The Jacksonville Jaguars have swung wildly on the pendulum of offensive strategy and play since coming into the league in 1995. While they are still a relatively new organization and franchise within the league, the early returns were plentiful, to say the least.
Across two separate eras, the Jaguars dominated offensively in two distinct areas of offense — through the air and on the ground.
While there’s no way to combine the two, it’d be interesting to see which two eras of Jaguars football would combine to be the best offensive duo in its history. And so we did.
Two eras of football changed the direction of the franchise forever, but for two very different reasons: 1996-2000 and 2006-2011. While only one era was overtly successful in the win/loss column, both were dominating throughout the league.
1996-2000: Through the air
Going back two decades, the Jaguars were the talk of the town. And it’s not just due to their status as a new kid on the NFL block — this was a team that was legitimately very good in the passing game, stacking up against the best of the best which included passing offenses such as the Green Bay Packers, Dallas Cowboys, and San Francisco 49ers in the early years, and the St. Louis “Greatest Show On Turf” Rams in the latter years.
All teams featured passing attacks that would look highly competitive in even the current era of football, but the Jaguars were the Cinderella story of their first few seasons.
Three players acted as cornerstones for the Jaguars’ offensive prowess over the half-decade: Mark Brunell, Jimmy Smith, and Keenan McCardell. Certainly, the production given on the ground by running back Fred Taylor added to the mix a great deal, but the passing game was its bread and butter.
Due to their being a new franchise, the Jaguars were unable to hand pick their players like other teams around the league. New head coach Tom Coughlin had to scrape the bottom of the barrel to find players suitable for his new look, pass-happy offense.
Brunell, a former fifth-round selection by the Green Bay Packers, was traded to the Jaguars in 1995 for a third and fifth-round pick, which will go down in history as one of the best trades the franchise has ever made.
Smith, selected in the second round of the 1992 NFL Draft by the Cowboys, always had the talent to perform. However, after failed campaigns in Dallas and an incredibly short stint with the Philadelphia Eagles, he would eventually make his way over to the Jaguars in free agency in 1995, becoming the best receiver in franchise history.
McCardell, selected in the 12th round of the 1991 NFL Draft by the Washington Football Team, never had much of a career early on with Washington or the Cleveland Browns, but eventually signed a big-time contract with the Jaguars just prior to the 1996 season, becoming the team’s 1B receiver with Smith, and ultimately growing into the Thunder to Smith’s Lightning.
Even a cursory look at the box scores was eye-popping.
From 1996 to 2000, the Jaguars ranked 14th, 3rd, 8th, 6th and 8th in total points, while coming in 2nd, 7th, 10th, 7th and 7th in yards over the five-year span, respectively. In 1996, Brunell led the league in passing yards with 4,367 yards, while tossing 19 touchdowns on the year.
During the passing game explosion by the Jaguars during that time, Brunell completed 1,395 passes for 16,949 yards, 91 touchdowns, and 59 interceptions.
In that same span from 1996 to 2000, Smith would become one of the best receivers in NFL history — 450 catches for 6,599 yards and 33 touchdowns. For perspective’s sake, two of the most prolific receivers during the same time span — Issac Bruce and Marvin Harrison, both currently in the NFL Hall of Fame — were unable to match those numbers.
For Bruce, over the same five-year span, he caught 336 passes for 5,246 yards and 34 touchdowns, while Harrison added 413 receptions for 5,554 yards and 47 touchdowns. Simply put, Smith was one of the most electric receivers of all time, hence the nickname Lightning.
McCardell, during the same time span, caught 306 passes for 5,283 yards and 24 touchdowns. He quickly became the sure-handed pass-catcher the Jaguars (and Brunell) needed over that time, and helped the Jaguars reach two AFC Championship games in 1996 and 1999.
Under the guidance of Brunell, Smith, and McCardell, the Jaguars succeeded with a record of 52-28, the best five-year span in team history.
But good things never last forever. With every passing season, opposing players got a little faster and tackled a little harder. The wins were fewer and the losses mounted. Tom Coughlin was fired and a shift in team philosophy came in 2002 with the hiring of Jack Del Rio.
It was time to watch the run game (aided by as a stout a defense this team has ever put on the field of play) take over.
However, before we get there it should be known that from 1996 to 2000, Taylor was able to accomplish perhaps some of the best rushing performances in NFL history, including a staggering 1,223-yard, 14-touchdown campaign in his rookie season, and a 1,399-yard, 12-touchdown campaign in 2000.
Surprisingly though, it wasn’t until the early-late 2000’s that Taylor and the Jaguars rushing game took off.
2006-2011: On the ground
From 2002 to 2011, the Jaguars rushing attack truly took off, not only thanks to first-round selection in 1998 in Taylor, but also due to 2006 second-round selection Maurice Jones-Drew out of UCLA. Both players would go on to earn incredible accolades in their own right. But it was in 2006 when both took the field at the same time that things got really fun for this franchise.
Before that, however, the Jaguars offense — quite literally — ran through Taylor. From 2002 to 2005, Taylor accounted for 4,897 yards on 1,086 carries (4.5 yards per carry) with 19 touchdowns, while catching 146 passes for 1,206 yards and two touchdowns over the same span.
While it was never ranked as a top-five unit, the Jaguars rushing game during a time was still electric, ranking 10th, 8th, 16th and 10th again over that time span.
After the team drafted Jones-Drew in 2006, the combination of Taylor and Jones-Drew would go down in history as the best one-two punch at running back in franchise history.
Aside from a down year in 2008 in which the Jaguars ranked 18th in rushing, the team had an incredible span from 2006 to 2011, ranking 3rd, 2nd, 18th, 10th, 3rd and 12th, respectively.
Taylor would be released by the team in 2009, ultimately paving the way for Jones-Drew to take over as the team’s bell cow back. But while the two were teammates, they combined for 1,127 carries for 5,437 yards and 45 touchdowns.
When he became the team’s leading rusher in 2009, Jones-Drew brought back memories of classic Taylor in terms of his dominance, except there was no passing game to balance the team out — it was all on Jones-Drew’s shoulders.
In 2009, Jones-Drew accounted for 32% of the team’s total yardage with 1,391 rushing yards and 374 receiving yards. The team racked up a total of 5,385 yards on the season.
In 2010, Jones-Drew accounted for 1,324 rushing yards, adding 317 receiving yards on the year.
And in 2011, Jones-Drew rushed for a league-high 1,606 yards, while adding 374 receiving yards.
In all, the Jaguars rushing game ranked 10th, 3rd, and 12th from 2009 to 2011, respectively.
The Jaguars have had many ups and downs throughout the years. But these two eras are near and dear to every Jaguars fan’s heart — the exhilarating pass attack of the 1990’s and the dominating ground game of the mid-to-late 2000’s will still get smiles and chuckles in bars all across Duval.
And even fans of other teams, if they’re old enough, will still tip their cap to two of the best offensive eras across the league.