Progress in context
Over the last three seasons the Jaguars defense has not improved. In fact it has declined marginally and remains in the bottom five of the NFL. The 2010 rush defense is slightly below average (19th) and the coverage unit is, as we are all aware, inadequate. Meanwhile, the offense has been unpredictable following the 2008 season, flashing brilliance one week and impotence the next. This is the story the statistics will tell you, and of course, statistics do not lie.
However, neither do they tell the whole story. Broad statistical categories, such as pass or rush defense provide only an incomplete measure of clarity in a very complex picture. As fans –removed from the deep scrutiny of game tape and from the knowledge base that comes from coaching or playing football for one’s entire life – it falls to us to do our own digging if we desire an accurate or balanced view of our team and its development.
Firstly, I will make a few things as clear as I can: I do not know how the rest of this season will play out and therefore am merely hazarding guesses in the manner of other concerned fans; I am not an unbiased reporter, though I try and retain an objective view of the team and its fortunes when writing an analysis; I will rely on statistical information as is available to an underfunded graduate student lacking access to more comprehensive databases and in doing so, may fail to note more esoteric statistical breakdowns; My views are my views, and I alone am responsible for them, not everyone will find them agreeable, but know that they are well-reasoned and thoroughly considered.
I am writing this as a response and not a contradiction. I was inspired by Brian Fulford’s article: “Where is the Progress in Jacksonville? “ with the view that it provides a balanced analysis of the team’s current state but that the ultimate conclusion could be reformulated if one were to approach the situation with a rather different perspective.I have a long memory and this will be a long ride. Please give me until the end of the article before reacting, as I know some of you will not like where it is going.
Let us pause here and flash back. In 2007 the Jaguars boasted the leading rusher in eleven of their sixteen games and won ten of them. They also won six of the seven games in which Garrard was the top passer.
In 2007 David Garrard was sacked 21 times in twelve games. That is an excellent number, and even with Reggie Williams and Matt Jones as his primary receivers, he was able to post the best numbers of his career. It is little wonder then, that the protection afforded him by his offensive line (and by extension, his consistent running game) allowed him to post the best yards-per-attempt average of his career (7.7).
Flash forward one year. The 2008 season was hell for Jaguars fans. We entered the year with the misguided hope that the team was poised for a Super Bowl run and the national media was right behind us. The Jags were a trendy pick, and deservedly so considering the successes of the previous season. And then, the bottom fell out. By the end of the season’s first game the team was without 3/5 of a highly touted offensive line, and with that, other, more subtle cracks in the armor began to open up. In the Jaguars’ next six games they produced the top rusher in three, not a terrible rate but certainly off the dominant clip they set during the previous season. Over the course of the season, a Jaguar would set the rushing pace in six games and the team would win only three. At the same time, the proud defense declined drastically, especially against the pass, going from 15th in 2007 to 24th in 2008 . I should note however that both the run game and the defense were in decline from a high point in 2006. Ahh, 2006, such wasted potential (10th ranked pass defense, 4th against the run).
What changed in 2008 was not Garrard or his control of the offense; it was quite simply the men in front of him. His YPA dropped to 6.8 while his interceptions rose from 3 to 13 (It should be noted that his interception percentage remained very good, at 2.4%) as he was sacked twice as many times. Lacking any dynamic options in his receiving corps, it is little wonder that his play declined. Between 2008 and 2009 he was sacked 84 times. 84. In 2008 we can blame injuries and an increasingly ineffective running game. In 2009 we can point to rookie tackles (who were rated two of the worst by PFF) and an interior line still recovering from major injuries. We can say for certain that the Jaguars were not a dominant running team at any time during this period, in spite of Jones-Drew’s excellence. 2007 was the last hurrah of the big, physical team that was crafted from 2003 and reached its peak in 2006.
