Thursday, July 19, 2007

Get to know a football team: the Jacksonville Jaguars

So this is my second-round submission to the Football Outsiders -- a team profile of the Jacksonville Jaguars. I've spent the last 72 hours pouring over websites, articles and other sources for Jags-related items, and now I feel...almost dirty. In any event, let me know what you think.

Jacksonville Jaguars Team Essay

In the summer of 2004, a fledgling television channel called “The NFL Network” broadcast a documentary series titled “Inside Training Camp: Jaguars.” In addition to following the ups and downs of a 12-year-old kicker named Josh Scobey, the six episodes featured a young, brash, charismatic head coach named Jack Del Rio preparing his team for the upcoming season. Standing on the sidelines during one humid practice in July, Del Rio was asked by safety Donovin Darius to explain his vision as head coach. “Like a man on a mission,” Del Rio responded, “trying to find 53 other men going the place I’m going.”

Three years later, we’re still not sure what Del Rio’s mission is (apart from a strange fondness for wearing rumpled Reebok suits), or where the 53 Jaguars under his tutelage are going. The Jaguars’ schizophrenic character last year – they beat the Colts twice; they lost to the Texans twice; they had a dominating defense; they had a moribund passing game – has become the hallmark of Del Rio’s reign as head coach, and is reflected in Jacksonville’s 30.1% week-to-week DVOA variance, first among all 32 teams (see the yo-yoing chart above). Although the Jags tallied a very respectable overall team DVOA of 21.9%, good for sixth in the NFL, they finished with an 8-8 record and missed the playoffs after closing their season with three straight losses. As a result, virtually everyone agrees that Del Rio is on the (keep) chopping (wood) block this year, and must lead the Jaguars to a playoff win if he wants to keep his job. There are reasons to doubt he will be able to do so.

The problem starts at quarterback. Although much was made of the Miami Dolphins’ decision to pass on Brady Quinn, many Florida state residents living 110 miles to the north were wondering why the Jaguars passed on the potential franchise quarterback when he went into draft-day freefall. One obvious answer: Del Rio knows he needs to win now, and thus he decided he couldn’t spend a season trying to develop a rookie quarterback. Indeed, Del Rio caught so much flak for passing on Quinn that he took the unusual step of publicly stating that he wanted the Notre Dame QB but was overruled by the Jaguars’ vice president of player personnel, James “Shack” Harris.

We may never know whether Jack or Shack decided against picking Quinn, but what remains is a very serious question about who will lead the Jaguars’ offense in 2007 and beyond. After the draft concluded, Del Rio publicly recommitted to the mercurial Byron Leftwich as his starter, but this pledge of support was undermined by the front office’s ongoing flirtation with free agent Daunte Culpepper. Meanwhile, David Garrard is wondering how he went from everyone’s favorite backup quarterback to potentially getting cut (answer: Garrard’s -2.4% DVOA last year). Del Rio should forget about Culpepper and Garrard, however, and focus instead on helping Leftwich regain his confidence and developing into the player that showed such promise as a rookie.

But who exactly is Leftwich supposed to throw to? Like the Lions and Falcons, in recent years the Jaguars have spent two first-round picks on wide receivers, and much like Detroit and Atlanta, the Jags have yet to see their investment pay off in any discernible fashion. Matt Jones and Reggie Williams are both oversized number three receivers at best, and Ernest Wilford looked lost last year after he started facing double teams (and dropping balls). During minicamps, new wide receivers coach Todd Monken couldn’t stop raving about Charles Sharon – an undrafted free agent who’s never caught an NFL pass – and the coaches seem way too excited about newly signed Dennis Northcutt, who is horrible at catching balls that have been thrown rather than kicked. The Jaguars also drafted two small school wide receivers, third-round pick Mike Walker from Central Florida and seventh-round selection John Broussard from San Jose State, to challenge for starting time. Jimmy Smith these guys ain’t.

If there is hope on offense, it lies with running back Maurice Jones-Drew. Even in the Great Rookie Class of Aught Six, MJD stood out as an electric, game-changing player who could score any time he touched the ball – he managed to total 26 rushing DPAR on only 166 carries, and 17.1% DVOA on 46 receptions. Ironically, former offensive coordinator Carl Smith’s run-first philosophy would have perfectly suited MJD’s skill set, but Del Rio fired Smith and replaced him with former Arizona State University head coach Dirk Koetter, making Koetter the Jags’ third offensive coordinator in four years. Koetter led ASU to a less-than-impressive 2-17 record against ranked teams during his four-year tenure, but supposedly he’s a “vertical” passing guru who can design a game plan that takes advantage of Leftwich’s arm strength. Hey there Mr. Koetter, here’s a suggestion: instead of passing, try running MJD up the other team’s nose with a rubber hose.

