The Jaguars are on top of the AFC South with 4 games to play. There has been a lot of talk over the past 24 hours since the Jaguars defeat of the Titans as to whether the Jaguars are for real or simply getting "lucky". Some analysts contribute the team's success to luck such as with the Hail Mary and 59 yard field goal to beat the Colts, while others are still somewhat cautious to declare the Jaguars a great team yet. On Sunday Night Football Tony Dungy said “I still don’t think they’re a great team" and he was not alone but nevertheless the Jaguars have been getting a lot of praise as well for their seemingly surprising rise to the top of the AFC South. Now the question is, will they stay on top and will the Jaguars be considered a contender for years to come? Yes and Yes. Here are the reasons why:
1. Maurice Jones-Drew and the Running Game - The Jaguars currently have the #2 ranked rushing offense and have 3 young, healthy and dynamic play makers in their backfield who have helped the Jaguars get there. MJD alone is a superstar. He has carried the Jaguars offense on his back over the last 5 games, rushing for 100+ yards each game and making the right plays at the right time. During these last 5 games he has averaged 133.4 yards a game and his performances can been seen as one of, if not the sole, reason why the Jaguars are in the position that they are in. He also makes clutch plays when you need him too. He caught the 75-yard pass from David Garrard against the Browns (then put the ball in the endzone) to win the game and like on Sunday when the Jaguars needed to burn some time off the clock he gashed the Titans defense to preserve the lead and burn much needed time. He has already crossed 5,000 career yards in his 5th season (with 4 games to) and has back-to-back 1,000 yard seasons. Whether MJD loses out on the Pro-Bowl or isn't league MVP...He is the Jaguars MVP and he will be for years to come and MJD alone is a reason the Jaguars will stay a contender. The scary thought though is that as great as MJD is, there are 2 other young quality running-backs on this team. Rashad Jennings and Deji Karim have both proven that if they are called on to carry the ball, they can do and shine. Karim has his moments to shine earlier in the season when Jennings was injuried, posting a 70 yard game against the Bills. Jennings on the other hand has come out strong later in the season having 2 great games back to back where he has also scored a TD in each. Both of these players are young and will hopefully grow and develop even move. As a whole all 3 of these players will lead a Jaguars rushing game that will be powerful for years.
2. The Defensive Line - One year ago everyone would have said the Jaguar's Defensive line was a major weakness on the team but now the line is developing into one of the best in the league. Though the the line is only 17th against the Run and only has 21 sacks, the line has been steadily improving. Not only has the line been improving but Terrance Knighton and Aaron Kampman have emerged as leaders and the centerpieces of this new improved line. Until his injury Aaron Kampman was a monster on the right end for the Jaguars defensive line, recording 4 sacks and even more QB pressures. His presence made defenses double team him allowing other linemen the ability to get to the QB. Though he has once again suffered a serious injury I have no doubt that Kampman will recover. Kampman is a leader and an extremely hard worker; he will be back next season and perform like he started to this season. After Kampman the Jaguar's have found their starting DT's for the future. Terrance Knighton and Tyson Alualu have become forces on the line are great run stuffing DT's. Knighton, in his second year, and Alualu, only a rookie, have been growing better and better as the season goes along and the they are a bright spot that look to be forces to years to come. To go along with these 3 players, is the emergence of Jeremy Mincey. 3 sacks in 3 games is pretty good consider he has had a cast on his hand! If Mincey can continue his production (He is only in his 3rd season) he too will help our defensive line once again become feared for years to come.
3. Found our Identity - If you have watched the Jaguars since the 2007 season you would have no idea what type of team they are. The old Jaguars team was so up and down that there were times where the team looked like contenders and the very next game they would get beat by mediocre teams. The Jaguars had simply gotten away from what made them the Jaguars in the first place. After the 2007 season he gave Garrard a 60 million dollar contract which came with expectations. All of a sudden in 2008 the running game was not always there and David Garrard started to throw the ball more with the arrival of Dirk Koetter. Over the course of the 2008-2009 season the Jaguars seemed to get away from their smash mouth style of football. The defense even tried switching to a 3 - 4 scheme for a while with disastrous results. Its no coincidence that the #1 and #2 reasons the Jaguars will be a contender for years to come are Stopping the run and Running the ball. That is because that is the Jaguars identity and they have finally found it again. It took a few seasons and a lot of bad decisions but finally when I sit down and watch the Jaguars play, I see the real Jaguars. A team that is willing to rush the ball down your throats 53 times if the opponent can't stop them and hold the opposing teams all-pro running back to 50 yards. That is the Jaguars identity and over the course of the season we have finally gotten back to that. Teams like the Patriots and Colts know they are a pass first team, or the Steelers and Ravens who are defense first teams. Each of these teams sticks to their identity because trying to change it only leads to problems. As long as the Jaguars stick to their identity we will be around for quite a while.
4. Team Character - If there has been one thing I have seen kill a team quicker than anything else its players becoming divas or starting fights with teammates because things are not going their way. When Gene Smith was appointed GM he made it a point to weed out the "bad apples" and only bring in high character guys to this Jacksonville team. He has brought in many high character drift picks such as Alualu, as well as high character veterans like Torry Holt and Aaron Kampman. I remember reading an article back after the 2008season where someone was saying that though Gene Smith's actions were admirable, just drafting good character players was not going to win games; well I would beg to differ. These players that Gene Smith have brought in are players who are not going to give up or start pointing fingers when things go bad. When the Jaguars lost two consecutive blow outs at the beginning of the season, or the loss on Monday Night Football, did you see Aaron Kampman or Terrance Knighton walk up to a reporter and start yelling about David Garrard or any other player? No. The sad thing is that the blame game happens a lot on other teams and that sort of behavior simply starts spiraling teams out of control. The Jaguars on the other hand stuck together, manned up for their mistakes, improved and have overcome their early season problems. The Jaguars have leaders and great character guys on their team and that is why they will be good for years because when times get tough for this team you know that they will not give up and will give it their all instead out pointing fingers.
5. Youth Movement – The final reason why the Jaguars will be a contender for a long time, they have youth on their side. The centerpieces of the Jaguars team (MJD, Knighton, Alualu, Lewis, Thomas…etc.) are all very young compared to many other teams in this league. Look at the Colts, they can’t keep their team healthy for a full season and many of their biggest playmakers are simply getting old. The Jaguars on the other hand have a young team that will only get better as time passes. We are already talking about how good Knighton and Alualu are, they don’t even have a combined 3 years experience yet. The same could be said on the offensive line with Monroe and Britton. There are also many young role players like Thomas, Jennings, Karim, and Underwood who are only in their first or second seasons. The scary part about this is that the Jaguars have a lot of picks in the upcoming draft and will be able to bring in 9 or so younger players that will help improve this team and help this youth movement. Another additional note is that most people have seemed to forget about D’Anthony Smith who had to sit out this season. He will also be returning next season and add to the already impressive defensive line. The Jaguars are young but these players are getting quality playing time and are gaining huge experience. It is going to be scary to see what this Jaguars team looks like in a season or two, but I can promise you this, this team will be a contender.