Whenever I think of the Jaguars, memories of their prolific Mark Brunell-led offenses come to mind. Jacksonville, in 1999, was one of the best teams in the NFL. Led by head coach Tom Coughlin, they scored the 6th-most points in the league and allowed the fewest points in the league. Moreover, the Jaguars lost to only one team the entire season, the Tennessee Titans. Granted, the Jaguars fell short three times to the Titans, including in the AFC Championship Game.
In 2000, Jaguars played the Ravens in Baltimore and scored 36 points on a defense, which would allow just 166 points for the entire regular season. Jimmy Smith and Keenan McCardell combined for over 350 receiving yards on that Sunday. However, the Ravens overcame a 17-0 deficit to beat the Jaguars in Baltimore.
Coughlin was fired in 2002, and the Jaguars hired Jack Del Rio. The former Ravens’ linebackers coach, Del Rio changed the Jaguars’ identity from a high-powered offensive team into a smash mouth defensive team. Although the quarterback situation was relatively fluid, Jacksonville was relevant in the AFC. They challenged the Colts in the AFC South almost every year and made the playoffs in 2005 and 2007.
Del Rio’s final seasons in Jacksonville were atrocious. Jacksonville’s defense regressed, and the departure of David Garrard, who was so integral in the Jaguars’ playoff runs, left their offense in shambles. Last season, Maurice Jones-Drew was the team’s only bright spot on offense. He led the NFL in rushing last season with over 1,600 yards, averaging more than 100 yards per game. Jones-Drew’s statistics appear even more impressive last season, considering Jacksonville’s starting quarterback 1st round pick Blaine Gabbert was historically terrible. Gabbert posted a 65.4 QB rating and passed for nearly 147 yards per game.
Now, Jones-Drew wants out of Jacksonville. His holdout has evolved into an even more disturbing situation for the Jaguars. Jones-Drew wants to be traded, and although the Jaguars have upgraded their receiving core, their offense could be even worse in 2012. MJD accounted for a ridiculously high percentage of the Jaguars’ offense last season, and he is their most reliable pass catcher (apologies to Justin Blackmon and Laurent Robinson).
So, the question has to be asked: Without MJD, could the Jaguars be the second 0-16 team in NFL history? The Jaguars had a top-10 defense in 2011, but their schedule isn’t easy this season. Jacksonville has three games on the schedule that appear winnable (home vs. Colts along with away games vs. Vikings and vs. Dolphins); however, that’s contingent on Blaine Gabbert duplicating last year’s statistics. He could be even worse in 2012! A solid running game is a young quarterback’s best friend. While backup Rashad Jennings is no slouch, he isn’t close to MJD.
In the long-term, losing MJD might be a hidden blessing. If the Jaguars are the worst team in football, they’ll draft Matt Barkley with the first overall pick. He looks to be better than his most recent predecessors at USC, namely Mark Sanchez and Matt Leinart (but not Carson Palmer). Barkley will also bring much-needed stability to the Jaguars’ offense.
I’m just not sure being historically abysmal is worth the risk. Let’s face it: The Jaguars could still get the first overall pick even with MJD. Miami, Cleveland, St. Louis, and possibly Minnesota look to be contenders for the top spot in next April’s draft. Furthermore, MJD is a bonafide superstar and the de facto face of the franchise. Their attendance woes would only be exacerbated by his departure. Jacksonville needs to take a look at the contracts for either Matt Forte or Ray Rice and just get the deal done!