JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (AP)The Jacksonville Jaguars usually mess it up.
They fired Tom Coughlin too soon. They kept Jack Del Rio, Gus Bradley and Doug Marrone too long. They gambled on Urban Meyer, Nick Foles, David Garrard and countless others, and almost always got burned.
Whether it was draft picks, free agents, coaches or general managers, it’s been one mistake after another for years – decades, really.
Even when it looked as if the floundering franchise was headed in the right direction in 2007 and 2017, Jacksonville followed successful seasons with head-scratching moves: trading four picks to select Derrick Harvey; re-signing Blake Bortles.
But now, as the Jaguars (9-8) bask in their second AFC South championship and prepare to host the Los Angeles Chargers (10-7) in a wild-card game few could have reasonably expected following a five-game skid in October, it’s clear they finally got it right.
Here’s a look at some key decisions that sparked a turnaround in which Jacksonville has more than doubled its win total from the previous two years:
– Keeping general manager Trent Baalke. Fans organized a ”clown out” for last year’s finale to protest owner Shad Khan’s decision to retain Baalke following the Meyer debacle. But Baalke’s personnel moves have been spot-on, although it remains to be seen whether drafting Travon Walker over Aidan Hutchinson was the best choice.
– Hiring coach Doug Pederson. Landing Pederson was a five-week process during which the Jaguars seemed focused on Nathaniel Hackett or Byron Leftwich. Khan eventually circled back to Pederson, who has proven to be the right guy to mentor a young team, help players recover from Meyer’s tumultuous tenure and develop quarterback Trevor Lawrence.
– Spending an NFL-record $270 million in free agency. It’s perhaps the best class in franchise history, a group that includes four guys who enjoyed career years: linebacker Foye Oluokun, receiver Christian Kirk, tight end Evan Engram and receiver Zay Jones.
– Trading running back James Robinson. Sending Robinson to the New York Jets for a sixth-round pick in October cleared the way for second-year pro Travis Etienne. He responded with 1,441 yards from scrimmage and five touchdowns.
– Moving on from cornerback Shaquill Griffin. The Jaguars are 1-4 with the high-priced Griffin in the starting lineup this season. The veteran was beaten repeatedly in a loss at Indianapolis in mid-October and landed on injured reserve 10 days later.
– Making defensive tweaks. Jacksonville benched struggling linebacker Devin Lloyd for two games and started platooning him with fellow rookie Chad Muma, slid cornerback Darious Williams outside from the slot and got Walker more snaps with his hand on the ground. The adjustments have Jacksonville playing its best defense of the season.
”We’ve come so far,” Pederson said. ”Just think about back in April and May, when we first got together, you’re trying to teach a winning culture. You’re trying to flip a script, so to speak. You just are not sure until you start playing games just how that’s going to look.
”Listen, these guys, they trust in me; I trust in them. They never wavered. … To win nine games in our first year together is pretty impressive for the guys in the locker room.”
The Jaguars have delivered three consecutive defensive gems, although they came against quarterbacks Joshua Dobbs, Davis Mills, Jeff Driskel, Zach Wilson and Chris Streveler. Justin Herbert should provide a much tougher test for a unit that’s allowed just 22 points in its past three outings.
WHAT NEEDS HELP
Slow starts have been a season-long trend, although Jacksonville has won three home games this season – against Tennessee, Dallas and Las Vegas – in which it trailed by double digits.
Safety Rayshawn Jenkins has twice provided the pivotal play during Jacksonville’s five-game winning streak. His strip-sack of Dobbs led to Josh Allen’s 37-yard fumble return for a touchdown that was the difference against the Titans.
Jenkins was even better last month against the Cowboys. He finished with a career-high 18 tackles and two interceptions, including a shoestring grab he returned 52 yards for a score that ended the game in overtime.
Now, Jenkins faces the team that drafted him in the fourth round in 2017 and then let him leave.
Veteran guard Brandon Scherff had his hands full against Tennessee’s talented defensive front. He gave up Jacksonville’s lone sack and seemed a step slow while playing through an ankle injury.
Jaguars reported no injuries against Tennessee.
2 – number of starters Jacksonville has on injured reserve. Left tackle Cam Robinson and left guard Ben Bartch have missed a combined 15 games.
A fifth consecutive home victory would be Jacksonville’s longest streak since winning seven in a row at TIAA Bank Field in 2017.
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