up the scoring pace.
The team’s transition to accommodate the NFL’s newest style hasn’t gone smoothly, to say the least. A list of 1st and 2nd round players that may have been picked to facilitate this transition includes Matt Jones, Reggie Williams, Derrick Harvey, Quinton Groves, Marcedes Lewis, Reggie Nelson, Eugene Monroe, Tyson Alualu, D’Antony Smith, Blaine Gabbert, Justin Blackmon, and Andre Branch. Of this list, the only player you can point to as a draft pick with significantly positive impact is Eugene Monroe (a player who was expected to go much higher than the eighth overall pick we got him at). Marcedes Lewis has been an inconsistent but solid presence on the team, and the jury is still out on the most recently drafted players. Overall though, it’s pretty clear to most fans why this transition has taken longer than it should have, and a majority of the cause is due to the above list of draft picks.
During this transition, the Jaguars attempted to facilitate this process by bringing in assistant coaches on the offensive and defensive sides of the ball who carried with them an aggressive, attacking style of football. Gregg Williams, Joe Cullen, Carl Smith, and Dirk Koetter were all brought in before our newest regime change to create a more attacking, aggressive football team that fit the mold of the newer-style NFL. None of these coaches worked out for the Jaguars (Cullen is still a work in progress), but two of three ex-coaches on this list have found great success on their post-Jaguar teams. But that shouldn’t be too surprising to most Jaguar fans. Most have heard the mantra “players not plays” as a fairly adequate explanation of the team’s lack of success in recent years.
In the process, not only have the Jaguars failed to produce a team that lives up to the aggressive, attacking, and playmaking standards of today’s NFL, the Jaguars have forsaken their identity as a tough, hardnosed, smash-mouth football team in the process. The Jaguars teams of the past were built on more than a power running game and a hard, run-stuffing defense. They were built on the fundamentals of football – winning one-on-one battles on the lines, not missing tackles, and punishing people in the secondary. John Henderson and Marcus Stroud bottled up opposing running backs, Mike Peterson routinely had 100+ tackle seasons, and Donovan Darius punished receivers in the secondary. Now our defense can only be described as porous. The toughness of the Jaguar defenses of the old has been replaced by missed tackles of the Jaguar defenses of today. From 2003-2006, the Jaguars defensive line ranked in the top three twice and in the top 10 three times in overall rush defense. Since then, the ranking of our defensive line has gradually dropped to its place now, worst in the NFL in both run defense and pass defense. Last year’s overproducing defensive line was the only blip of life shown by our atrophying defensive line.
And it’s not as if the offense has been any better. I don’t need to show you statistics for you to tell how the passing game has been progressing the last few years. As recently as 2007, the Jaguars were ranked third in offensive efficiency and second in passing efficiency. Times weren’t always bad, but since 2007, bad doesn’t begin to describe it. Our passing offense bottomed out last year at worst in the league, and has vaulted up to 30th this year. In the meantime, our run offense, which was ranked in the top 10 four times between 2006-2010 and three times in the top 5 fell to 21st in the NFL last year and 31st this year. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that no progress in the passing game (negative progress actually) and a regression in the running game equates to a huge regression in overall offensive efficiency. It’s something you’re seeing on the field that’s clearly also borne out by the numbers.
The point of this article is not a direct indictment of the Jaguars play (there’s plenty of time for that in the offseason); it’s an indictment of the Jaguars organization as they attempted to transition to a new style. As a young NFL franchise, they spent years building their identity as a hard-nosed, smash-mouth, fundamentally sound football team. But transitioning to a new attacking style does not preclude you from maintaining this identity. When transitioning to a new defensive style, there are going to be execution issues until the team is comfortable enough with the defense. But it’s the missed blocks by the offensive lineman, the losing one-on-one battles on the defensive line, the poor angles, and the missed tackles that have been plaguing our defense. Even last year, when the defense was surprisingly good, the Jaguars ranked 19th in missed tackles. In fact, over the past three years, they’ve been ranked 19th, 19th, and 20th in missed tackles. Given how the defense has looked this year, I can only imagine that number will go up.
At the end of the day, the poor play of NFL teams can be due to a lack of either talent or execution. In recent years, we’ve seen decreases in both. The lack in talent and execution has, at times, been the misfortune of injury – the Jaguars have seen an inordinate amount of injury to high impact players – or youth – players that are still learning their positions and developing their skills. Guys like Blaine Gabbert, Justin Blackmon, and Mike Brewster, regardless of how good or bad they end up becoming, will misexecute on some level due to their youth. However, what’s particularly unsettling is the Jaguars inability to do what they did so well in the past – win battles in the trenches, make tackles, and punish their opponents on the offensive and defensive side of the ball. After the loss to the Bills, Jaguars DE Jeremy Mincey was quoted as saying “I was disappointed. The one thing about it is we stop the run. That’s the Jaguars’ identity.” I sure hope it still is. Because the Jaguars’ identity has been pretty indistinguishable for a few years now.
* All statistics and rankings used in the article were courtesy of www.footballoutsiders.com
— Zain Gowani