If hope “springs” eternal in the baseball world, that optimism shifts forward to the summer in football, the time of year every fan across the country believes their club is on the verge of being a Super Bowl contender.
Even the most diehard of Jacksonville Jaguars fans have had trouble convincing themselves of that kind of narrative in recent seasons, however.
The Jags really haven’t been relevant since the 2007 season when Jack Del Rio was still the head coach and David Garrard was under center. That group finished 11-5 and beat the Pittsburgh Steelers in a Wild Card playoff game before coming up short to New England in the divisional round.
The ensuing seven years have resulted in a combined 34-78 record with no playoff berths. In fact, Jacksonville hasn’t even had a winning season over that span with the high-water mark being .500 (8-8 in ’10). And the bottom has fallen out after that one brush with mediocrity as the Jaguars are a dismal 14-50 since with four consecutive double-digit loss seasons.
The current regime of general manger Dave Caldwell and head coach Gus Bradley have stewarded over seasons of 4-12 and 3-13, and the honeymoon is just about over. Progress is now expected and most in northeast Florida want significant improvement, a tough task in the division with an Indianapolis team led by Andrew Luck and a rising, talented Houston club, which could be a quarterback away from being a legitimate contender.
On paper, Caldwell has done a solid job of adding talent since taking over, drafting 6-foot-5 signal caller Blake Bortles with the No. 3 overall pick in ’14 and slowly adding skill-position talent around him.
Receivers Marqise Lee and Allen Robinson were both snared in the second round the same year Bortles was selected and they’ve now been joined by former Denver Pro Bowl tight end Julius Thomas, who was given a big-money deal in free agency, and a potential bell cow runner, former Alabama star T.J. Yeldon, a second-round pick back in April.
Anyone expecting the Jags to be in Santa Clara next February for Super Bowl 50 is the definition of a Pollyanna, but for the first time in nearly a decade, the team’s fans can finally look in the mirror and expect success without lying to themselves.
To reach that modest goal in a quarterback-driven league, the linchpin will have to be Bortles, who certainly showed some signs as a rookie but struggled more often than not, going 3-10 as a starter after replacing journeyman Chad Henne.
The Central Florida product completed 58.9 percent of his passes and threw 11 touchdowns versus 17 interceptions, a dismal ratio in a pass-happy era which must be flipped in his sophomore campaign.
Caldwell believes part of Bortles’ struggles, at least later in the season, were due to a “dead arm,” something you usually don’t associate with 23-year-olds. Bortles, though, was sacked a mind-numbing 55 times last year and was playing with a balky shoulder.
“We wanted a (QB) that played with no fear, was very aggressive in his mindset and (had a) very strong mindset,” Bradley said. “To go through a season like that … that would affect quite a few people. But he took on all those challenges, and he didn’t flinch.”
“People don’t realize that as you look later in the season, he was on injury report,” Caldwell claimed while talking with USA Today. “You’ve just got to do what you’ve got to do to survive. It wasn’t anything that was ingrained in him (mechanically). He knew he was doing it. But in order to drive the ball 15 yards, there were some things that he needed to do to get the velocity on the ball.”
All of that means keeping Bortles healthy, confident and clean for the upcoming season is paramount. So while it’s fair to focus on the upgrades the Jags have made at the skill positions, perhaps more emphasis should be put on the revamped offensive line.
In order to keep the hits to a minimum in ’15, Caldwell brought in a couple of free agents in center Stefen Wisniewski from Oakland and right tackle Jermey Parnell from Dallas, and complemented that with AJ Cann, a third-round pick out of South Carolina who could make some noise inside at guard. Meanwhile, improvement is expected from former No. 2 overall pick Luke Joeckel at left tackle as well as guard Brandon Linder, a third-rounder in ’14.
Caldwell and Bradley are wed to the QB they’ve chosen and their denouement in Jacksonville will be tied to Bortles’ ultimate success.
To date, the Jags’ brain trust has made all the right moves to try to maximize the value of their most precious asset. Whether it works or not is now up to Bortles.
“We know, come game day, he can do the stuff — the off-schedule things, the out-of-the-pocket stuff — that’s part of the reason we drafted him,” Caldwell said. “But now that this is looking the way it’s supposed to, it’s encouraging.”
You can reach JF McMullen at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @jfmcmullen — Also listen to John weekly on YAHOO! Sports Radio, YSR Indianapolis, ESPN Atlantic City, ESPN Lexington and ESPN Southwest Florida.