Five Jaguars Thoughts at the Midway Point
By Zoltan Paksa
It’s been a while since I last wrote an editorial about how I see the things going with the Jaguars. Now the the team spending its bye week, so the time is perfect to do some ‘soul searching’ and also take a look about what can come next for the franchise in the short, and bit longer term. Also I want to write about issues in this piece which are hot topics among journalists and fans (small school drafting, offensive pains).
I think this team is better then its record. The Jaguars have the 5th most difficult schedule and that hurts this team very much. But look at the games they played. Other then the Jets game (where New York’s best offensive player was Jaguars QB Luke McCown….) there was no blowout losses(thanks for that to the outstanding defense). I feared when the schedule was announced that the back-to-back games against the Steelers and the Ravens will end as very ugly back-to-back losses. Instead the Jaguars had a shot to win the game in Pittsburgh (and could have been easily at least a tie, if Marcedes Lewis catch that TD pass from Gabbert…), and defeated the Ravens on Monday Night. The Jaguars lead in the 4th quarter against Carolina and Cincinnati. The Jaguars even held the New Orleans Saints at 23 points. How many teams can say this besides the St Louis Rams? Also let’s not forget, 7 out the 8 opponents Jacksonville played so far has a positive record. Only Carolina are standing 2-6. The other 7 teams are at or above .500! Yet many consider that Jacksonville is a bad football team. Why exactly? There defense is in the Top 10 against the rush and the pass. They have an outstanding running back, who had the most rushing yards in the enitre AFC (after week 8). Their special teams is starting to look like what they have been lately(before that the unit missed for weeks 2 of the best 3 ST players, plus they didn’t have a real punter until Week 6), one of the best in the NFL. But because they have the legue’s worst passing game right now (and points per average), most people think this is a bad team. I didn’t accept that thought (although I have of course issues). Plus without making any excuse for the passing game and Gabbert (excuses are for weak people – I loved that line Blaine!), in the last 4 weeks the Jaguars offense played against the 4 best ranked defense in a row. Sure the rookie QB(footwork, pocket presence, accuracy) and their receivers (dropped passes, poor routs, no or very little seperation from the DBs) have their issues, but I want to see them playing against average (middle of the pack or worse) defenses and secondaries as well, to see how bad/big is the problem. The good news is on paper the 2nd half of the schedule is not looking that tough. If the defense plays in the same level the played in the first half, and the offense can find the way to switch into higher gears, I thinkin the end of the season the record will mirror a bit more relaistic view about the team.
I think Gene Smith must rethink a bit his draft philosophy. First of all, I’m for the general manager’s contract extension. I couldn’t agree more with Gene Frenette, who recently wrote in the Florida Times Union : If Shack Harris got 6 years, Gene Smith deserve more patience as well. I hope he and his entire scout department will get a 2-3 year extentsion when the season is over. In the upcoming 2-3 years we will see if he was right or wrong with the selection of Blaine Gabbert. But until that time arrives, he must change things in his draft process. Yes, I’m talking about small school picks. Which are looking like misses then hits at this point. In ’09 he brought Derek Cox, Zach Miller and Rashard Jennings into the team. Jennings is the only real success story from the small school drafting, but he was considered as a possible 3rd round pick before the draft, and the only reason he played in the FCS, because he wanted to be close to his family and his sick father. By the way I’m all for drafting small school players who are considered 2-3 round higher in the draft charts, but so far Jennings (and a bit Austen Lane) were the only examples to that. When Derek Cox, Jarett Dillard, Zach Miller, Larry Hart, Scotty McGee, Cecil Shorts, Chris Prosinski and Rod Isaac(I kow Wyoming and Middle Tennesse Stae are Division I schools but I put them into the small school category) were drafted by Gene Smith, in most cases everybody (including true draft analysts like Mike Mayock) asked from themselves the question: who? And other then Derek Cox (who is playing up and down, luckily right now in the up phase) none of them made any big impact. In fact Hart and McGee are not with the team anymore. And in Cox’s case there is that 2nd round pick, which the Jaguars traded away. Fans still asks, he was worth to sacrifice such a valuable pick for him? I say yes, if he can stay in the level he plays and he can stay healthy.
