Why the Jaguars will make the 2013 playoffs
First, let me say I'm not a fan of the new logo. I think the cat’s head is slimmed down too much, the ears are too pointy, and the tongue — why it's still teal is beyond me.
That said, I understand the need for it — just as I understood the need to take the team to black uniforms. Aggressive rebranding is necessary for this franchise to take the great leap forward. It's time. In fact, it was long past time.
Change came quite slowly and cautiously in the Wayne Weaver era. The original Jaguars owner was a throwback in a way that fit Jacksonville of a bygone era — a time when Baymeadows Road was two lanes and Mandarin was still out in the sticks.
By the time the team got to the 21st century and the interminable Jack Del Rio epoch, it seemed like Weaver was standing still while so many other teams in the league were moving forward. The chances that were taken — Matt Jones as a project wide receiver in the first round, Jerry Porter as a big free-agent signing — seemed like half-measures, partly because the coaching staff didn't seem able to maximize the talent on hand. The David Garrard phase seems a lifetime ago, partly because there are so few signature memories attached to it.
We're long past that now. Garrard will likely never play another down of pro ball, and his replacement, Blaine Gabbert, inspires little confidence outside his own locker room. It doesn’t seem to matter too much. This team — 2-14 last year, with the No. 2 pick in the upcoming draft — has something intangible going for it. And there are tangible factors, too.
Let’s start with the head coach. When Mike Mularkey was hired, the fan base and NFL observers were both underwhelmed. He hadn’t had rousing success during his previous head coaching stop in Buffalo, and his mild-mannered personality seemed anticlimactic after the tempestuous Tom Coughlin and Jack Del Rio, who definitely could show fire when he wanted. It was inconceivable that he'd get only one year to prove himself; after 2-14, though, all bets were off, even if one could argue that the team wasn’t as bad as that record indicated.
Gus Bradley — now, there's someone who's a bit different — more amped-up in a way that promises results. Anyone who watched the Seattle defense he coordinated last year knows there was something special and dynamic about that team. Watching the moves of a cornerback like Richard Sherman and comparing it to the feckless play of the Jaguars’ counterparts illustrates the gap between the franchises. Bradley is clearly the kind of coach for whom players will run through walls. Mularkey, not so much.
The coaching change augurs well, as far as transforming this club into a winner goes. Another positive sign is more economic in nature. As I write this, there are a lot of quality free agents becoming available – cap casualties from their previous teams. The Jaguars have about $22 million in cap space. This means the team can acquire quite a few veterans in free agency if it avoids the mistakes of previous management and ownership and sign players too early, paying a premium for a positive offseason headline without maximizing the value of that cap room. Word is, the team will exhibit discipline and not bid against itself for talent, though there are a few premium free agents the Jags may check out anyway.
Who might we see here? An upgrade at quarterback, perhaps, with Seattle backup Matt Flynn, who was expected to start before wunderkind Russell Wilson took the job. Someone like the Jets' Bart Scott at linebacker, Cliff Avril from the Lions at end, or the Steelers' Mike Wallace to bolster an underrated and emergent free-agent group — these are some players who'd look really good in the black-and-teal. The Jaguars are well-positioned, and general manager David Caldwell is young and savvy enough to see where the league is now, and to anticipate where it's going. Most Jaguar fans are excited by all of this, and they should be.
I haven’t made a habit of dressing things up to be more than they are, and I won’t start now. It may be rocky for this team at first, as the players and coaches acclimate to the new conditions. It's easy to see a re-energized franchise getting 10 wins and a wild-card berth — or even more, if the Texans and Colts fall off. That would be enough for all the local fans who are sick of losing; at least, in 2013.