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A firm foundation


INDIANAPOLIS – This wasn't the ideal finish. No doubt about that.

This game wasn't close, and it wasn't competitive. And a 30-10 loss to the Indianapolis Colts at Lucas Oil Stadium Sunday afternoon certainly wasn't close to how Gus Bradley wanted to end his first season as the Jaguars' head coach, either.

And yes, it felt sometimes like the first half of the season, when the Jaguars lost eight one-sided games and before the season turned for the better.

All of the above is true, and you know what?  It doesn't matter.

What? Doesn't matter? A 20-point loss?

That's right. It doesn't matter. Not really. Not long-term.

Not in the big picture, anyway, and as was the case throughout 0-8 and throughout the three-game winning streak that made Jaguars fans remember how much fun the NFL could be – and really, as has been the case since Bradley and General Manager David Caldwell took control of this franchise in January – that is what matters above all else:

The big-picture.

And in the immediate aftermath Sunday, while he detailed what went wrong and what could have gone better, that big-picture was on Bradley's mind – at the forefront of it, really.

"If you look at wins and losses, you say, 'Was that enough growth? Was that what we're looking for…?" Bradley said. "But I think we have to look at the big picture. I can't say we changed it, but we brought in our culture. I can't speak for what took place here in the past, but I think we made great strides in that.

"As a team, coming together and playing as one, I thought we made great strides. I think we learned how to handle adversity and I think we learned how to handle prosperity. I think all of those things that took place maybe didn't show up on the scoreboard, but within our team, there's a feeling of great growth that took place."

The Jaguars finished last season 2-14. They finished this season 4-12 and will hold the No. 3 overall selection as the 2014 NFL Draft approaches. There will be speculation on that selection. Quarterback. Pass rusher. Trade down. Trade up. Those are topics for another day, topics critical to the future of the franchise, but perhaps as critical is that the players who join the Jaguars next offseason will join a franchise different than what it was a year ago.

The Jaguars as an organization know the direction. They know what Bradley is about. They believe in his message, in his style. They believe, as running back Maurice Jones-Drew and other veterans have said more than once – whenever asked, really – that the guy is different, that he is special.

A first-year head coach's mission is to win the locker room.

Bradley this season won it in a rout, and if he had a quote to remember Sunday, this may have been it: "I give credit to our team in that our whole objective was to create a new standard of excellence, what's acceptable."

Think about that for a moment …

That's what happened this season, isn't it?

A standard was established, a culture. Through the first half of the season, double-digit losses were the norm. Think back to the feeling among the fans as the team left London after a Week Eight, 42-10 loss to the San Francisco 49ers at Wembley Stadium in London …

The players believed. The coaches believed.

Few outside the team did.

That feeling is no more, and that didn't change Sunday. That's partly because the Jaguars were playing Sunday without a slew of players. Injuries hurt this team significantly at the end of the season, with wide receiver Cecil Shorts III, cornerback Dwayne Gratz, linebackers Russell Allen and Geno Hayes, defensive tackles Roy Miller and Brandon Deaderick being lost for the season in recent weeks. For a roster that by any measure was not among the league's elite – and a roster without suspended wide receiver Justin Blackmon – that's a lot to overcome and maintain a competitive level.

Bradley wasn't leaning on that after the game, and players weren't, either, but as middle linebacker Paul Posluszny said afterward with a smile, "It didn't help."

No, it didn't, but injuries – even as many as the Jaguars endured late in the season – weren't the theme Sunday. And the loss isn't, either. The theme isn't even the retirement of center Brad Meester, or the uncertain future of Jones-Drew or other veterans.

Those storylines will play out in the coming weeks, but the theme for Sunday, as it was throughout the second half of the season, is that there no longer is any doubt about the direction of the Jaguars.

"Our record is not what we wanted at all, but we've seen growth," Posluszny said. "We know where we want to go, that we're going to set a high ceiling. We know what we have to do get there. Right now, it's tough to see that because we lost this game in the last game of the year, but once we get back and regroup, we'll say, 'OK, here's where we started. Here's where we are. Let's keep moving forward.'"

The shakiness is gone. The foundation is firm.

And big-picture around the Jaguars, that's a very good feeling indeed.

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