Following their fall from grace, Jaguars have a Lions-like identity problem
The Jacksonville Jaguars were right there, staring history in the face.
Entering the fourth quarter, they had a 20-10 lead against Tom Brady and the New England Patriots in the 2017 AFC championship game. The Jaguars just needed their vaunted defense — one of the best in the NFL that year — to hold on.
Spoiler alert: They didn’t.
Brady threw two touchdown passes in the final nine minutes and the Patriots went to the Super Bowl.
The Jaguars’ only other trip to the conference championship was 1999 and 2017 was their best chance to get to the Super Bowl, with an underthrown pass from Blake Bortles to Dede Westbrook knocked away in the final minutes.
That was the first full season for head coach Doug Marrone, who took over the previous season as the interim coach and brought optimism to a franchise that hadn’t made the playoffs or even finished above .500 in a decade.
Things were looking up for the Jaguars after a banner 2017 season. Since then, they’ve been looking up the standings, trying to find that same rhythm and combination that got them there. The current roster has turned over, with very few holdovers from that squad.
“That was an outstanding team. I thought they were playing really well, at the end of the year especially; you could just see,” said Lions coach Matt Patricia, who was the Patriots’ defensive coordinator in that game. “As you go through the course of an NFL season, you see how teams change, and you see how as you get toward Thanksgiving, those teams that are really starting to push and play at a high level, and you know that they’re going to be rolling through the end of December toward the playoffs.
“That’s a team that was doing that, certainly. I’ve known Coach (Doug) Marrone for a long time. He’s a great coach. He does a great job of just leading that team. I think that he understands what it takes to get to that point, but we all know that every year is a new year, it’s a new season in the NFL.”
Whether the success that season was an anomaly or catching lightning in a bottle, it goes to show that there is no straight line. The Jaguars (1-4) enter Sunday’s game against the Lions having lost four straight, with the performances of Marrone and general manager David Caldwell under the magnifying glass of team owner Shahid Khan.
They could be on the hot seat to show that they can get the Jaguars going in the right direction. After his success, Marrone got a contract extension, but patience could be wearing thin, with the rest of the AFC South leaving the Jaguars behind again.
The defense was the strength of that '17 squad, along with a strong rushing game that featured rookie Leonard Fournette, who had 1,040 yards and nine touchdowns. More than that, Bortles was solid and spread the ball around in the passing game.
One of the common thoughts in the NFL is that it’s easier than other leagues to rebuild a roster and contend. In some ways, that’s true, but after their time in the sunshine, Marrone and the Jaguars haven’t been back to the playoffs.
“Like Coach (Bill) Parcells used to say, there are about eight teams every year that are going to be consistently out there. The rest of them are trying to catch up and get there,” Marrone said this week. “I think you've got to solidify a couple positions, whether it's quarterback, pass rusher, cover corner, left tackle. If you get those kinds of foundational players in your system, and then have those guys play at a high level for a long period of time and build around them, obviously it gives you a greater chance to sustain consistency.”
Marrone also pointed to contract years and getting a good salary alignment so that a team isn’t losing a critical piece each year because of the salary cap. It’s as much the work of the front office helping to maintain the consistency as it is the players on the field.
That consistency is an element that’s critical in building an identity for a franchise. The 2017 Jaguars had one of the league’s best defenses, which became their calling card. Marrone points out that identity is the blueprint of everything, from roster construction to practice to games.
“Identity goes throughout the process on everything — of free agency, draft picks, the type of team you want, how you practice. I think a lot of that goes into it, because I don't think you can force-feed an identity without the players being able to emulate the type of identity that you want,” he said. “You've got to be able to do that in all the phases of what you do. So, I think a lot of that comes beforehand: ‘Hey, this is how I feel; this is the type of team I want, this is what we're looking for,’ and then saying that and then going out there and practicing it.
“Then the key test comes when you perform. We as coaches can say what we want to be, but really on Sunday, it's going to define who we are.”
As the Lions look to turn things around, the same identity question comes into focus. They’ve been a team built around Matthew Stafford and the offense, but the defensive improvement hasn’t followed as quickly.
The Patriots teams developed a swagger behind Brady and their tough defenses, but in a generic sense, building an identity is important for Patricia and the Lions as well, to get on the right track.
“It’s all about that team, that year, that you’re trying to build. So, for us, it’s the same. We’re trying to work through 2020 and try to get better and improve. As a team, we’ll come together, and we’ll keep pushing, and we’ve got guys that are working hard,” Patricia said. “I think that every year, every team in the NFL is certainly trying to find something that is going to be who they are for that year.
“Sometimes it takes teams a little bit longer, sometimes teams walk into the season and maybe it’s a carryover from the year before. I think you definitely see that, certainly, where there’s not a lot of change from the year before and they can just kind of pick up and keep going. But, it’s a long season.
“Sometimes that stuff changes as the season goes on, and the teams that are trying to find that through the course of the year, that’s part of the fun. That’s part of the process.”