But the others? I still think Jarrett Dillard is one of the better receivers of this roster. I really don’t understand why he didn’t get any bigger role in the offense this season. He must stay healthy though. Zach Miller is obviously not the Jaguars’ Dallas Clark and Owen Daniels (which was the the aim drafting him). Also he is often injured and have drop issues. I think the Jaguars need to find a new TE in the offseason, and Miller (who will enter his contract year in ’12)will fight for a roster spot next summer. Larry Hart was the 3rd attempt (after Jorge Cordva and Quentin Groves) to clone Robert Mathis. The 3rd failed attempt. Scotty McGee was a poor choice, the Jaguars best punt returner still Mike Thomas which speaks for itself. Austen Lane (although he looked like he will make the next step foreward – Like Derrick Harvey in ’10…) is still just a guy (which is sad for me, B&T readers know I love Austen). And this years class(I don’t put Will Rackely here, because he was considered and a 3rd round pick before the draft )? Other then Chris Prosinski, nobody is contributing. Rod Isaac is already on IR, and this secondary have too much talent right now to have any major role in it. Cecil Shorts? Well he also joined the long line of Jaguars’ WRs who were looking like playmakers in the preseason, but did almost nothing when it mattered (just a few names come to my mind – Chad Owens, Troy Williamson, Nate Hughes, Tiquan Underwood.). You can see where the hit/miss rate is going so far. By a large margin. I know Gene Smith is still consider himself a scout, but he must looking deeper among the FBS schools first. And I mean the better known programs. I have no problem with drafting players from the FCS or the Division III, in very late rounds(‘you find football players where you find football players”- Vic Ketchman ), but I don’t like that the General Manager draft some hidden gems, (otherwise plenty of them would end up as UDFAs…) makes us exited, and then when they hit the field most of them doing nothing and/or hurting the team instead of helping them. I often heard the argumant well, the last BCS picks of the Jaguars were big busts. Yeah, but that is enough reason not to take another shot in the near future once again on them?
I think Jack Del Rio, Gene Smith and Wayne Weaver can also be blamed for the problems in the offense. I think the problems at the offense are very complex. Part is coaching, part is lack of talent. WR coach Johnny Cox is slowly start to develop himself into the top of the ‘Ted Monachino dishonor board’. I see no progress at all in the receivers. Even worse, I think those who played well start to regress a bit(I think here about Mike Thomas). Other then Jason Hill who have drop issues too, but at least he had TD catches, the production is simply pathethic. Mike Thomas is not playing where he should be(at the slot). I considered that the departure of Todd Monken will create some problems, but I never exected this. The blame goes to Jack Del Rio to hire a guy who never coached WRs before AND Wayne Weaver, because this contract situation of every coaches making them lame ducks and it is not a surprize, the Jags could end up only with Cox as the coach of the wideouts. Same goes a bit to Mike Sheppard, who never coached QBs before but in his case the lockout and sad situations at the position (David Garrard’s terrible preseason and Luke McCown’s horrible game against the Jets) almost forced the Jaguars to hand over the keys to Blaine Gabbert. Who was(is still?) – and we must say this- not ready for the NFL, when he was named the starter. But to be fair, he had no such things what his fellow rookie QBs has. A ‘go-to’ receiver. Cam Newton has Steve Smith. Andy Dalton has AJ Green and Jermaine Grasham. Christian Ponder has Percy Harvin and Vicante Shiancoe. And who is Gabbert’s ‘go-to’ guy? Maybe Jason Hill, but that’s a very strong maybe and speaks about the entire receiver unit. Although he has accuracy issues, his receivers consistantly letting him down. Just in the last few games (according to Gene Smith) the wideouts and tight ends dropped 9 catches which would’ve been first downs, and 3 TDs (Marcedes Lewis alone 2). And there is the point I must blame Gene Smith. Now every wide receiver who are on the roster was drafted/signed/clained by the general manager. In fact (and must give credit to Alfie Crow here) this is Gene Smith’s offense. 11 of his 20 draft picks were spent of offense. Monroe (who is slowly developing into the best tackle of the entire ’09 class), Thomas and Jennings are considered only as hits right now. So you can see the problems of the offense are coming from very different reasons. Sadly it is close to a perfect storm.
