HOUSTON, Texas – The end came suddenly – and perhaps mercifully, too.
There seems no other way to describe Jaguars Owner Shad Khan's decision late Sunday afternoon to relieve Gus Bradley of his duties as head coach.
The move came in the wake of yet another opportunity lost – this one was an offense-deficient, lead-squandering 21-20 loss to the Houston Texans at NRG Stadium. Bradley's firing immediately made the loss and the events therein a sidebar.
An era – an unsuccessful era, yet one that began with the most genuine hope and enthusiasm – had ended.
NFL eras rarely ended happily, and Sunday was not happy around the Jaguars.
"I thanked Gus Bradley today for his commitment to the Jacksonville Jaguars over the past four seasons," Khan said in a statement released by the team shortly before 6 p.m. "As anyone close to our team knows, Gus gave his staff and players literally everything he had. Our players competed for Gus and I know they have great respect for him, as do I.
"Gus also represented the Jaguars, the Jacksonville community and the NFL in nothing less than a first-class manner as our head coach. That counts for a lot. It is unfortunately evident that we must make a change. I thought it would be best to do it immediately after today's result so Gus can step away, relax and regroup with his family during the Christmas and holiday season.
"Dave Caldwell agreed and will now be charged with exploring all options to hire the best head coach possible to lead what I feel is an extremely talented team and reward a very loyal and patient fan base in Jacksonville."
Caldwell, the Jaguars' general manager, will speak to the media Monday afternoon. At that time, he will start setting the tone for the next era, the next direction. Those are what the coming weeks and months will be about, and they're also about some serious questions.
No. 1 on the list? Blake Bortles …
That right now is one doozy of a serious question. You can change coaches all you want, but the Jaguars' 2-12 record this season and the disappointment therein is not entirely a Coaching Issue.
There's a Quarterback Issue, too.
That doesn't mean it's an unsolvable issue. That doesn't mean Bortles never, ever can be the franchise quarterback Caldwell envisioned when he selected him No. 3 overall selection in the 2014 NFL Draft, but know this:
Bortles has some improving to do – and we're talking improvement on a grand scale.
Bortles on Sunday threw 28 passes and completed 12 of them for 98 yards. He did not throw a touchdown pass, and while he went interception-less until the game's final series, it's not enough to simply not throw interceptions in the NFL.
Quarterbacks must make big plays in big situations – and once again, Bortles did not do that.
As a result, the offense once again stalled – as it has stalled too often this season, particularly lately. The Jaguars in the four games leading to Sunday had taken possession 14 times in the fourth quarter with a chance to tie or take the lead. They did not score on any of those possessions.
The Jaguars on Sunday took a 20-8 lead when wide receiver Marqise Lee returned a kickoff 100 yards for a touchdown. They had 105 yards offense at that point and somehow led by 12 points.
They produced just 45 yards and three first downs after that.
They also did not score. Meanwhile, the Texans got a field goal, then another field goal, and by the time running back Lamar Miller's one-yard touchdown gave them a 21-20 lead just before the two-minute warning, the outcome seemed inevitable.
Bradley's dismissal, of course, had taken on a similar inevitability – and the only reason Sunday's news came as a surprise was because Khan had previously said he didn't believe in midseason coaching change.
What changed? Why Sunday?
In the end, the likely answer is it was just time. People will cite Bradley's 14-48 record and the 2-12 record and lampoon him as an awful coach. He wasn't, and in another circumstance, it's quite likely he could have won. Had Bortles and the offense not struggled to the degree they did this season, it's quite likely we're having a different conversation right now.
This team played hard for Bradley – right up until the end. Shoot, they played hard Sunday. Effort never was an issue, and belief among players in Bradley and his direction never frayed. Bradley is a good man who in many, many ways did an admirable job in difficult circumstances.
But the Jaguars lost – far too often and far too frustratingly in recent weeks. And when seasons that begin with high expectations produce 2-12 records and franchise-record losing streaks, changes get made.
Change for the Jaguars came Sunday – and yeah, considering everything, it was as inevitable.
And yeah, on some level, it probably was merciful, too.