Optimism for the Jaguars, again
In recent years, it's been hard to muster up real enthusiasm for the on-field prospects of the Jacksonville Jaguars. That's not to say fans have not been loyal; even through seasons with many more losses than wins, the team has drawn at the box office, by and large avoiding blackouts. The same will hold true this year for all seven of the team's home games in Jacksonville.
Despite this, the national media has routinely lambasted Jacksonville and its fans. The team is subpar, they say, and the town isn't worthy of being an NFL city. And every time Shad Khan looks at a road atlas, someone seems to have a blog post or a column saying he's going to move the team. We saw it most recently when Khan bought the Fulham club in the English Premier League; certainly, went the logic, he's going to move the Jaguars to London.
How stale is that line of thought in 2013? How broken is that logic? Given that Khan in his short tenure has seemed more involved with the franchise than Wayne Weaver ever was, and that he's gone to great lengths to improve the stadium — everything from the public-private partnership for the scoreboards to the locker room and training facility upgrades — it seems ridiculous to play the "Jags Are Moving" card at this late date. Not to mention Khan's interest in The Shipyards and other Downtown properties similarly belies that meme.
The fact is, Khan didn't buy an NFL team so that it would lose 10 games a year for the next decade. Maybe change isn't coming quickly enough for some Jags fans, but what we are seeing is a concerted effort to remove the stench of defeat from EverBank Field and replace it with something we haven't whiffed in a long time: the sweet smell of success.
There are many reasons for optimism as the team enters the regular season.
Improved offensive line: It's been a long time since the Jaguars have had two tackles as good as Eugene Monroe and Luke Joeckel. We have to go back to the old days, when Coughlin prowled the sidelines and Mark Brunell stood behind center, to find a comparable duo — Leon Searcy and Tony Boselli. I'm not ready to anoint the new tandem as the equivalents of those legends; what I am seeing, however, is that Jaguars quarterbacks (Blaine Gabbert and Chad Henne both) have had the time to make reads and quality throws without having to fear blindside ambushes of the kinds that just ended Buffalo Bills quarterback Kevin Kolb's career.
Offensive playmakers: Time was when we could count on the Jaguars having a bunch of receivers who were well over 6 feet tall, who lacked real speed, quickness and the ability to make plays and pick up yards after the catch. Remember Ernest Wilford, Reggie Williams and Matt Jones? Not a lot of elusiveness there. Today's roster is chock-full of exciting talent – wide receiver Ace Sanders, offensive weapon Denard Robinson and running back Jordan Todman, to name three. The days of stolid, slow Jaguars attacks will be as forgotten as the John Peyton administration. And not a moment too soon.
Blaine Gabbert: I have some confidence in him — certainly, more than in previous campaigns. In part, because of his weapons. Justin Blackmon might be a knucklehead off the field; on the field, though, he has the most talent of any wide receiver I've seen in the teal-and-black. Cecil Shorts III is the player the Jaguars' brain trust had hoped Mike Thomas would become, but never quite did. Marcedes Lewis and Maurice Jones-Drew are still on the roster and still dangerous. And maybe it's just my Pollyanna attitude again, but I think he's projecting more maturity. The real test? A tight game, during a playoff race. Will Gabbert lead the Jags to the Promised Land?
Defense: The defense wasn't working last year, and components have been sent packing. Rashean Mathis is now in Detroit, where it seems all former Jaguars go to finish their career — since the Lions hired James "Shack" Harris in their front office. Derek Cox is in San Diego, where he'll try to be the No. 1 corner the team otherwise would lack. During the preseason, the Jags have put a lot more pressure on the quarterback than at any point last year. How much do I believe in this squad? I have the defense starting in my fantasy league — and it's not a 30-team league. I believe in Sen'Derrick Marks. I believe in Gus Bradley. I believe this team might actually be fun to watch. Don't quote me if they lose three in a row, though; in fact, maybe you shouldn't quote me at all.