If you walked out of EverBank Field yesterday, or any of the previous four home games this season as I have, you likely felt it. It wasn't a feeling of pessimism or even one of disappointment, along the lines of many past games that have let you down as a Jaguars fan like Houston in 2004, New England in 2006, or even Washington in 2010. No, this feeling is one that hurts worse than all of those. It's the feeling that the talent is lacking so much, that this team can't step on the same field with even the "above average" teams and remain competitive. It's a feeling similar to what one can imagine an addict feels after he/she finally loses everything to their addiction, and for Jaguars fans this bad drug we've been given is the result of it's dealer, and that dealer is general manager Gene Smith.
It is said that a general manager is measured on a four year report card based somewhat on his acquisitions and ability to build a franchise, via the draft and to a lesser extent free agency, and almost always on what matters the most to uber competitive owners and fanbases, wins and losses. By any metrics you'd like to use, the proof that Smith receives a failing grade for his four years as GM of the Jaguars is much like feces in a baby's diaper, it's everywhere and it's solid.
Of Smith's 23 selections in the draft, the key to any successful GM's roster building, 17 currently remain on the roster as of Week 9. Of those 17 players, a little under half of that number (8) are players that would be starters without an injury to someone higher on the depth chart, and one of those players, is a punter. So taking the punter out of the equation, the Jaguars roster fields a starting lineup of only 30% of drafted players in Smith's fourth year as GM that have been deemed starting material. Only Eugene Monroe, Derek Cox (when healthy), and (we'll throw a bone out here) Cecil Shorts III, have shown that they can be "playmakers" on a consistent basis. Others, like Terrance Knighton and Rashad Jennings, have flashed at times but not shown the ability to perform well on a week by week basis. So, in four drafts under Smith, the Jaguars have obtained a whopping three players who you can say confidently could compete among the elite players in the league consistently. Three. That's 13% of Smith's draft picks, and roughly 5% of a 53 man roster that is composed of mostly Gene's guys.
When it comes to first round selections, of which every GM is judged, the results there are as much if not more of a mixed bag. While the above mentioned Monroe is an ascending left tackle playing at an All-Pro level, the rest of Smith's first round picks leave much cause for concern. Tyson Alualu, while a high-energy guy who is great off the field, can only be described as a bust given his draft spot, with no hope for a turnaround given his injury history; Blaine Gabbert, who has improved much following a rookie season that made David Carr squeamish, still is a QB who possesses a record of 5-18 as a starter and who passed for over 200 yards for only the sixth time in his career this past Sunday, with a 21-16 TD/INT ratio. In a time when there are rookie/second year quarterbacks who are manning the helm of winning teams and turning around the fortunes of previously lowly franchises, while also putting up gaudy statistical numbers Gabbert's performances to date have been, objectively-speaking, mediocre to average at best; While 8 games is too early by any standards to pass judgement, the early returns for Justin Blackmon are disappointing. When a player is drafted with a Top 5 pick, instant production, whether fair or not, is expected. To date, the production from Blackmon has been sporadic and he's been outplayed significantly by a fourth round pick from last year's draft. Perhaps a larger concern for him, has been a growing fan perception that he is lacking in effort and struggles to catch the ball consistently. The latter has been more fact than opinion recently. With all four selections coming within the Top Ten of the first round under Smith's regime', the production of these four players should frankly be leaps and bounds better than what it has. Simply put, you can't have four consecutive Top Ten picks, and have only one quality player to show for it.
As for free agency, the other tool of which the general manager has at his disposal, Smith's acquisitions have been as consistent as a Mitt Romney platform. In 2009, the team signed veteran WR Torry Holt to bring a big name and a vet presence to a rebuilt WR corps, one that was thought to be "fixed", by a certain team website Senior Editor. Holt lasted just the '09 season and provided little in the way of production and/or beneficial "mentoring". Same can be said for offensive tackle Tra Thomas, who if I never mentioned it you wouldn't remember being here. 2010 saw the first "big splash" move of the Gene Smith Era, when the team signed DE Aaron Kampman in the off-season. Kampman's contract was a big one for the small-market franchise and quite risky considering his recovery from a severe knee injury the previous season, it included a guaranteed signing bonus of $10 million dollars. He wound up playing in just 11 games in two seasons as a Jaguar, registering a total of 4 sacks, as he sustained yet another severe knee injury halfway through the '10 season and was never the same player. Kampman was released in camp this season. Smith seemingly hit a few of his coined "base hits", in the 2011 free agency period as he signed productive players Paul Posluszny, Dawan Landry, Clint Session, Drew Coleman, and traded for safety Dwight Lowery. The new players helped improve what was the worst defense in the league a year prior, to a top ten final ranking in '11. However Session, who was given $11.5 million in guaranteed money, has played in 9 games as a Jaguar after consecutive concussions, and was in a limited role when he did play and Coleman was released before training camp this season, taking with him $1.2 million in guaranteed money.This year's prized free agent acquisition, WR Laurent Robinson, was given $14 million in guaranteed money, and has 15 receptions for 195 yards and 0 touchdowns to show for it, as he too has battled concussions. While Smith surely can not be blamed for injuries sustained to players, Kampman, Session, and Robinson all were signed with a well established history of injury liabilities and given large contracts in spite of the fact.
