Jaguars owner Wayne Weaver celebrated his 74th birthday on Wednesday with an air-clearing press conference that sends the Jaguars into the offseason with a strong sense of direction and conviction.
"We went into the season with expectations to make the postseason. There's no one more disappointed than I am," Weaver said in his opening remarks. "We go into every season to make it into the postseason. In 2009, that will be our goal. Our goal is, hopefully, to compete to win our division. Those goals won't change."
Weaver met with reporters principally to discuss recent changes in personnel philosophy and a reconstruction of the personnel department. Following the recent resignation of James Harris from the top post in personnel, Gene Smith was promoted twice within a three-week period. Most recently, he was elevated to the title of general manager, making him the highest-ranking personnel executive in team history. That promotion may have been the result of the Cleveland Browns' interest in interviewing Smith for the same position.
Most importantly, Smith's promotion is being trumpeted for giving him the final say in all matters involving player personnel. Weaver was forthright in his comments on Smith's sovereignty.
"James Harris had the final decision. James Harris' style was to build consensus. If he couldn't build consensus, move on to another player. I thought I needed to clarify that. If there's a disagreement, Gene Smith clearly has the final call," Weaver said on Wednesday. "It shouldn't be a surprise to anyone that Gene Smith has been groomed for this job. I thought it was important for Gene Smith to have that title and send the message that he is in charge of personnel."
Smith is committed to building through the draft. He prefers to allow players to leave in free agency and accumulate compensatory draft picks, rather than spend dangerously for free agents, as the Jaguars did last March when they acquired wide receiver Jerry Porter and cornerback Drayton Florence. Weaver smiled when asked if it disappointed him that Smith was big on the draft, not free agency.
"Those are smart things to do," Weaver said about accumulating compensatory picks. "We have a lot of work to do."
Are the Jaguars committed to drafting the best available player?
"I think that is clearly something we have always espoused but haven't always done. We need to get back to that. That's how you put impact players on your roster," Weaver said.
"Gene is a strong draft guy and not a free agency guy. If you look at our batting average in free agency, we don't have a stellar batting average," Weaver added.
"Obviously, I endorsed those or we couldn't have done them. We'll have to learn from our mistakes and move on," he said of last year's free agent signings. "It's fair to say I'm disappointed in some of our drafts. We learn and move on. We're going to practice what we preach about building through the draft."
Asked if fans should expect the Jaguars to be big spenders in free agency this year, Weaver said, "No."
Weaver's press conference provided a fresh start for a team coming off a 5-11 record in a season in which they were picked by some to be Super Bowl favorites. The Jaguars owner backed off no question, one of which questioned whether he is to blame for the team having won only one playoff game in nine years.
"I'll let you guys judge that. I'm proud of our (overall) record. I thought we should've done better last year," Weaver said.
"We have to empower more of our young players to build leadership skills. The biggest thing you can have is unselfish players. It's critical to winning. You do that by getting rid of some people and moving on with some people," Weaver said when asked about improving team chemistry.
What are the Jaguars' priorities heading into the offseason?
"We've got to improve our offensive line. That's clearly a priority. We need to get a big defensive guy on our defensive line to bring the best out in 'Big John' (Henderson). We need to get better play from our quarterback position. The offensive line is going to make a big difference in David Garrard when he gets more time to throw. Our receiving corps needs to get better and our secondary … underperformed," Weaver said.
A year after signing Garrard to the richest contract in Jaguars history, Weaver maintains his faith in Garrard.
"I think David can win a championship for us. We just need a supporting cast around him," Weaver said.
The Jaguars also signed coach Jack Del Rio to a rich contract extension last winter and Weaver reaffirmed his faith in Del Rio. "I think Jack is the right coach to lead this team. Does he need to do things better? Absolutely. Do I need to do things better? Absolutely," Weaver said.
Weaver spent much of the press conference talking about the country's unfavorable economy and how it relates to business in the NFL.
"I think we are," Weaver said when asked if the team is well-positioned for hard economic times. "We're fortunate we don't have the huge debt teams have that are building stadiums. You can't compete in this league if you can't spend for players, but that doesn't mean you have to make crazy decisions."
The Jaguars' 2009 home schedule doesn't include teams that "travel" well, such as the Steelers and Packers, but Weaver believes the Jaguars' fan base is growing and is hopeful that'll be reflected by ticket sales.
"We have a great fan base here. The problem is we just don't have enough (fans). The city hasn't grown as much as we thought it would. We just have to be patient, work hard and we'll build a fan base," Weaver said.
On the Jaguars' attempts to sell the naming rights to Jacksonville Municipal Stadium, Weaver reported that the team has had a couple of interested companies. "We have people willing to put their name on the building but at a price I'm not willing to sell for. I'd rather be patient and wait for the economy to turn around and put a name on this building we can be proud of."
Weaver reiterated that "the team is not for sale," but acknowledged the likelihood of an interest in selling the team in the future. "At some point, do I need an exit strategy? Of course I do. I turn 74 today."