BALTIMORE—Everybody wants to know why. Everybody wants to know what went wrong with the Jaguars in 2008 and why nobody saw it coming.
Well, I sat down with the past few years' media guides, season-in-review manuals, league rankings and all other pertinent forms of statistical material, and I gave the whole thing deep thought. I accessed my memory of events that don't appear in the stats. I went back through the Jack Del Rio years game by game and I formed a conclusion. Here it is:
• The Jaguars' window of opportunity opened earlier than we thought and closed when we thought it was going to open widest. We missed it. What we witnessed this year is part of the natural life cycle of an NFL team. The window opens, the window closes. We just didn't see the glass.
After further review, it is my opinion the Jaguars' window showed its first crack of daylight late in the 2004 season, Del Rio's second year as head coach. The next three years were the Jaguars' prime seasons, but two factors conspired to cause the Jaguars to win only one playoff game during that time.
- The Jaguars were unsettled at the quarterback position and that left the team unable to realize its full potential.
- Every time they appeared to be on the verge of turning the corner, they ran right into Tom Brady.
Let's go back to 2004; back to that infamous day-after-Christmas game against visiting Houston. You remember the game, right? The one with a half-empty stadium? That's how the Jaguars played that day.
At 8-6 and coming off a rousing win in Green Bay, the Jaguars were poised to claim a playoff berth with a win over lowly Houston. Their window of opportunity was unlocked and waiting to be opened, but the Jaguars failed to do so, losing 21-0.
We blamed the loss on immaturity. I think that's a fair assessment. Everybody played poorly that day, including the team's second-year quarterback, Byron Leftwich. He wasn't ready to be a playoff quarterback and the Jaguars weren't ready to be a playoff team, but that loss became a great source of offseason motivation. That game became a launch pad for the future and it launched the Jaguars into three very good seasons.
In 2005, the Jaguars posted a 12-4 record that was one of the best marks in the league and Leftwich was playing the best football of his career on Nov. 27 when the Jaguars were playing at Arizona. Then Leftwich broke his ankle, was replaced by David Garrard and even though the Jaguars won four of their final five games, the unsettled nature of the quarterback position was too much to overcome when the Jaguars faced Brady and the Patriots in New England in round one of the playoffs.
Del Rio reinstated Leftwich as the team's starting quarterback for that playoff game, marking Leftwich's first action since breaking his ankle in Arizona. Would it have mattered who played quarterback for the Jaguars that night? Hey, Brady was the other quarterback.
The Jaguars' 2006 team, in my opinion, is their best under Del Rio. That team was second in the league in rushing and fourth in rush-defense. It was a monster that physically whipped its opponents. It was also a team that underwent a midseason switch at quarterback from Leftwich to Garrard and the controversy that accompanied it.
At 8-5 and coming off a 375-yard rushing performance in a rousing win over Indianapolis, the Jaguars were poised to turn the corner and become one of the AFC's elite teams. Then Garrard had a meltdown in Tennessee and a week later the Jaguars faced a must-win game against, you guessed it, Brady and New England.
The simple fact of the matter is that Garrard wasn't ready for prime time. Everything else about the Jaguars was ready to go but the quarterback position was in a state of change and that's not the thing of which elite teams are made.
Heading into 2007, Del Rio undoubtedly knew his team was in its peak window of opportunity and couldn't afford to squander any more chances. He made a bold move right before the start of the season, cutting Leftwich and making Garrard "The Man." It was a decision Garrard reinforced by elevating his game to the top of the league's passer rankings.
The Jaguars were on a late-season roll that included the franchise's first playoff win in eight years when the team rolled into New England for a divisional round playoff game against Brady and the undefeated Patriots. The Jaguars scored first and kept pace with Brady until late in the game when Dennis Northcutt and Matt Jones dropped what would've been touchdown passes. Meanwhile, Brady completed 26 of 28 passes in another scintillating performance against the Jags.
Little did we know the Jaguars were out.
The team desperately attempted to patch its holes during the 2008 offseason, throwing big money at a couple of free agents and trading away half of their draft picks to select the pass-rushers the team believed it needed to be able to climb through its window of opportunity and into the rarified air of an NFL title. What we didn't know and still don't want to accept is that the window had closed.
Why? That's for everyone to spin in their own way but, in my opinion, the Jags got old. A three-year window is about the NFL norm. They had their run, but they didn't get their quarterback situation settled until they were in their final thrust and, even then, they kept running into Brady.
The shame of it is that this is the year they could've avoided him.