Therefore, 2008 is the point at which we can say the rebuilding (or retooling, or whatever you want to call the process of turning a team around) process began. It was the end of one era and the beginning of another. This is the foundation of my argument, and I ask you to excuse the details, some of which may be unnecessary. In my mind they paint the picture.
We are witnessing the second rebuilding period in the team’s history and the third time overall where the emphasis is on developing a roster for long term competition. The periods between 1996 and 1999 and then 2005-2007 were the glory years of Jaguars football. I admit that the second period was underwhelming in terms of overall record, but the team was always competitive (part of the reason we have such difficulty with lopsided losses) and the running game and defense were at the top of the league.
In 2010 I see reasons for optimism. The Jaguars remain an average team up front, but they are improving. The offensive line has allowed 14 sacks in six games, which is only slightly better than last season when the team yielded 15 sacks over the same period. However, the progress this year can be measured in the lack of instant pressure and the significant drop in QB hits allowed: 33 through six games as compared to a whopping 51 last season.
Twelve of those hits came in the breakdown against Philadelphia. We cannot downplay the difference in Garrard’s play and the team’s fortunes when the offensive line protects effectively. Last season Garrard absorbed a sickening 121 hits. The mere fact that he remained standing and moderately effective is a testament to his toughness and leadership. That is why he remains on the team, for all those who ask.
More apologizing for David Garrard, I know, I can’t help it. I think he is a pretty good player. But that is not the point. The point is much deeper yet. The point is about progress.
First, the bad news (for pity’s sake the abridged version; I think we are all aware.)
This year, with the exception of one terrible game, the line has been adequate in pass protection. Unfortunately, over the course of the same period the Jaguars have suffered three blowout losses. There is one thread running through each game: turnovers. The Eagles game was a debacle. I have nothing but bad things to say about the team in that game, aside from Terrance Knighton and Jones-Drew, who did the best they could. Against San Diego, the Jaguars actually moved the ball fairly effectively, but they managed to turn it over six times in the process. If this team makes those mistakes, they will be blown out every time.
They simply lack the depth on defense to sustain a high rate of play when the offense cannot hold the ball. The story was the same against Tennessee (four turnovers). In fact, the Jaguars managed only 3 fewer First Downs than the Titans throughout the game. They held the vaunted running attack to 3.9 YPC, a number heavily inflated by Chris Johnson’s last minute romp through a clearly exhausted defensive unit. However, when you allow the other team to complete scoring drives of 36, 37 and 18 yards respectively, you cannot expect to win.
As to why the Jaguars are losing so badly this year, I think we need look no further than the Jaguars themselves, though it depends on the game. They killed themselves in the Monday night game (4 turnovers, seven big penalties). They killed themselves in the game against the Chargers (six turnovers). The Eagles’ defensive line was so utterly dominant (12 tackles for loss, 12 qb hits, and seven sacks) and the Jaguars secondary so inept that the game might just as well have been a forfeit. I think coaching is an issue with regard to the inconsistency, but that excuse only carries so far. Del Rio has his team playing intelligent football for the most part, ranking near the bottom of the league in penalties.
Aside from an inconsistent offensive line, the team has struggled in the secondary. Even against the Titans, when the combined arms of Vince Young and Kerry Collins managed only 173 total passing yards, the Jaguars yielded 8.1 YPA. They could always complete the passes they needed to.
Now, there is more where that came from, but this is about the positives; about progress, to be exact.
In fact, I hope that some of the positives will keep the negatives in perspective. Let me just say this: In the games where the Jaguars have played clean, mistake free football they have been very successful. In the games where they have turned the ball over and committed penalties, they have been eaten up by superior teams. The exception is Buffalo, and we can take solace in the fact that as poor as the team looks at times, they are much better than the Buffalo Bills. Progress is being able to play with anyone, as long as you avoid killer mistakes, while having the third youngest roster in the NFL.