Jones-Drew’s breakout performance was largely due to the surprising success of the Jaguars’ offensive line. The unit isn’t loaded with household names, but they worked extremely well together last year, ranking second in adjusted line yards. As a result, Meester, Manuwai, Naeole & Barnes managed to make Fred Taylor look like an effective rusher again, reversing three years of DVOA decline for Formerly Fragile Fred. The addition of former Raven right tackle Tony Pashos, who excels at run blocking, should only improve their effectiveness.

To have any realistic shot at making the playoffs, the Jaguars will again have to dominate on defense. Last year, Del Rio and defensive coordinator Mike Smith took a unit that performed very well in 2005 (-10.2% team defense DVOA, 7th overall) and turned into one of the league’s elite (-17.7% DVOA, 3rd overall), despite injuries to some of their biggest playmakers, including DE Reggie Hayward and DT Marcus Stroud, and despite recovering only four fumbles – a statistical aberration that almost certainly will not occur again. Given how unlucky this unit was in 2006, the defense can only improve, right?

Well, maybe, but it’s more likely that the Jaguars defense will regress a little (and only a little) toward the mean this year. For starters, it’s still unclear whether their injuries will have healed up by the time the Jaguars play Tennessee on September 9th. Hayward is an excellent pass rusher, and capable of making everyone around him look better due to the double teams he commands, but unfortunately he ruptured his Achilles’ tendon last year, and no one knows whether he’ll be ready for training camp. Hayward’s replacement, Bobby McCray, is no slouch – he recorded a career-high 10 sacks last year – but in Del Rio’s 4-3 defensive scheme depth at end is critical to maintain production over all 16 weeks. Put simply, the Jags need the return of a healthy Hayward.

The defensive line will also benefit from having Marcus Stroud at full strength at tackle. Stroud missed five games in October and November with an ankle injury, and he struggled after returning to the lineup, which may help explain the Jaguars’ limited effectiveness last year against “power” runs: they ranked 25th in stopping short-yardage runs of two yards or less on 3rd or 4th down. If Stroud’s offseason surgery is successful, he’ll play alongside John Henderson, who is arguably the best tackle in the NFL – even if he does sound more like a high-school biology teacher than a murderous pass rusher.

The other potential problem is in the secondary. Rashean Mathis played in his first Pro Bowl last year, and demonstrated that he’s one of the top young cornerbacks in the league – but he’s also a gambler who takes chances to make big plays. That risk can be effectively managed by a smart safety who positions himself properly in case the coverage is blown, which is exactly what the Jags had in Deon Grant. But Grant departed for the greener hills of Seattle in free agency, and in a move the Jaguars may soon regret, the team released veteran strong safety Donovin Darius, who was immediately snapped up by Oakland. As a result, the Jags are left with Gerald Sensabaugh, who stepped in for the oft-injured Darius last year, and first-round pick Reggie Nelson from Florida as their starting safeties. Nelson is a rookie, albeit one with great potential, and Sensabaugh was far more effective against the run than the passing game, so don’t be surprised if offensive coordinators test these two by throwing deep on the Jaguars this year.

But these are relatively minor quibbles. The reality is that, once again, Jacksonville has one of the NFL’s best defenses sitting alongside one of the league’s most disappointing offenses. To succeed this year, Del Rio must prove he can commit to Leftwich at quarterback, gameplan around the team’s strengths (hint: some people call him Maurice), and somehow manage to cobble together a semblance of a passing game. Anything less than this will have Del Rio leading different men on a different mission in 2008 – as a defensive coordinator, not a head coach.


Blogger Jimmimoose said...

The research is fantastic here, Benji, the article is clear and written well, and sprinkled through with humorous little quips, perfect FO-style. Only comment would be that this might be a little TOO perfectly FO-style, you know? It doesn't quite have the ring of your voice coming out of it, something you normally capture perfectly in your writing. This is great, but it sounds like you're trying to impress through imitation just a touch.

But well done! The Jaguars are a perpetually interesting team. I never know on a season-to-season basis what to expect from them.

I'm gonna miss football this year, dammit. Sigh!

11:49 AM  
Blogger Ben said...

That's an interesting point, Jimmimoose. I find I do tend to adopt writing quirks of the people I read. For example, I've caught myself writing "Please excuse me while I rake my face over a cheese grater" or the equivalent thereof, just as Bill Simmons does. In my previous Seahawks essay, I used "gnashing of teeth and rending of garments," which is stolen from Gregg Easterbrook (Tuesday Morning Quarterback). It's something to watch for.

One thing I have worried about is that my "style" involves a fair bit of profanity. Something I'll have to deal with if I ever make it to the big leagues.

1:13 PM  
Blogger Jimmimoose said...

There are places where profanity can be an asset, though. But yeah, I know what you're saying.

Honestly, though, I don't think you need to change too much about your writing. As most of the readers of TPV can attest to, your flair is unique and dynamic, but not over pretentious. I likes it.

3:12 PM  

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