I think Mel Tucker is in a very good position to become the next head coach of the Jaguars. Enough with the problems, let’s walk out to the sunny side of the street. I blamed the general manager so much in this editorial, now I must praise him. He (and Wayne Weaver) true to their words and made this defense outstanding in free agency.Just a few stats: The Jaguars didn’t allowed any opposing QBs above 100 QB rating. And they played against Drew Brees, Ben Roetlishberger, Matt Schaub, Cam Newton, and Matt Hasselback. The secondary, which was awful (to say the least) last year, now a big strength. Right now it is ranked better (8) the the rush defense (14). The pass rush which has still room to grow, are collected 16 sacks, most of the time without Aaron Kampman (considered to be the best pass rusher of the team when he is 100% healthy). And best part is, all free ganent, who the Jaguars picked off contributing. MLB Paul Posluszny not just a fix point at the middle, and leadsing the Jaguars at tackling, but he made Daryl Smith better. Nr. 51 & 52 is one of the best LB combo in the 4-3 teams. I even wonder why Daryl Smith’s name is not considered among the legaue’s best defenders this season. Wonder why he didn’t get enough attention (again)?.. The 3rd LB Clint Session after a bit strugglingstart (he was a misfit early in the season),starts to play very well too(see Taxans game). In the defensive line TheJaguars picked up Matt Roth, who is now the sack leader (with 3)of the team, and John Chick, who is I think the best candidate right now for the ‘suprise player of the year’ title among the Jaguars players. Also he is the latest ‘Colts junk’ ends up contributing for the Jaguars. ( I must admit, lately it seems this team have better luck finding players in the Colts garbage then in small schools…). And the secondary? Well now the Jaguars have not 1 but 2 starting caliber safties. All of sudden opposing QBs are more cautious targeting that area. Dwight Lowery was a huge steal (but the Jaguars must resign him very soon – more of that later) if the Jags really gave up a 7th round round pick for him. Dawan Landry is a solid SS. Nickelcorner Drew Coleman has a sack, a FF as well as a game winning interceptions. And all of sudden the starting cornerbacks Rahean Mathis and Derek Cox is looking like a very decent starting CB pair! I don’t know how big is the role defesive coordinator Mel Tucker playing in this defensive turnaround, but right now he looks good, isn’t he? If the Jack Del Rio era will come to the end after Week 17, he could be a very good candidate as a head coach. I think he would leave the player personel decesions to Gene Smith, also would be at least one of the coordintors return to ’12(Dirk Koetter, unless he will be the head coach here will coach elsewhere neyt season in my opinion). But even if not Tucker will be in charge in 2012, I would keep him for the next season.
I think – speaking of the next season,the Jaguars must face plenty of contract negotiations in the offseason (I hope 1 or 2 of them will be finalized before the season ends). Key players such as Scobee, Mincey, Mathis, Lowery, Roth are in their contract year.From this group I say Mincey, Scobee and Lowery are belonging to ‘must extend him’ category. Matt Roth could earn another 2 year contract, if he ends up as sack leader. And Mathis? I say if he plays well in the second half I would give him another contract for 2-3 years. Also in 2012 most of Gene Smith’s first draft class start will enter the final year of their contract – and many of them I think deserve a new one. I would not wait with the re-sign of Terrance Knighton for example. But Rashard Jennings and Derek Cox also could get one. I think 2012 is the final year of Daryl Smith’s current contract too. The Jaguars have plenty of cap space, but they must consider to bring a new veteran WR as well (maybe another DE or CB – depends on Mathis and Kampman). It’s safe to say these are all very important decesions, and they must be made sooner then later. I hope some of them will be done before the season is over.