There’s a sense of renewal in Jacksonville, which is needed.
New owner Shad Khan offers a high-energy, engaged presence, but hasn’t shown himself to be a meddler yet. Also, he has the best mustache in the NFL by a wide margin.
But the fact he was willing to stick with an in-place general manager in Gene Smith and hire a coach in Mike Mularkey that wasn’t a flashy name is evidence he’s willing to let his football people work on football, while he worries about tarps and the like.
That’s a good thing, because fixing the Jaguars will take more than a year, and wouldn’t benefit from a rich guy standing over the process every day.
For a team with three winning seasons and two playoff berths in 12 seasons, the institutional shakeup can’t hurt, and may be exactly what they needed.
They have a solid if not spectacular group of personnel on defense, particularly the secondary, and Mel Tucker was retained as coordinator because the work he’s done on that side has been good.
They were sixth in the league in yards allowed last year, despite a raft of injuries and an offense which was no help whatsoever.
Hiring Mike Mularkey to replace Jack Del Rio as head coach wasn’t the popular choice in some corners, but he could be the perfect fit.
While his run in Buffalo wasn’t a rousing success (two years, 14-18), he still brings a set of credentials that dovetails nicely with what the Jaguars offer at the moment.
As an assistant, his record is successful, particularly recently. He was given a rookie quarterback in Matt Ryan, and they helped Atlanta to four straight winning seasons with a franchise that had never gone back-to-back.
Plus, Mularkey has a young quarterback’s best friend in running back Maurice Jones-Drew, who led the league with 1,606 rushing yards last year.
Throw in fifth-overall pick Justin Blackmon and free agent pickup Laurent Robinson at wide receiver, and there’s the potential for a solid set of personnel on the offense. Tight end Marcedes Lewis can’t be as bad as he looked last year, and gives them a mid-range target that should help the quarterback feel more comfortable.
The Jaguars’ biggest problem at the moment may be that their weaknesses lie so close to their strengths.
Jones-Drew’s great to have, but is currently grouchy about his contract and who knows if he’s showing up to camp on time.
Blackmon has limitless potential, but his offseason drunk driving arrest raises legitimate questions about his maturity given what’s expected of him. Marcedes Lewis, without a rebound to his previous form, is an expensive drag on the system.
But mostly, it’s quarterback Blaine Gabbert, who simply looked lost as a rookie.
Gabbert has all the tangibles you want in a passer, but looked, for lack of a better word, scared last year. Perhaps that’s the fault of a makeshift offensive line (which hasn’t improved dramatically), but Gabbert himself looked unsteady on his feet, which is far worse than if it can be solely blamed on the tackles and guards.
For him to raise the Jaguars a level, or to be anything other than a failed draft choice, he’s going to have to step into the pocket in the face of pressure and deliver the ball. He has some weapons on the outside, so that excuse is gone. Now he’s going to have to become more secure as a player and a leader and make the team his own.
Mularkey’s upbeat style and offensive prowess stand in stark relief to his predecessor, but that’s usually the case in coaching searches.
Jack Del Rio made his name on defense, and helped the Jaguars there for a while, before his act wore thin.
Having someone new and focused on the task at hand will doubtless help, as it wasn’t hard to see Del Rio and management weren’t even singing the same kind of music, much less the same song.
The tweaks they made this offseason were subtle, personnel-wise.
Laurent Robinson was given a five-year, $32.5 million contract in free agency based on his potential as a deep threat (15.9 yards per catch for the Cowboys last year), but the fact remains he’s only started 24 games in his career, nearly half of those for a really bad Rams team in 2010.
Bringing in veterans such as cornerback Aaron Ross and wide receiver Lee Evans wasn’t as splashy, but they hope adding some stability to a young group helps.
Also, signing a capable backup quarterback in Chad Henne was wise in case Blaine Gabbert goes off the rails. And based on last year, that’s entirely possible.
The Jags have a problem other teams envy.
Their competition at cornerback opposite Derek Cox is between two completely able veterans, rather than a casting call of kids with no experience.
Between Rashean Mathis (coming back from a knee injury) and former Giant Aaron Ross, the Jags have a solid 1-2, and even the loser of the competition will play prominently.
Otherwise, they better hope that their quarterback situation doesn’t become a competition, because Blaine Gabbert needs a sense of stability if he’s going to have any chance to succeed this year.
There are reasons to think this could work, nearly all of them tied to how Blaine Gabbert develops.
The early returns from the offseason were good, and if he can reverse course, the Jaguars could be a better team in 2012.
They have the benefit of playing in an AFC South with at least one team as bad as they are (the Colts), meaning they won’t simply be swamped in the division. And opening at Minnesota gives them an opportunity to steal a road win against another bottom-dweller with reasonable questions about their young quarterback.
Solid-to-respectable would be the upper limit here.
Although the defense might be quite good, it might not be able to withstand the pressure the other side of the ball puts on it.