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End of the season exam


(Dec. 26)—So we've reached the end of the season. It's time for a little state-of-the-franchise examination.

Let's do a little past, present and future look at the Jaguars. Where are they now, how do they compare to where they were a year ago, and where do we expect them to be a year from now?

Where are they now?—The Jaguars are 5-10 and tied with Houston for third place in the AFC South. Three teams in the AFC have worse records than the Jaguars and 11 have better records. But the rankings present a very different picture. If you were to look only at the rankings, you might believe the Jaguars are headed to the playoffs. They are the sixth-ranked defense overall and they are second against the run. Offensively, they are 13th overall, 10th in rushing and 16th in passing. In other words, they are in the top half of the league in five of the six offense-defense rankings; only their 18th against-the-pass ranking is in the bottom half of the league. So, why don't the Jaguars have a better record? Because they've committed 30 turnovers, which has them at minus-four in turnover differential. They've also struggled in the red zone on offense (13th in the AFC), and their defense has struggled in getting teams off the field on third down (27th in the league in third-down defense). The combination of those factors has left the Jaguars in a tie for 24th place in points scored.

Performance on the field isn't the only major issue with this team, however. Television blackouts are a major concern, and they reached a franchise-high six this year. That was the result of the Jaguars hitting a franchise low in attendance; 53,509 per game.

How do they compare to a year ago?—The Jaguars may finish with the exact same record (6-10) and in the same place in the AFC South standings as they did a year ago. But there's a major difference in the rankings. This year's team is significantly better on defense; 14 ranking places higher than last year. The difference is the result of improvement against the run; the Jags were 25th against the run in 2002. Offensively, the Jaguars are significantly better rankings-wise, but last year's team scored more points and, more importantly, was night-and-day better at protecting the ball. The Jaguars lost only 15 turnovers last season, making it one of only four teams in NFL history to commit fewer turnovers than games played. Last year's Jaguars didn't turn the ball over in three consecutive games against Pittsburgh, Cleveland and Cincinnati, but lost two of those games. Another major difference is how the two teams started and ended their seasons. Last year's Jaguars won three of their first four, but lost five of their last six. It resulted in Tom Coughlin being fired the day after the season ended. This year's team lost its first four games of the season, but has won three of its last four, which has created a very positive outlook and energy for 2004.

Last year's ticket sales swooned to what was then a franchise-low 56,277 per game. That also contributed to Coughlin's dismissal. It has to be of major concern that attendance continues to decline.

Where to from here?—There's every reason to believe the Jaguars will compete for the division title next season. Tennessee has major salary cap problems and Indianapolis could lose Peyton Manning in free agency. Meanwhile, the Jaguars used this season to identify building blocks for their future, and that's why the outlook for next season is so bright. If Byron Leftwich develops into a more efficient quarterback next season, the Jaguars could become one of the league's surprise teams. The Jaguars need some personnel upgrades, but they have enough cap room and they should be high enough in the draft to make another major step toward becoming a playoff contender.

Now here's the big question: If that happens, how will it impact attendance? Will winning cure the Jaguars' ticket-sales problem? It is rapidly becoming the most major question confronting this franchise.

Now, here are 10 things the Jaguars have to do to beat the Falcons.

  1. Have energy—The Falcons' energy is suspect. They were rubbed out harshly by the Colts and, with interim coach Wade Phillips in a lame-duck situation and the winds of change about to become a gale, the Falcons may not be all-out for this one. An all-out effort by the Jags might cause the Falcons to take an early "shower."
  1. Get after Vick—Michael Vick is still the player around whom the future of the team is built, and there's still concern for his ankle injury. They're not going to risk his recovery in a meaningless game against a team trying to rough him up.
  1. Stop the run—It may be the only thing the Falcons do respectably. They're in the middle of the league rankings in rushing. They're nearly dead last in the other three categories.
  1. Score touchdowns—End the red-zone problems and give Jaguars fans reason to believe next year's team will throw touchdown passes, not interceptions.
  1. Play for the rankings—This hasn't been a good year in the standings for the Jaguars, either. But their rankings are awfully impressive, and that should be a source of pride.
  1. Make it personal—Play for the incentives in the contract. It's professional football. It's play for pay. There's nothing wrong with being motivated by money.
  1. Prove it to your fans—Fans want to believe the players' hearts are in what they're doing. This is when players can make that statement the loudest.
  1. Finish positively—That's what a win would make the final five games of the season.
  1. Forget the draft order—Let fate prevail. The draft is four months away. Don't start making picks now.
  1. Do it for the coach—All wins and losses are on his permanent record.
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