No one quite knew what to expect from the Jacksonville Jaguars in 2017. We knew the defense was young (and nearing elite status) and we knew there were offensive threats, even if quarterback Blake Bortles was not one of them.
But how many of us expected convincing wins over two division favorites within the first five weeks of the season? How many of us expected Jacksonville to be over .500 heading into Week 6 — the first time since 2010?
Nevertheless, the Jags’ defense is now elite and the secondary just about the best in the NFL. Behind cornerbacks Jalen Ramsey and A.J. Bouye, Jacksonville has the best turnover ratio in the League at 10 — and this is a team still quarterbacked by Bortles.
However, the Jaguars’ cornerbacks are not the only positional group owning a claim to NFL’s best. Linebackers Myles Jack, Paul Posluzny and Telvin Smith have been cleaning up, while safeties Barry Church and Tashaun Gipson are doing much, much better than we expected.
When it comes to a defensive line featuring Calais Campbell, Dante Fowler, Malik Jackson, and Yannick Ngakoue, there are also very few visible weak spots.
Yet the dominance does not stop on the defensive side of the ball. Rookie running backs Leonard Fournette and veteran Chris Ivory are arguably the best one-two running back punch in the NFL. They lead the league in rushing and last week rushed for 222 yards and two touchdowns in the win against the Pittsburgh Steelers — numbers that helped contribute to Fournette’s 466 rushing yards off 109 carries, good for second in the NFL.
Fournette-mania has well and truly hit Duval, and we know Doug Marrone wanted to run the ball a ton, suggesting at the start of the season he’d run every play if he could, but we didn’t think he was serious. It looks like all coming between Marrone’s dream and reality is offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett stepping in and saying:
“Hey… we can’t run every single play.”
Jacksonville has done a spectacular job hiding Bortles thus far, but how long can this go on? The coaching staff has done very well to field a competitive team, but we want to field a winner. Sooner or later, we’re going to need to find a quarterback.
There’s also the possibility of burnout for Fournette. At only 22 years of age, the 228-pound rookie needs to be managed well, as running backs are as prone to burnout as any position on the field.
It is good to have Ivory producing well behind Fournette, but he is 29, and has a long history of injuries.
Of course, the Jaguars have targets as well. The injured Allen Robinson and Dede Westbrook have huge potential, and Marqise Lee and Allen Hurns are great complementary talents. To unleash the potential of this offense, Marrone and Hackett need to complement this deadly running game with an expansive passing game.
However, let’s entertain what we have for the moment. How have the best running attacks fared in their pursuit of a Super Bowl?
According to Football Perspective, the best “adjusted” rushing team (relative to league average) since the merger was the 2011-12 Carolina Panthers. That attack featured DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart, as well as running threat Cam Newton at quarterback, who put up 2,408 yards on 445 carries on an Air Coryell offense, which is similar to what the Jaguars employ.
They finished with a 6-10 record, good enough for third in the NFC South, although they employed a 27th-ranked defense in points allowed.
After Carolina, the 1978-79 New England Patriots rank second, featuring a rushing attack of Sam Cunningham, Horace Ivory, and Andy Johnson. New England fared significantly better, going 11-5 and finishing first in the AFC East behind a 13th-ranked defense. They lost in the Divisional Round at home against the Houston Oilers.
Rounding out the top three were the 1975-76 Buffalo Bills, who featured O.J. Simpson, Jim Braxton, and quarterback Joe Ferguson. They went 8-6 behind a 21st-ranked defense, finishing third in the AFC East.
Clearly, none of these run-heavy offenses fared too well, but among the top three, there was quite clearly a correlation between a better defence and an improved performance. The Patriots team won their division with an only average defense.
Does this mean, with a defense as good as the Jaguars’ alongside a brilliant running game, we can hope for a deep postseason run? It certainly doesn’t seem crazy, but if you were to disagree, you’d point out two of the top three teams are from the 1970s.
For the record, the most efficient rushing team last year was Buffalo, first in yards, yards per attempt and yards per game. They finished 7-9 and 3rd in the AFC East.
On the contrary, we all know how well the NFL’s best defense seems to fair each season. Over the next few years, Jacksonville’s absolutely has the potential to be that.
Last year, it was the Patriots (champions), the year before, the Seattle Seahawks (Divisional Round), and the year before that, Seattle again. (I still can’t believe they didn’t run the ball!)
So, what do we make of this jumble of information? If the Jaguars find a quarterback, this team has a chance to be pretty special. Unfortunately, doing so might be the most challenging personnel task in all of sports.
We know our defense is special, and defense has long been looked to as the winner of championships. All-time rushing attacks are often just that, unless they are accompanied by an equally as proficient defense.
tl;dr — For those of you who feel like you wasted your time reading this, you did. All we know is, we need to find a quarterback.