If there was a message to be heard from last Thursday's 35-31 loss to the Indianapolis Colts, it would seem to be this: The Jaguars aren't there, yet, but they're closer than we might think. The question is: How close are they?
That's a question that will be answered by the Jaguars' performance in their final two games and, most importantly, by the team's evaluation of itself, which will be the first order of business when the season ends. Grades will be assigned and at that point the Jaguars will know where they need to get better and exactly how close or far they are to being the division title contender they want to be.
Those evaluations, of course, are secret, but you wouldn't have had to break into General Manager Gene Smith's (pictured left) office last winter and steal the file to know the final verdict was that the Jaguars, as of Jan., 2009, were not close at all to being what they want to be. Hence, the housecleaning and roster reconstruction began.
Nearly a full year later, there's no doubting progress has been made. They are a playoff contender. It was the unthinkable when the season began.
"We've laid a good foundation. That's what's most important. Now we have to build from there. I've seen individual improvement and tremendous growth in our young players and I'm confident it'll translate into bigger things," Smith said during an interview on Monday, as the Jaguars began preparations that'll conclude with a game in New England on Sunday that'll likely determine the Jaguars' postseason fate.
"I think it showed we're getting closer to where we want to be," Smith said of the game against the Colts, which the Jaguars led by three points midway through the fourth quarter. "The Colts are the benchmark team in our division and one of the best teams in the NFL."
If we use last Thursday's game as a measuring stick, here's what we know.
The bulk of the improvement this offseason will need to come on the defensive side of the ball. The Jaguars have been last in the league in sacks all year and they didn't come close to sacking Peyton Manning, who torched the Jaguars secondary as though he was playing a game of backyard pitch and catch.
"Your best pass-coverage is a pass-rush. We've certainly identified an area we have to address in the out-of-season, and that's the ability to affect the throw," Smith said.
The offensive side of the ball should be a strength for the Jaguars going forward. Maurice Jones-Drew is an NFL star running back and he and quarterback David Garrard have bookend tackles to clear the way and provide protection for the long-term future. Garrard has also seen a good-looking wide receiver corps develop during this season.
Heading into week 16 of the season, the Jaguars have the league's 15th-ranked offense, eighth in rushing and 18th in passing. Nearly all of the offensive stats are dramatically improved from last season, yet, fans have been hyper-critical of Garrard, the result of fourth-quarter failures in the last two games.
"You'd like to have that higher," Smith said of Garrard's fourth-quarter passer rating of 67.9, which ranks near the bottom of NFL quarterbacks. "All quarterbacks, in the end, are defined by winning."
Garrard has led the Jaguars to late-game rallies to beat the Rams in overtime, the Jets with a walk-off scoring drive and the Bills with a final-minute touchdown pass, and Smith cautions fans that quarterbacks with Garrard's physical abilities are difficult to find and replace.
"I'm confident in his abilities. I believe we can win with David. Football is a team sport, so you'll only be as good as the guys around you. To compete at the highest level, you need a good quarterback. I feel, as we grow as a team, David will continue to grow as a quarterback. He's got all the physical skills to make all the throws," Smith said.
Garrard completed a touchdown pass to Jones-Drew against the Colts that only a few quarterbacks in the league have the mobility to extend the play long enough to make: Donovan McNabb and Ben Roethlisberger, elite quarterbacks, immediately come to mind. Garrard ran to his left, then cut back to his right, outran the rush and then dropped a pass softly into Jones-Drew's hands in the end zone.
"David doesn't get enough credit for his toughness and competitiveness. This guy has taken how many shots?" Smith said.
Garrard took several hard shots in the last two games. They are shots that might've sent a quarterback of lesser physical endurance to the bench.
The next level for Garrard and the Jaguars is the playoffs. Can they reach that level this season?
"I think if we win the next two, we should make it. You got me talking about two games, we should be talking about one game," Smith said.
That one game is this Sunday's game in New England against Tom Brady and the Patriots. If the Colts are the benchmark in the AFC South, the Patriots have been the benchmark in the league for the past decade.
This will be another measuring-stick game for the Jags.