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Reasons for improvement


For the eighth game of the season a year ago, the Jaguars were preparing for a trip to Baltimore, where they would face the league's leading rusher, Jamal Lewis. Prospects were not good for a team coming off a terrible thrashing by its arch-rival, the Tennessee Titans.

It didn't get any worse than it was at this point in the season a year ago. The Jaguars were 1-6 on their way to 1-7, and they were at their absolute lowest point emotionally. There were concerns they might not win another game.

They did, of course, win four more games, but the above description of the state of the Jaguars in the eighth week of the 2003 season is not an exaggeration. The situation was bleak. The record was bad and the roster was undergoing a weekly facelift.

So what has caused this dramatic turnaround? A year to the week later, the Jaguars are 5-2, in first place in the AFC South and, by and large, the toast of the NFL. How has it happened?

"From a pure roster standpoint, we recognized when we got here that we had a lot of work to do. We have not made as many changes this year because we haven't felt the options available have been upgrades," coach Jack Del Rio said of the team's radical change in its personnel posture.

A year ago, almost every name on the waiver wire represented an upgrade. This year, almost every name on the waiver wire has been dismissed by the Jaguars.

So, we begin with that explanation: The Jaguars have a better record because they have a better roster. It is the simplest and most profound reason for the Jaguars' turnaround. Simply put, they have done a great job of roster reconstruction.

Consider the measurable improvements:

• The Jaguars have established their long-term future at the quarterback position. Byron Leftwich has rapidly developed into a quarterback who can get it done now and will probably get it done at a star level for a long time to come.

• Linebacker has gone from a position of concern to a place of depth.

• Wide receiver has come alive with the surprising emergence of a fourth-round rookie who has been the main addition in a group of pass-catchers that is significantly better than last year's crop. Let's not forget, too, that this year's version of Jimmy Smith is head and shoulders above the Smith who was overweight a year ago and spent the first four games on suspension.

• The kicker is a star. Last year, the Jaguars were losing games because of missed field-goal attempts.

• Accumulation of young players who can run and hit give the bottom half of this year's roster a decided edge over the scrap heap Del Rio and his staff had at their disposal a year ago. That difference is most noticeable on special teams. A year ago, the Jaguars' special teams were the worst in the league. This year, they are winning games.

• Del Rio is more comfortable with this year's coaching staff.

Leftwich, of course, represents the most dramatic improvement. Teams improve relative to the performance of their quarterback, and relative to the way he was playing at this time a year ago, it's easy to see why the Jaguars are four wins better than they were in week eight of last year.

Heading into that game in Baltimore (his fifth start) Leftwich had completed 86 of 147 passes for a 58.5 completion percentage, 1,105 yards, six touchdowns, nine interceptions and a 70.3 passer rating. You might remember that Leftwich also had a fumbling problem at this time a year ago. It was a major reason for the week-eight loss in Baltimore.

Compare those midseason numbers from last year to his current stats this season: 152 of 233 for a 65.2 completion percentage, 1,664 yards, nine touchdowns, five interceptions and a 90.1 passer rating.

Apparently young quarterbacks actually do get better with age, and so do young teams. In this case, the improvement is just a little faster than anyone expected.

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