Their season ended as it started, with disappointment, but in most ways this season was never about what the Jaguars might do in 2003, but what they could be expected to do in 2004.
And that begs the big question: Based on what they did this year, can the Jaguars entertain legitimate playoff expectations for 2004?
"I haven't gotten into what I expect for next year. We've got a long time to look at our team," coach Jack Del Rio said immediately following his team's season-ending, 21-14 loss to the Atlanta Falcons today. It left the Jaguars at 5-11 and with a sour taste in their mouth to begin an offseason the team hopes will close the gap between what it is now and the playoff contender it wants to become.
"In a lot of ways, today was a microcosm of the entire season. We did not do things well early, similar to the start of the season. Then, in the end, we fell short. Our record is not what we want it to be. We have some clear examples of what we want to be as a football team," Del Rio added.
The loss to the Falcons was disappointing because the Jaguars' run-defense, which had been the star of the team's surge during the second half of the season, played its worst football of the year in the first half. It allowed T.J. Duckett to rush for 73 yards and a touchdown that helped stake the Falcons to a 21-7 lead by halftime.
Offensively, the Jaguars posted another 100-yard rushing performance by Fred Taylor, and quarterback Byron Leftwich played efficiently, but the Jaguars couldn't put the ball through the uprights or in the end zone with the game on the line.
"They did a good job of getting our guys on the ground. Any team that tries to come out and pound you, they're going to take advantage of that," Del Rio said in faulting his run-defense for poor technique.
The Jaguars allowed a season-worst 166 yards rushing, but kept Duckett under 100 yards. Duckett rushed for 96 yards, which left Carolina's Stephen Davis as the only running back to reach the 100-yard mark against the Jaguars this season.
"You wonder if the same people were out there," Del Rio said of the difference in his defense from the first half to the second half. "It was the way it needed to be in the second half."
The Jaguars held Michael Vick and company scoreless in the second half, but weren't able to close the gap. Taylor totaled 121 yards rushing for the day; his seventh 100-yard game of the season and his sixth in the final eight games. And Leftwich completed 19 of 32 passes for 167 yards, one touchdown and no interceptions, but he wasn't able to get the Jaguars into the end zone in either of two late-game drives that moved deep into Falcons territory.
"We didn't play bad today, but we didn't play well enough to win," Leftwich said.
"I think we came out flat; no energy in the first half. That's not how a team that's trying to get better should start the game," Taylor said.
The Jaguars moved from their 38-yard line to the Falcons' seven, where they faced a fourth-and-five with 7:42 to play. Del Rio sent the field goal team onto the field but, following a time out, appeared to have a change of heart.
Leftwich barked signals and appeared to have drawn Falcons defensive tackle Ellis Johnson offside, but the call went against the Jaguars. That caused Del Rio to have Seth Marler attempt a 30-yard field goal, which was blocked.
"He didn't give us much of an explanation," Del Rio said of referee Tom White. "I believe he called it on the quarterback. We'd like to have that offside penalty and be first-and-goal right there."
Leftwich said he was told the penalty was "on me and two other people."
But the Jaguars got a second chance to tie the game the next time they had the ball. Leftwich triggered an impressive drive from the Jaguars' 12-yard line that moved to the Atlanta 14. In the drive, the Jaguars converted fourth-and-two and third-and-seven plays. But on a fourth-and-two at the 14, Leftwich's pass for tight end George Wrighster was incomplete.
"Byron played well. We did not turn the ball over offensively. Fred's been phenomenal all year. Byron was very efficient. You can see the progress he has made," Del Rio said.
"I believe we've identified some real building blocks," he added of the major accomplishment the season produced. "We've addressed some areas and there's still some work to do."
After an 0-4 start that caused a 1-7 mark at midseason, the Jaguars rallied for a 4-4 finish. Of course, a win over Atlanta would've left the Jaguars to feel a lot better as they went into the offseason. It would've left the Jaguars with a winning record in the second half of the season, and it would've left Leftwich with a 6-7 record that would've represented the best winning percentage by a Jaguars quarterback since 1999.
"Next year, when we get a full year together, then this thing will come full circle," Jimmy Smith said, referring to a full year with Leftwich as the team's quarterback. Leftwich missed last summer's training camp while negotiating a contract, and he didn't become the team's starting quarterback until the fourth game of the season.
"I think it's a realistic expectation," Smith said when asked if the Jaguars can consider themselves a playoff contender for next season. "Are we a playoff team? We'll have to wait and see. That's where we're headed."
Amazingly, Smith never caught a pass from long-time starting quarterback Mark Brunell this season. By the time Smith returned from his suspension, Brunell was out of the lineup.
"He improved a lot," Smith said of Leftwich. "Next year he'll be a much better quarterback. He's going to win a lot of games for us."
Del Rio instructed his players to watch the playoff games. "They earned the right to be in the playoffs and we did not," Del Rio said.
That the Jaguars wouldn't earn that right became obvious early in the season. The rest of the season was about next year. Now, the countdown to next year begins.