The what-ifs may now begin, and the sooner we start, the sooner we can finish our laments and put this terribly frustrating season to rest. The Jaguars are not going to the playoffs. Yes, it's a major disappointment.
So, what if:
• They had beaten Houston just once?
• Hadn't given Tennessee three touchdowns on turnover returns … in one game?
• Byron Leftwich hadn't injured his ankle?
• David Garrard had been the starting quarterback the whole season?
• Quinn Gray had been given a chance earlier?
• They hadn't suffered major losses to injury that forced young players into unexpected major roles?
• One, just one of their wide receivers had played at a level high enough for the team to have overcome the surprise retirement of Jimmy Smith?
• Replay review had correctly reversed the fumble ruling in the Patriots game?
• The Jaguars had gotten hot in December, instead of having gone cold?
You, no doubt, have your own what-ifs. I've left at least a couple of hundred available for your own lamenting pleasure. The king of all what-ifs, of course, is: What if the Jaguars were in the playoffs and we didn't have to play the what-if game? Yeah, what if?
Being red-blooded American sports fans, we all feel an overwhelming urge to point the finger. Who is to blame for this disappointment? The answer to that question is our greatest source of frustration: No one is to blame. It just happened.
History will never get it right about the 2006 Jaguars. It will record the '06 Jags as also-rans; just another mediocre team that fell short of the playoffs. Hey, there are 20 of them every season.
This team, however, was not mediocre. It just did a very good imitation of it.
When you are second in the league in rushing and in overall defense, you are not ordinary. A team that goes into its final game of the season number two in those two categories and number three in the much-revered against-the-run column is special, not mediocre. The Jaguars' record just doesn't reflect the team's high level of performance this season.
This is not, however, uncommon for teams coming off a breakthrough season. Often, teams take one step back before they take two steps forward.
San Diego is the classic example. In 2004, the Chargers surprised everyone by coming out of nowhere to make the playoffs. They quickly exited the playoffs, but their sudden rise made them a hot prospect for the 2005 season. Just as quickly, they fell back to the ranks of the non-playoff teams. This season, however, they are the AFC's number one team.
The 2001 Patriots had a breakthrough season. They broke-through all the way to the Super Bowl title. In '02, however, the Patriots missed the playoffs. Then, in '03 and '04, they rebounded with Super Bowl titles.
It is often the case that breakthrough seasons are acts too difficult to follow with an encore by teams that may have over-achieved in Act I. The Jaguars were 12-4 in '05, a gaudy record that created high expectations for this season. Now, we are to believe the Jaguars have suffered some kind of collapse.
Want the truth? I'll give you the truth. This year's 8-8 Jaguars would squash that 12-4 bunch.
A long time ago, it was impressed on me by a coach whose words will forever live in my thoughts that this is a "scoreboard business." He would often say: "When you win, you're great. When you lose, everything they say about you is right."
He uttered those words not to be interpreted literally, but as a forewarning of public perception. When you lose, you have no voice. All you can do is sit and take it.
That's where the Jaguars are today. All they can do is sit and take it. They have no voice, only their beliefs, chief among them being that theirs is a ship on course and headed in the right direction. They know they're close; maybe only a player or a play away.
The Jaguars will look for that missing player or play in this offseason. Yes, they have work to do. Their greatest offseason challenge, however, will require them to have the strength of belief to resist the desperate urge to fix what's wrong. Truth be known, there's not much wrong.