The Jaguars are 19th in the NFL against the run. They gave up 153 yards rushing on Monday night, and in the process showed me all that the team can become. Truthfully. The two guys who really stood out? Terrance Knighton and Kirk Morrison. I will get to the former in a moment, but I have not seen a Jaguars middle linebacker make more plays along the line of scrimmage since Mike Peterson. To be clear, Kirk Morrison is no Mike Peterson. He is deficient in coverage, not quite as instinctive, and not nearly as fast. However, he does possess good instincts for the position, and while he looked lost at the beginning of the year, he has been very good the last three weeks. The guy was all over the place against the Colts and again against the Titans. He has played very well, except for covering the tight end.
In fact, the Jaguars linebacking corps appears to be one of the best in the league, as long as Justin Durant stays healthy. He could be the best on the team by season’s end, and I say that with all due respect to Daryl Smith, who is a rock. However, this is a position the team must address in the draft. Morrison is a solid player but the team can upgrade. He is not fast enough to the perimeter on outside runs and he lacks good awareness or fluidity in coverage. Also, Smith is beginning to show signs of slowing down in coverage. But the question here is not what next year will bring, but whether or not the linebacker corps is better than last season? I say the answer is yes. I used to be enamored with Clint Ingram, but his diagnostic skills turned out to be lacking, and he seemed to regress physically after his first two seasons. Morrison is a true mike ‘backer with instincts to match, and he allows the other two players to settle into their natural spots. Furthermore, a seasoned Russell Allen provides a modicum of depth. Expect big things from this unit in run support.
In terms of progress, we must also point to the receiving corps. Obviously, Marcedes Lewis is the best receiver on the team right now. When he is being fed in the pass game, the Jaguars suddenly become very dangerous on offense. He has developed into the finest blocking tight end (among starters) in the league, with apologies to Jason Witten. He showed last year that he can dominate down the seam and on crossing routes, leading all starting tight ends in yards per reception by a wide margin, and he has picked up right where he left off. I know he was bad against the Titans, but that was one game. Remember how we all felt about Lewis during his first two seasons? Now that is progress.
I also know that the guy we all wanted to see break out has been a disappointment. Don’t blame Mike Sims-Walker though, he really is open consistently, but the offense has gone to a short passing game to mask its blocking deficiencies. He will continue to see very few passes unless Koetter can get creative while also keeping his QBs upright. I do think that he needs to improve his route running and ability to beat the jam, and he has shown inconsistency catching the ball in traffic. That said, if the number one receiver of the future is on the team right now, this is the guy. Remember how we all said “who?” when he was drafted in the 3rd round? Remember how hopeless it looked after the 2008 season when he was injured after his breakout performance in Pittsburgh? This too is a story of progress because the kid can play and we all know it now.
The player we must really talk about is Mike Thomas. I wrote before the season started that he could become the Jaguars number one option. After six games I have to retract that statement. I know he leads the team in receptions. I know he has consistently come up with the big catch. But I also know that this is because he excels at the only routes the Jaguars coordinators feel comfortable running. With the emphasis on “getting the ball out quickly” he is the man. He just isn’t a “number one guy” in the parlance of the times. He is not a down the seam player who can win the jump ball, nor is he a deep threat on the outside. Sadly, he is not Steve Smith. However, he will be a fixture on this team for many years to come in multiple roles. And who knows, perhaps next season the team will open up the passing game and he will show deep-threat ability. If the trend is any indication, we can expect to see consistent progress from Thomas, who has already far exceeded his draft value (4th round).
Now comes the hard part: The secondary.
I have to hold off here. The secondary is worse this year than it was last year. However, David Jones has been starting for most of the season, and he is a major downgrade from Derek Cox, the Denver game notwithstanding. I liked what I saw from Cox at Buffalo (but that was at Buffalo) and I think Rashean Mathis is playing OK.
The bright side? Eh.
