Rebuilding A Franchise

Ever since the "new era" arrived in Jacksonville in 2003, the front office has had a nice amount of success with rebuilding a salary cap ravaged, torn-down, non-competitive roster, into a team who can beat any team on a given week, and has done just that (while many times losing to some of the worst teams on a given week).

Of the 2003 roster that Jack Del Rio and Shack Harris inherited, just 20 of the 53 players are still currently in the NFL. Those players have since combined for just five pro bowl appearances (Stroud, Henderson).

I'm not a huge Steve Spurrier fan (especially on the NFL level), but I must borrow one of his phrases when describing the roster that the new era was left with- "the cupboard was awfully bare." The truth is, it was damned near empty. Now the Jaguars did have a few building blocks, mainly the defensive tackles, so they did take over in better shape than the Lions usually are, or the Browns, but the team was quite a long way from being at the very least respectable. One could even argue that if the team that finished 2002 could have played the 1995 expansion team in a game, who knows what the outcome would have been.

The task at hand for Jaguars owner Wayne Weaver, was to hire a new coach, and come up with a new way to remain competitive every year as a small market team. The team had already been ravaged by bad cap management once, and it ended up costing Tom Coughlin his job.

Coach Jack Del Rio and his staff were brought in, along with James "Shack" Harris (the VP of player personnel), with a short leash when it came to free agent spending, as the team didn't want to re-live the mistakes of the past regime. Their new philosophy for stocking the roster, was by building the team primarily through the draft, and constantly looking to bring in lower-level free agents that increase the level of competition. Thus far, it has shown to be a solid strategy.

During the 2003 season, the Jaguars decided to audition their first round pick at quarterback, Byron Leftwich, after incumbent Mark Brunell went down with an elbow injury during week three. The team had very little to lose, being that they were 0-3, following up three terrible seasons with the high-priced veteran (Brunell), whose best days were clearly behind him. It was a learning experience for both Leftwich and the rest of the team, as they took their bumps and bruises, and finished out the season 5-8. Despite a lack of talent at pretty much every position, the Jaguars started to take on a physical presence through the end of the year, which was highlighted by a 28-23 victory over the Indianapolis Colts at home. Leftwich had statistically, the third best season in NFL history for a rookie QB, as he threw for over 2800 yards, with 14 TD's and 16 INT's.

In 2004, the Jaguars added a few more pieces to the puzzle, and returned back to respectability. The defense made run-stopping their identity, but lacked a pass rusher. The offense was built around running the football, mainly due to lack of talent on the outside, and no pass-catching tight ends. The team finished 9-7, with victories over the Indianapolis Colts on the road, as well as taking back ownership from the Tennessee Titans.

Things started to come together in 2005, as the Jaguars benefitted from a weak closing schedule, despite having major injuries at the end of the season. The team finished 12-4, a better record than 28 NFL teams that season, and beat both Super Bowl participants (Pittsburgh and Seattle). The defense was now considered one of the best units in the league with the addition of Reggie Hayward, and the offense was starting to click, right up until the time quarterback Byron Leftwich broke his ankle in Arizona. The team limped down the stretch with backup quarterback David Garrard, winning games in non-impressive fashion against the league's worst teams. In the playoffs, the Jaguars drew the worst possible match-up (New England), and entered the game unhealthy. The result wasn't surprising, as the team went down 28-3 against the two-time defending champions, at Gillette Stadium.

In 2006, the Jaguars entered the season with their best roster in years, and although the season ended with disappointment, they still had their best team in the history of the new era. 15 players on the disabled list, including their leaders on offense and defense. Over 35% of their payroll missed more than half of the season, yet the team still finished second overall in defense and rushing. The schedule was more difficult but that didn't seem to matter, as the Jaguars posted victories over Pittsburgh, Dallas, both New York teams, Indianapolis, Miami, and Tennessee. A very impressive body of work, until the final three games in which the quarterback position self-destructed and took the rest of the team down with it.

Despite the win-loss record, many believe this was one of the best Jaguars teams in their brief history, due to their exceptional depth. Taking into account the magnitude of their season-ending injuries (quarterback, defensive end, linebacker, safety), many teams would have been lucky to finish with four or five wins. What the Jaguars did to win eight games was very impressive, taking into account what they didn't have to work with.

Now with all of the injured players from 2006 returning, and the increased experience of the younger players, the Jaguars seem poised for a big season in 2007, and they must have a big year, or else jobs will be lost. Sure, they've accomplished a lot considering where they started, but a solid, 9-7 or worse season is no longer going to be good enough. The pieces are in place on both offense and defense. If healthy, the Jaguars should have the best defense in the NFL. Their best pass rusher should be healthy (Hayward). Their best linebacker should be healthy (Mike Peterson). They have the best cornerback in the NFL without the last name of Bailey (Rashean Mathis). On offense, their starting quarterback returns, and the young wide receivers have another year of seasoning. They now have a pass catching tight end, and the best tandem of running backs in the NFL. There is a new special teams coordinator who has extended the kicker's contract, and another punter was brought in for more competition. Outside of another rash of injuries, the Jaguars have no excuses. Their window of opportunity is wide open and who knows how long it will continue to be, considering the financial effects of the new collective bargaining agreement and ever-increasing salary cap.

The message for 2007: Playoffs or bust. Over the next week or so, we're going to look at how the Jaguars grade out at each position group, and where they may be able to get better.

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