JACKSONVILLE – The rubber hallway bustled, and weights clanged.
This was Wednesday around EverBank Field, and if the previous day had been about checking in, getting checked out and all the preliminary stuff that comes with getting a professional football team ready to work, Wednesday had a decidedly different feel.
A back-to-work feel. A getting-it-started feel.
A back-to-school feel? Yeah, a little bit, because if Wednesday was defined by anything at EverBank Field, that may have been it: a newness, a freshness, even a giddiness.
This was the first day of the Jaguars' 2014 offseason program.
And while we don't want to overstate the importance, and while there is a loooooong way to go before anything that officially counts happens, it's still hard to overstate the feeling around the 'Bank. First day of school?
Sure. Only on Wednesday, everyone wanted to be there.
"No question," veteran tight end Marcedes Lewis said. "I can remember times when I was like, 'We have to go back tomorrow.' This time, my mom was like, 'Are you ready?' I was like, 'I can't wait to get back.'
"I can't wait to get back to work and get better. That's what it's about."
Those following the Jaguars last season heard a similar refrain, a refrain that has grown louder this offseason. Such quotes aren't only familiar, they're becoming downright common. It starts with Head Coach Gus Bradley, and players tell you it has extended into the hallways and the culture and the internal drive of the organization.
So, what's new this year? What's different?
On the surface, perhaps not much. Bradley on Wednesday said his message to the team hasn't changed because if the message is strong there's no need to change. But there is a difference this offseason – a confidence, perhaps. Last offseason, players bought into Bradley's message and hoped it would be effective, hoped what they were seeing was real, hoped it could produce results.
Now, there is plenty of reason to believe.
"Gus set a culture last year," Jaguars wide receiver Cecil Shorts III said. "It was a rough year for us record-wise, but he set a culture. Everybody's on the same page. We understand where they're coming from and what they want, and that's exciting."
Shorts, entering his fourth season, noted that this is the first year he has played for the same head coach who started the previous season.
That ain't unprecedented, but it ain't insignificant, either.
"We don't have to worry about somebody coming in and, 'Are we going to believe in them? Are we going to trust them?'" Shorts said. "We already trust (General Manager) Dave (Caldwell). We already trust Gus. We already trust the coaching staff. We trust (Jaguars Owner) Shad (Khan). He's building this video game-type stadium. Everything's coming together. It's exciting."
That was maybe the biggest difference the veterans talked about this week. Last year, what Bradley said sounded really, really good. Now, the message is ingrained. Now, when he talks of getting better, competing and improving every day a core of veterans get it without thinking about it.
The culture Bradley talked about establishing last season? Veterans wouldn't say it is done being established, but that's because veterans know better than to say anything is "finished" around Bradley.
But it's a lot closer than it was a year ago, and you could feel that around EverBank.
"We're not talking about 'Ws and Ls,'" Lewis said. "We're just talking about real people coming into an organization and revamping the whole attitude and direction. A couple of years ago, as far as morale, we felt like we were at our lowest. To have a guy come in here and totally instill a mindset that everybody wants to be around is amazing."
Most of the veterans under contract are in town. That includes Lewis and kicker Josh Scobee, who with the offseason retirement of center Brad Meester and departure of running back Maurice Jones-Drew are now the Jaguars' two most-tenured players.
While the offseason is voluntary except for one mandatory minicamp in June, Lewis said not being here for the offseason wasn't even a consideration. He wants to be a part of this, and everywhere around the Jaguars' locker room, the sentiment was shared.
That ain't insignificant, either.
None of this is to say what Bradley and Caldwell are building is close to being built. Caldwell is preparing for his second draft, and it will take more than two drafts – maybe more than three – to get the roster fully healthy. But it is fair to say the there's hope around this franchise, that there's solid footing, and it's fair to say that hope is real.
It felt real the second half of last season, and it felt real throughout the offseason when national media types and potential free agents continually talked about a feeling that something special could be happening in Jacksonville.
The feeling is hard to define, but it's certainly a fresh feeling – yeah, even giddy.
And as the 2014 offseason begins, that's certainly a feeling those around EverBank can believe in.