JACKSONVILLE – The culture has changed inside and around the Jaguars.
As Trent Baalke saw it, that was clear as the Jaguars surged to the end of the 2022 regular season into the postseason. The city and fans embraced the team. The team embraced back.
And that effect is still being felt.
"It's a great community, and I think that the players got a real taste of what that community can offer," Baalke said.
Baalke, entering his third season as the Jaguars' general manager, spoke to the media this week at the 2023 NFL Scouting Combine. Head Coach Doug Pederson did, too. Both spoke of an improved culture in and around the team – and the importance of that improvement as the team moves from a memorable/successful 2022 AFC South Championship season into the future.
"That's what we're trying to establish," said Pederson, who talked often upon his hiring last offseason of the need to change and establish a strong culture. "We're trying to establish the winning culture where players want to stay. I think in the past people probably wanted to jump ship and go somewhere else. You probably don't blame them, right?
"You want players to want to come to Jacksonville as a free agent. Obviously, draft picks don't have a choice, but when they come, [you want them] to feel a part of it and feel like this is going to be home for a long time. Those are things that I think about, especially last offseason before the program started and how I was going to address the team."
A few factors about the 2022 culture change were particularly striking:
- One was the speed with which it occurred, with the Jaguars winning the division after back-to-back seasons with the NFL's worst record.
- Another was that many players key to the change were veteran free agents.
The Jaguars the last two offseasons signed as free agents, front-line contributors such as tight end Evan Engram (2022), wide receivers Christian Kirk (2022) and Zay Jones (2022), defensive lineman Roy Robertson-Harris (2021), defensive lineman Arden Key (2022), safety Rayshawn Jenkins (2021), linebacker Foye Oluokun (2022) and offensive guard Brandon Scherff (2022).
All were credited with being key on and off the field, and there has been evidence this offseason of a locker room-wide desire to maintain momentum. Robertson-Harris recently signed a three-year contract extension, with Engram – who is scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent on the March 15 start of the 2023 NFL League Year – expressing a strong desire to re-sign with the team.
"It's a credit to them," Pederson said. "They bought into the team. They bought into me as the head coach and obviously their position coaches. It's everything. We obviously made them feel a part and they felt a part of it. That's everything right there."
Baalke said this week that this offseason will be more about retaining free agents than signing them. In either case, an eye on culture will be critical.
"We went two years deep into free agency, back-to-back," Baalke said. "You've got some very good football players and got some guys that really fit the culture again, that we're trying to build. Doug and the staff have done an excellent job in building that culture and we want to make sure that the players that we keep or add fit and believe in what we're doing in Jacksonville."
The change was on perhaps its most public and evident display in January, as the Jaguars – after a 2-6 start – won eight of 10 games in November, December and January. They capped that streak first by rallying from a 10-point deficit to clinch the AFC South title with a 20-16 home victory over the Tennessee Titans then following that by rallying from a 27-0 deficit for a 31-30 home victory over the Los Angeles Chargers in an AFC Divisional Playoff.
"Look at the last two games of the year, how electric that stadium was and filled with Jaguar fans," Baalke said. "The players seeing that, getting a feel for us within the organization who haven't been a part of it that long, was inspiring, you know, and it's our job to put a product out there that the fans want to come and see. That's where we're at right now in building the 2023 roster."