Activity begins again this week with the start of free agency and, for the first time since the winter of 1999, the Jaguars and their fans have reason to feel good.
Think about it. The winter of 2000 was spent in a state of post-AFC-title-game-loss depression, the winter of 2001 was a period of desperate contract restructuring just to get under the salary cap, 2002 was bye-bye time for some of the most popular players in team history, and last winter was spent embracing the hype of a new era but not with realistic hopes of anything more than a rebuilding season.
Much has changed. A survey of the current Jaguars landscape reveals a team with a healthy salary cap, a roster of young players in ascent, and in a division whose two playoff teams have the league's worst salary cap problems.
Two winters ago, everything about this franchise was about disappointment. It was still lamenting its AFC title game defeats. It allowed – no, begged – the Texans to "steal" three players. The Jaguars' salary cap was loaded with players on other teams' rosters, meanwhile, the Jaguars' roster was loaded with players other teams didn't want.
The Jaguars were in free-fall; a team in the throes of cutting its most expensive players so it might replace them with some of the game's least expensive. Where there was talent on the Jaguars roster, there was age or injury. At almost all other positions, there was no talent. Losing was almost guaranteed, and none of us knew how long it would continue. There was reason for legitimate despair.
As the Jaguars head into this Wednesday's first day of the league calendar year and the start of free agency, the team's salary cap has but a half-million dollars of "dead money." Yeah, that number is going to swell quickly with the trade of Mark Brunell and the release of Tony Brackens, but those moves will also result in $10.8 million of additional cap room.
Why? Because the Jaguars have been using their heads.
The reversal of fortunes for this franchise over the last two years is almost inexplicable. They've fixed the worst cap problem in history in just two years, and if getting $16.9 million of amortization help from a team inside their own division qualifies as an amazing stroke of good fortune, then what do we call this Wednesday's trade with the Redskins?
Three years ago, when Brunell was at the top of his game, the Jaguars couldn't deal him. But the Jaguars seemed almost obsessed in retaining trade value for Brunell, and just when it appeared as though all of that was for naught, the Redskins jumped up and offered the Jags a first-day pick.
If Wayne Weaver pushed back from his desk and took stock of his team today, he'd have every reason to smile. The numbers look good, he has a young quarterback around whom he may build his team of the future, he's finally going to get a return on his Brunell investment and the division in which his team resides would seem to be wide open. Better, yet, two of the four teams in the Jaguars' division have every reason not to smile.
But there are two remnants from the Jaguars' winters of discontent: A losing record and empty seats. All of the emphasis now falls on solving those two problems. The Jaguars must win games and sell tickets or all of the other corrections will have been meaningless.
The really good news is that this year there truly is reason to believe a winning record is possible, and nothing sells tickets like winning. Therein lies the greatest difference of all. No sales pitch necessary this offseason. We don't need to tell ourselves lies. Look at the cap. Look at the roster. They tell us all we need to know.