How does a 10-6 team that almost thwarted Tom Brady in the AFC Championship game just under a year ago, with arguably the league’s best defense since the Seahawks’ famous Legion of Boom, crumble to dead last in their division?
Yes, we’re talking about the Jaguars. Last season, the future in Jacksonville looked bright. The Jaguars were young, talented, and under strong management. Playmakers on both sides of the ball proved to the rest of the NFL that a playoff contender could rise from this sunny city. Confidence was at an all-time high, high enough that cornerback Jalen Ramsey proclaimed to the roars of the crowd after their defeat of the Steelers last January, “We’re going to the Super Bowl and we’re going to win that b—h!”
Now we jump to the present day: the Jaguars are 5-10, hopelessly out of the playoff picture. Their quarterback, Blake Bortles, was benched for the foreseeable future, although he will receive a starting nod for Week 17. T.J. Yeldon leads the team in total yards, with 901. And in a Thursday Night Football matchup to forget, they were flat-out embarrassed by the Titans during a miserable 30-9 loss in which Derrick Henry stiff-armed defenders for 238 rushing yards and scored a third of his season touchdown total with four trips to the end zone.
What went wrong? In this article, I will address what happened to the Jaguars over the course of the 2018 season in hopes of answering this question.
First, let’s jump back to Ramsey and his confidence. After Jacksonville’s narrow defeat at New England, it seemed that the Pro Bowl cornerback couldn’t stay out of the headlines. No, the problem wasn’t due to injuries, or PED use, or a domestic violence allegation that has impacted the careers of Reuben Foster, Kareem Hunt, and others. The problem with Ramsey was his mouth, which had seemed to consume so much hot sauce over the offseason that with every breath he took in he was sure to exhale utter flames. Over the summer, Ramsey went on a tirade during a GQ interview while discussing the league’s quarterbacks. Some praise was dished out (Ramsey appears to have deference for the NFL’s all-time greats like Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady, and Drew Brees) but the highlights of the Q&A session included Ramsey labeling Josh Allen, the no. 7 overall pick in the 2019 NFL Draft, as “trash,” Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan as “overrated,” and Steelers gunslinger Ben Roethlisberger as “decent.” Multiple bags of popcorn were popped after that interview as the public waited for Ramsey’s targets to respond to the drama. Later down the road, he fired taunts at Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski ahead of their Week 2 matchup. During a regular season game against the Colts, Ramsey offered a hand to help Andrew Luck to his feet, only to withdraw it seconds before Luck could accept the gesture.
Trash talk works for Ramsey. The cornerback has shaped it into an art form and it’s no secret that he is one of the elite at getting inside the heads of opposing receivers. Ramsey has no problem incorporating verbal insults into his game, but he can always back it up with his next-level play. Or, at least he could until this season. Ramsey’s overall grade from Pro Football Focus (PFF) has dipped from a 91.8 in 2017 to a 74.4. Perhaps, Ramsey even managed to get inside his own head this season.
Overconfidence is a big factor, but another main reason for Jacksonville’s struggles is the increased strength of the AFC South. In bluntest terms, the division got better…and healthier. The Colts got Luck back from a shoulder injury that kept him out of action for the last two seasons and the quarterback is currently having a Comeback Player of the Year caliber campaign. The Titans, also playoff participants in 2017, improved on both sides of the ball by signing Patriots castaways Malcolm Butler and Dion Lewis during free agency. Finally, the Texans reclaimed the top spot of the division thanks to the chemistry of Deshaun Watson and DeAndre Hopkins. Faced with so much firepower over eight games, the Jaguars began to not just crack, but collapse.
Early mistakes lead to blown plays, which resulted in blowout losses to the Chiefs, Steelers, and Texans. The very same Josh Allen that Ramsey had criticized months earlier led the Bills to an embarrassing upset. The Jaguars dropped games to tough, but beatable opponents in the Cowboys and Eagles. Sure, their struggles may have been due to a tough schedule, but that shouldn’t matter to Ramsey. After all, his secondary houses “the best DBs in the nation.”
Last year, the playoff hopes of some Jaguars fans were dashed from the very first snap, when Allen Robinson tore his ACL recording his first catch of the 2017 season. However, Jacksonville moved past the adversity thanks to the electric play of then-rookie running back Leonard Fournette out of LSU. Rookie wideouts Keenan Cole and Dede Westbrook stepped up into bigger roles. And, of course, that defense kept them within striking distance in many games. The Jaguars rebounded and claimed a Wild Card showdown against the Bills, their first playoff appearance since 2007.
That success story didn’t continue into 2018. Robinson left the Jaguars in free agency for the Bears, who signed him to a three-year contract worth $42 million, so Jacksonville brought in Donte Moncrief as a replacement. It’s important to note that since the days of the troubled Justin Blackmon, the Jaguars have rostered zero standout wide receivers or tight ends. That trend was unfortunately exposed quite clearly when Leonard Fournette suffered a hamstring injury during the first week of the regular season, keeping him virtually sidelined until Week 10. Without a dependable run game to lean on, Jacksonville was forced to place their playoff dreams in the hands of Blake Bortles. Needless to say, secondaries had a field day every week covering inexperienced receivers and intercepting ill-thrown passes chucked behind the league’s 10th-worst offensive line, according to PFF. This isn’t necessarily surprising since Bortles has thrown 74 interceptions since arriving in the NFL in 2014, the most by any QB over that four-year span.
This brings us to yet another mistake by the Jaguars: handing one of the least efficient quarterbacks in the league an extension for $54 million ahead of one of the best draft classes for that position in recent years. Over the course of the 2018 season, Baker Mayfield, Sam Darnold, Josh Allen, Josh Rosen, and Lamar Jackson have all offered flashes of franchise keystone-caliber play despite their adjustment to playing professionally. This is Bortles’ fourth season in the NFL and these rookies have already passed him in terms of technique, maturity, and fundamentals. While Bortles seems to be permanently capped by his low ceiling, the 2018 quarterback draft class is soaring above expectations.
How can Jacksonville recover from such a disappointing season? It starts with cutting ties with the players holding the team back from stardom. Bortles will most likely be released after this season, so the Jaguars will turn to next year’s draft in hopes of finding their franchise signal caller. The receiver core needs to be improved, hopefully with a veteran or an already established pass catcher. Building a sturdier offensive line should be a priority since Fournette is really the only true source of offense. But mostly the Jaguars need to soak in the humility of an underachieving season, put their heads down, and come out next September fired up and ready to re-establish themselves atop the AFC.
For more news on your favorite team and players, head on over to my Twitter at @Snack_TimeFS and check out the rest of my website, where I post articles on the MLB and NFL.
Cole Topham is the lead editor for snacktimefantasy.com and covers the MLB and NFL. He enjoys watching his opponents suffer as he defeats them week after week in his fantasy football/baseball leagues.