Even with their best player choosing not to participate in the team's organized team activities (OTAs) and then showing a defiant nature by opting to skip the mandatory veterans' team minicamp, the Jacksonville Jaguars took a huge step forward and probably accomplished more in offseason workouts than they have during any such same time span in the Jack Del Rio era.
And what was accomplished wasn't always related to the snap of the ball and ensuing play. A lot happened before that. It needed to as this was a team that during the 2011 season simply went through the motions the second half of the season.
It was a team that lacked motivation, it was without good coaching and behind the scenes, it questioned what direction the offense was going. The long and short of it is the Jaguars were lucky they even managed five wins during the regular season.
The offseason changes started shortly after the 2011 season ended. First and foremost, previous owner Wayne Weaver sold the franchise to business tycoon Shad Khan who immediately vowed to do everything possible to turn the team into a winner. Next came the coaching staff led by head man Mike Mularkey. He was a former NFL head coach who wasn't particularly successful in his only other head coaching experience in Buffalo.
But Khan liked his spirit, his motivation and most important, his offensive mind. In three of the last four seasons under Mularkey as offensive coordinator, the Atlanta Falcons offense produced a 3,000-yard passer, a 1,000-yard receiver and a 1,000-yard rusher in the same year. Mularkey turned Matt Ryan into one of the NFL's top quarterbacks. The Falcons' quarterback had over 14,000 passing yards, 95 touchdown passes and had the league's fifth-lowest interception ratio during Mularkey's four years as the Falcons' coordinator.
Those were numbers that the Jaguars weren't accustomed to producing. They haven't had a 1,000-yard receiver since Jimmy Smith in 2005. They've had only one quarterback top the 3,000-yard mark in passing the last 10 years - David Gardard who did it in both the 2008 and 2009 seasons. Last year, the team's passing game hit rock bottom with an NFL worst-ranking of 32nd in passing and total offense.
But there were enough bright spots shown in the OTAs and minicamp that have led some to believe the bad times are a thing of the past. The Jaguars' offense, even with the absence of talented running back Maurice Jones-Drew who was a no-show as part of his demand for a restructured contract, not only looked improved over last year's unit, it actually looked like an NFL unit.
Quarterback Blaine Gabbert who struggled so much in his rookie season a year ago, looked more confident in his throws. Some of that can be attributed to the fact that he now has NFL-quality receivers to throw to in newly acquired free agents Laurent Robinson and Lee Evans along with the team's No. 1 draft prospect, Justin Blackmon. Those three along with tight end Marcedes Lewis and receivers Mike Thomas and Cecil Shorts - none of whom had the type of year in 2011 that the staff expected from them - are almost certain to make the Jaguars passing game a better unit in 2012.
If the defense can stay the same, and indications are it should, it will rank among the NFL's best. The defensive made a major jump, going from the high 20s to a No. 6 ranking in just one season under the guidance of coordinator Mel Tucker. The Jaguars didn't lose anyone who was an impact player last year, and strengthened this side of the ball by adding the likes of talented cornerback Aaron Ross through free agency and adding defensive end Brandon Marshall with a second-round pick in the draft. Tackle Tyson Alualu had offseason surgery to clean out his knees which hindered his play last year and he's likely to be improved from last year's play. The Jaguars have a solid rotation of four linebackers in Daryl Smith, Paul Posluszny, Clint Sessions and Russell Allen, but injuries to Posluszny and Sessions late in the season, helped contribute to the team's downfall and missing the playoffs for the 10th time in the last 12 years.
As a team, the Jaguars showed more spirit, cohesiveness and confidence during their spring workouts than they had in recent years under Del Rio. If that continues into the regular season and players improve on their numbers from a year ago, this will be a better team in 2012.
So much depends on two players - quarterback Blaine Gabbert and Jones-Drew. The Jaguars must have both playing at a peak and improved level from a year ago. It's hard to believe Gabbert won't be better with a year's experience under his belt and a much improved group of receivers to throw to.
But that part of the offense could suffer if Jones-Drew follows through with a threat to be a no-show when training camp opens. Not only will the rushing game be greatly affected, it could cause for some friction within the ranks in the locker room that could carry over to the field. And that could negate all the positive accomplishments that took place during the offseason.
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