Perhaps the most egregious of errors in terms of money spent, was with the contract extension of WR Mike Thomas. Smith designated Thomas as the Jaguars version of Carolina's Steve Smith and viewed him as the future "number one" for the offense, following a '10 season which Thomas caught 66 passes for 820 yards and 4 touchdowns. While those numbers are barely average by NFL standards, for a Jaguars team that lacked any type of playmaking talent in the passing game, Thomas' season was viewed as a breakout performance, highlighted by a miracle Hail Mary catch to beat the Texans that season. Smith extended Thomas two years prior to him becoming a free agent, with a 3 year $19 million contract extension that came with $9 million in guaranteed money. Following the extension, Thomas played in 22 games registering a whopping 57 receptions for 495 yards and a touchdown, and was accused by fans (and quietly teammates) as not playing hard and refusing to "sell out" on routes. Smith apparently finally realized as much, as last week Thomas was traded to the Detroit Lions for a 5th round draft pick, two years from now.
During his tenure, Smith has also managed to rub some of his comrades in the "GM club" the wrong way. In 2009, Smith signed safety Don Carey off of Injury Waivers from the Cleveland Browns, a move that violated what from all accounts is an unwritten no-no in the front office world of the NFL, as you're basically swiping a player from a team that covets him but would like to stash him away for their future. Though nothing public was ever made, it was reported that a few teams have refused to do business with Smith following the move, including the Philadelphia Eagles who chose to trade with their division rivals the Dallas Cowboys in the 2010 draft, rather than trade with Smith during an attempt by both the Cowboys and Jaguars to draft LB Sean Lee.
Following the removal of Jack Del Rio as head coach last year, new owner Shad Khan tasked Smith to head up the search for a new head coach. The reported catch for anyone accepting the position, would be the opinion that Gabbert could be fixed and shaped into a viable quarterback, a play that would both ensure Smith got who he wanted and if successful would save his job on multiple grounds. The job was turned down by Bill O'Brien, who chose the chaos enveloping Penn State University over working with Gabbert, according to reports. Also declining, was Bengals coordinator Jay Gruden, who opted to stay in a lesser coaching role to continue work with fellow second year quarterback Andy Dalton. Smith finally settled on former Falcons offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey, who was on the verge of being fired had he not accepted the position. Mularkey's previous head coaching experience came with the Buffalo Bills, whom he led to a 14-18 record in two seasons before quitting after a disagreement with the front office. While he has been great with the public and fans, Mularkey has led the team to a 1-7 record, and his "stay the course" attitude has ruffled some fans and apparently some players in only half a season. Frankly, he seems like a great guy who while dealt a crappy hand, just isn't the guy you want as a head coach for your franchise's "rebirth". This again, falls on Smith's ability to assess talent and do what's best for the team, rather than his career. Having the "Gabbert Clause" attached to anyone who'd accept the position, was a death knell to the team if Gabbert didn't do a monumental turnaround, which while improved, he hasn't.
Eventually, all general managers are ultimately judged on wins and losses, and there is where Mr. Khan must see the most damning of numbers.
Since he took over as head of all personnel operations in 2009, the Jaguars have a record of 21-35, with their best season coming in 2010 as they finished 8-8 and for a time had a legitimate opportunity at their first AFC South title in what was likely Jack Del Rio's best coaching performance. They have never made the post-season under Smith's regime, and with the exception of '10, have never come close. In that same span, the Jaguars are 10-10 against divisional opponents and 14-14 at EverBank Field. While the latter number is a .500 record, it must be pointed out that since '11, when most of the roster turnover from Smith was completed, the team is 6-18 for a .250 winning percentage, and an abysmal 4-8 at home which is the bread and butter of an ownership's profit, since home performance generally equals ticket sales the following season.
If that's not enough, in the time since Gene Smith has taken over as general manager, the Jaguars are currently tied for sixth in the NFL in lowest winning percentage, at .375 and are staring a second half with not many more confident possibilities of a W remaining on the schedule. Only the Rams, Browns, Panthers, Redskins, and Bills have been worse since Smith took over and a few of those teams are arguably on the upswing whether the record currently reflects it or not. Of those teams, the Rams and Redskins committed to a complete rebuild this past off-season, and the Panthers and Browns each made moves already over the last few weeks to do the same. The Bills are seemingly only missing a quarterback that could turn around their fate, as a majority of their roster is composed of young ascending players.
Clearly, as it stands now, the Jaguars appear to be a franchise with the look of a dog chasing it's tail as the home he's in burns to the ground around him. Since he's taken over ownership, Mr. Khan has stated time and again that he will not stand for failure, and he will head the rebirth of the Jacksonville Jaguars, making it the "hottest ticket in town". If he is truly a man of his word, and to this point he has not shown anything to the contrary, he will fire Gene Smith, Mike Mularkey, and their staffs by the conclusion of this season.
It's not totally Mularkey's fault that this season has become what it has, but this team has been through the half-assed "rebuild", and here is where it has gotten us. Mularkey is Smith's man, his choice, and thus unfortunately his collateral damage so to speak.
A new direction for this team is needed, with a FULLY clean slate from the front office, to the coaching staff, and in my opinion, the quarterback as well.
The tests have been ran, the diagnosis has been made, and now the cancer must be fully removed once and for all.