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View from the O-Zone: More than excitement


JACKSONVILLE – These days haven't been about "have-to."

That's something significant this week around EverBank Field. Under league rules, the offseason programs that have begun around the NFL the last couple of days are very much voluntary – and the one that began for the Jaguars on Tuesday is too. So, the time for "have-tos" is later.

And yet there were the Jaguars this week, gathering for the 2015 offseason program – the voluntary offseason program – in pretty much full-force. And if the days had a familiar "first-day-of-school" feel to them, there was something else.

Yes, there was excitement.

And yes, there was the fun of seeing old faces and saying hello to new ones.

There were Stefen Wisniewski and Julius Thomas speaking to the media Tuesday and there were Blake Bortles and Gus Bradley doing the same.

If that wasn't new and familiar mixing symbolically together, what was?

But there was something deeper on the first two days of the offseason program Tuesday and Wednesday, a feeling that it's time to get started, yes, but also a feeling that the long building process of the last two years may be behind the team at last. It may not be fair to say the foundation-building and growing-up process is over – and Jaguars Head Coach Gus Bradley sure isn't going to change his theme of daily improvement rather than focus on victories and losses – but there absolutely was a sense optimism and even expectation for this team as players gathered Tuesday.

The time is now.

Time to improve, and time for the building process to become something more.

"We're all about getting better, and that's what Gus teaches every single day, but we want to win football games," third-year left tackle Luke Joeckel said. "That's the most important thing in the game. We want that. We want to work for that. We're hungry for that."

Those words aren't unfamiliar. While players in two seasons under Bradley have repeatedly echoed his philosophy of improving daily without stressing over winning and losing, at the same time they have talked of the importance of winning. Players in the last two seasons never have lost sight of the importance of that.

But while similar words have been said around in the last couple of years, there are differences. Yes, one is an added sense of urgency. Year Three is different than Year One, and while Owner Shad Khan hasn't set a timetable or an over-under victory total, it's not silly to assume the Jaguars must exceed the three- and four-victory totals of the past two seasons.

But in addition to urgency, there also is a feeling as the offseason begins that the desire to win is now accompanied by the ability to win. Jaguars General Manager David Caldwell has spent two years and the first half of a third offseason trying to build a foundation capable of producing a long-term contender.

That foundation may not be completely built, but the feeling in the locker room is this absolutely is the most-talented, most capable roster in some time.

"We all see it," Jaguars defensive tackle Sen'Derrick Marks said. "We were all here last year and we all saw what we thought the problems were. We can see that the majority of the things have been addressed. They're bringing in guys. They're spending money to get better guys in, if you want to say it like that.

"They're bringing guys in who have the experience to help us win."

Those guys included free agents such as right tackle Jermey Parnell, tight end Julius Thomas, defensive end Jared Odrick, to name a few. As important is the development of players already on the roster.

Combine those two elements and there's a substantially different feeling talking to players this mid-April compared to last offseason.

The past two Aprils, there was optimism and hope. There was lofty talk about a foundation for the future.

This offseason, there's belief that that the future could be more like now.

"This is an organization on the rise," Jaguars middle linebacker Paul Posluszny said. "I feel that deep down. There are going to be great things to come with this organization, and we're going to start winning. The feeling you're going to get here is going to be unbelievable."

What reality will bring for this season's Jaguars remains to be seen, and key storylines will play out in the coming months. Will the offensive line improve? Will a similarly young receiver corps do the same? Can a defense that was good last season get better?

Those questions defer in importance to the most important question, because in the NFL it's about the quarterback. So, Bortles is the story of the week as he will be the story of the offseason and regular season. He did all he could the last few months. He worked in California. He focused on fundamentals.  He worked with his receivers. He appears in as good a place as mentally and physically as possible entering his first full NFL offseason program.

That's critical, and the next few months are as critical. No one knows that as much as the players and coaches around this organization. It's no secret that the time is now for the building process to become something more.

That's been evident for a long time.

What's more evident after the first two days of the offseason program is there's a real confidence that the necessary improvement can happen. It was easy to feel that Tuesday and Wednesday, a couple of days that felt significantly different than the past two Aprils around EverBank Field.

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