(The second of two stories talking to Jaguars defensive coordinator Mel Tucker as the coaches wrap up their off-season preparation for the 2011 season) . . .
Sometime soon, Mel Tucker expects to get going.
When that happens, when the 2011 lockout at last ends, Tucker – entering his third season as the Jaguars' defensive coordinator – said his task and the task of the Jaguars' defensive coaching staff is clear.
Improvement is expected, and it will be expected immediately.
Tucker said the 2011 off-season, despite the absence of off-season workouts and meetings and practices with players, has been spent toward that end, with the prevailing theme among the defensive coaches leaning toward making that improvement as attainable as possible.
Of the off-season, Tucker said of the defensive staff, "We maximized it. The studies that we've done and the projects that we've done have been as good as I've been around in college or the NFL."
For Tucker, that has meant an emphasis on simplification.
And while on-field simplification in schemes has been the dominant off-season defensive theme – Tucker and Jaguars Head Coach Jack Del Rio very much want the team to play faster and more aggressive and believe simpler schemes and packages will yield that result – simplicity in off-field approach also is critical to Tucker's 2011 philosophy.
"We have to be as efficient as possible in our teaching progression," Tucker said recently. "The installation of the defensive package will be critical, and that's just teaching."
Tucker said much time has been spent in recent weeks focused on that area, with Tucker's overriding message to coaches being to ensure that what is being taught to players in the coming weeks is as easily digested as possible.
Though not the only reason, Tucker said the lockout-shortened off-season makes simplicity more important.
"A key is getting the quality reps, and making sure the reps are not wasted," Tucker said. "We have to be as efficient as possible in our teaching progression – from the classroom, to the notebook, to the video, to the walk-through, to the run-through, to the scrimmage to the game. We have to be as efficient as possible in our methods of teaching and getting those guys to play the way we want them to play."
Tucker said his conversations with assistants this off-season have emphasized taking a realistic approach to the time immediately following the lockout and before the season. Tucker said time management and meeting structure will be critical, with coaches needing to quickly install and emphasize points that normally could have been introduced and drilled at a slower pace.
"It's a lot of things – verbiage, and laying out clear goals and objectives," he said. "Is this going to help us play faster? Is this going to help us tackle? If we don't tackle better, none of this matters. . . . A premium has been put on planning. If I have a decision on how many coverages or how many blitzes to install, I ask myself, 'Can we do this and play fast on Sunday?' If we can do something and play fast consistently, we do it. If we can't, then the question becomes, 'Do we need to cut it back? How are we going to do this?' We have to be honest with ourselves. It's not what we know. It's not what we've done before. It's what the players are going to know. We have to be realistic. It takes hard questions and you have to be willing to hear honest answers.
"I'll say, 'OK, that's solid. You have 40 minutes to teach that, because here's the meeting schedule. We have eight practices before this first test. This is great, but show me the meeting plan about how you're going to get it taught in 30 minutes.' There can be no, 'Well . . .' We know how much meeting plan we have. We can't have, 'Well, he'll get that – he'll pick that up.' No, How many reps are we going to get? Can it be done?' Everybody has the same issue, so my thing is, 'Our system has to be first-term, ready to be able to do this.' It's not, 'We're looking to hit our stride in six weeks.' It's now.
"I think the players will buy into that, and I think they'll respect that."
Tucker said while the much of the off-season talk around the Jaguars has been about defensive players being added in free agency – particularly at linebacker and safety – such acquisitions haven't been critical to the off-season planning. Tucker said he began the off-season planning as if the Jaguars would enter 2011 with the players from the 2010 roster and he never wavered from that approach.
"From an experience standpoint, that's the best way to approach it," Tucker said. "We're not in the excuse business. We're in the this-is-what-we've-got-business. We're going to coach who shows up – whether it's injuries, losing players, gaining players, whatever . . . at the end of the day, this is who we have. As a coach, you're always trying to bring out what you can do to get better. The guys who are in this building are here for a reason: at some point in time, someone thought they could play. So, don't waste time wondering who you're going to have.
"Now, do you make contingency plans to arrange different packages? Yes, but that's part of the planning process, that you have certain things that fit certain kinds of personnel. Some packages are better when you have a multitude of linebackers. Some packages are better when you have more defensive linemen that you want to get in the game, or more secondary guys. It depends on who you have, but you have packages up and ready to go. But within those packages, you want to be concise, streamlined, teachable, learnable."
Tucker said whatever the circumstance – lockout, free agency, injuries, etc. – he knows the reality is the Jaguars must improve defensively. And Tucker said while the time lost because of the lockout may make the transition more difficult for free agents signed, he said, "The bottom line is, we're playing football.
"We have to run, we have to hit, we have to tackle," Tucker said. "We have to have a system where people can do that. We're lining up in that first game and we need to be playing fast, we need to be aggressive and we need to be tackling. People need to look at us and say, 'Those guys are playing fast. Those guys are having gun. Those guys are physical. I haven't seen a run over 12 yards all day and I haven't seen a big pass in three weeks.' That's what we want to see. That's the goal. That's what we're preaching.
"All the variables that take place – lockout, how much time you have with veteran guys – it all boils down to, 'Is it going to help us do that?' It's up to us as coaches to plan that way. When we decide on Day 1 what defenses to install, we're going to know how much time we have to prepare for the first game. We know what it looks like and we'll know what we need to have to be ready to go for this game.
"There are no excuses in there. There is no, 'If we had more time . . .' or, 'If this guy had been here longer . . .' No. There's nothing built in for that. It's built in for bottom-line production at a high level consistently in games.
"We're being very realistic about what our expectations are, and they're high."