The rock on which Jack Del Rio built the "new" Jaguars has been eroded by time and injuries and the laying of a new foundation is likely to be the focus of the offseason.
Rock-ribbed defense had been the Jaguars' calling card through the formative years of the Del Rio era. From the midway point of Del Rio's rookie season (2003) as head coach through the 2006 season, the Jaguars established a reputation for having one of the NFL's most powerful defenses. That reputation began taking dents last season and it crumbled in the wake of this year's fall to 5-11.
The defense acquired elite status in 2005, when it rose to number six overall in the league, 14th against the run and seventh against the pass. A season later it peaked with a number two overall ranking, fourth against the run and 10th against the pass.
It was a defense built on two cornerstone defensive tackles, Marcus Stroud and John Henderson, coach Tom Coughlin's final two first-round picks before he was fired following the 2002 season. Del Rio inherited a sound foundation and he knew just what to do with it.
Stroud, however, sustained a serious ankle injury during the week of the 2006 season-opener and his production fell markedly for the next two years. That injury marked the first dent in the Jaguars vaunted defense.
The decline began in 2007 with a 12th overall finish; 11th against the run and 15th against the pass. Gone was the trademark aggressiveness and gone, too, was the pass-rush.
This season, however, saw what is hoped will have been a bottoming out of the defense. Stroud was traded in the offseason and Henderson's production continued to decline.
So where to from here?
"Last year (2007), we went down a little on defense but our offense improved," cornerback Rashean Mathis said as players cleaned out their lockers on Monday and headed home for the winter. "The teams in the top five don't have inconsistent games," he said.
The Jaguars allowed a season-high 431 yards to the Baltimore Ravens on Sunday, in the Jaguars' regular season finale. The Ravens are 18th overall offensively, but what really stings about Sunday's loss is that rookie quarterback Joe Flacco threw for 297 yards for a team that finished the regular season 28th in pass-offense.
Clearly, the Jaguars need to address their pass-defense in the offseason.
"The young players have to not be young anymore. The leaders have to lead and the young players have to follow. The young players have to understand that this is a business; this is how we live," Mathis said.
Linebackers Justin Durant and Clint Ingram would seem to be young, building-block players for the future. Along with linebacker Daryl Smith, who is in his early playing prime, they are players around whom it would seem the future of Jaguars defense will be built.
"We've got the talent. We've got to execute our assignments better. The talent is there," Durant said following Del Rio's final address to his team on Monday.
"I wish it wasn't ending so fast. I have another five games left in me," Ingram said. "There is definitely room for correction and improvement. (The coaches) will get to the bottom of it," he added of the defensive decline.
So what will getting to the bottom of it mean? What measures will Del Rio and company take to fix the defense? It would seem to be the number one question as the Jaguars head into the offseason.