Courtney Greene has had two very nice games this year. He was productive against San Diego and made some splash plays against Tennessee. The problem is, with the exception of a diving interception, all of the production and impact have come in run support. He has always been a willing player in that regard and that alone almost got him drafted in the middle rounds. Unfortunately, questions about his coverage capabilities and footwork dropped him to round seven. Can he cover the tight end? The team has conspicuously kept him out of man coverage but they can’t hide him forever. The other player to watch is Don Carey. Can we suspend our disbelief and buy into the coaching staff’s praise for a first year player from Norfolk State? Apparently he is a great student and an intelligent guy, but does he have the necessary instincts to perform at free safety in the NFL? I do not know the answer. The truth is safety has been a problem position for the Jaguars since Deon Grant went to Seattle, since Gerald Sensabaugh was inexplicably allowed to depart to Dallas, and most of all, since number 20 hung up the cleats. The position hasn’t been addressed in the draft since 2007, and until it is, I suspect we will not see much progress at all. Maybe the young guys can show us something. Nobody knows at this point, so let’s give it three weeks and reevaluate. Honestly, I wouldn’t mind seeing the team draft a corner and moving Mathis back to free safety.
Now we get to the fun part. Want progress, watch the defensive line.
Tyson Alualu is a defensive tackle. He plays a position that gets very little media attention and he plays in a city that gets even less. In spite of this, he is getting noticed, making appearances on ESPN and PFF rookie watch lists. He is not yet a dominant player in any facet of the game, but his constant, furious activity and great hand usage has generated some buzz. He does something else that the departed John Henderson could no longer do consistently: he gets penetration. The decision to draft him ahead of more heralded prospects such as Jason Pierre-Paul and Derrick Morgan is looking like a seminal moment in the development of the franchise. He is the real deal, just like he was in college. Knighton, his linemate, has progressed very nicely in year two. He looked a bit lethargic early on but he has been lights-out of late. He terrorized the Titans interior line on Monday night and has been providing much more of a pass rush presence than the fans or the team expected. This tandem has become a joy to watch, especially for an ex-nose tackle.
I love the way Derrick Harvey sets the edge. The guy is immovable at the point and he plays with great strength and leverage. The problem is, he struggles to disengage from bigger tackles and he lacks the ability to bend the corner. He will never be what the Jaguars envisioned, and that makes him a bust. He is however a very solid player and a “rugged” defensive end. He should regain 20 pounds and find a job as a 5-technique. Here’s hoping that Lane is a player. Kampman has been outstanding, but he was stonewalled by Roos on Monday. He needs some plays off.
Bottom line: The team has eleven sacks. You know the total last season. That is progress.
I know you might be thinking, “yeah but I want to see a clear progression of the team’s fortunes.” I too would like to see that. However, history is a powerful guide: New Orleans Saints: 2006: 10-6; 2007:7-9; 2008:8-8; 2009: 13-3. This team may not win as many games this year as they did last season, but that isn’t always the point. The NFL is the pinnacle of athletic competition, every team is loaded with the best players in the world, and sometimes, the path to a great season is obscured until the very end. Consider the Cardinals in 2008 (finishing 9-7 in the weakest division in football en route to a Super Bowl run).
Ask yourselves: has the roster improved? How have the players developed? Has management laid a strong foundation for the future? At this stage the questions are yours to answer.
In 2008 the Jaguars were a team on the brink. Last season they overachieved thanks to inspired (if not always effective) quarterback play in the face of a withering pass rush and a hurricane of fan and media criticism, a great running back, and a group of young men blossoming into NFL players. Perhaps not everyone sees it that way, but I certainly do. I believe the mentality of the coach and the personnel savvy of the GM were guiding forces in the turnaround (5-11 to 7-9 is a marked improvement). I believe they still are. I expect the Jaguars to play .500 ball for the remainder of the season. I expect that if they turn the ball over against more deeper, more talented teams they will continue to lose convincingly. However I think they will manage to remain competitive, as long as Garrard can return soon, and that by this time next year, we will all be singing a different tune. Stay the course.
This too shall pass.