Del Rio: Feeling The Heat

Today we're going to evaluate the future of the Jaguars head coaching position, as we would any other position on the team. Obviously head coach Jack Del Rio doesn't have to make the team in camp, he's guaranteed his spot, for at least this season. But what about beyond this season? That question that could be a little iffy.

The job of head coach in the NFL is one of the most pressure-packed positions in not only all of sports, but all of America. Nearly every decision a coach makes on game day is immediately scrutinized by around 70,000 armchair quarterbacks at the stadium, and millions of others around the world. There is also sports talk radio which second guesses everything a coach does or doesn't do, as well as the newspaper and internet media, which can be viewed by millions, giving real time analysis of each and every individual success or failure a coach may have. However annoying this may be, none of the scrutiny that head coaches endure is new. Coaches have been blasted in the media for years and years, and anyone who is fortunate enough to have one of the prized 32 head coach positions knows this and should accept it. To make up for the constant scrutiny, coaches receive guaranteed contracts, all in the seven figures on a yearly basis, as well as marketing opportunities that could far exceed their seven-figure salaries.

When Del Rio took over for Tom Coughlin in 2003, the Jaguars had a pretty depleted roster that was coming off three consecutive losing seasons, as well as an aging quarterback whose best years were clearly behind him. Del Rio drafted quarterback Byron Leftwich with the seventh overall pick, and the future of the Jaguars franchise pretty much began then. The Jaguars took their bumps and bruises in '03, and finished with a record of 5-11. Since then, the Jaguars roster has become more talented, and their record has displayed this. The team finished 9-7 in 2004, then broke through with a 12-4 record, and a playoff appearance in 2005. The yearly improvement of the team and its record earned Del Rio an extension after the '05 season, and justifiably so.

So what happened between the end of 2005 and now to think that Del Rio and company may be on somewhat of a short leash? Injuries, off the field issues, and a nearly constant letdown against teams with lesser talent took a team with deep playoff aspirations to just an 8-8 record in 2006. Some, maybe all of these aforementioned issues aren't Del Rio's fault, but then again, some may be. Either way, he's the head coach and the face of the franchise, and he's ultimately the guy responsible.

So lets look at some of the good things Jack Del Rio's done since he's been in Jacksonville. First off, he's transformed a middle of the road defense into one of the best units in the NFL. Del Rio is a good talent evaluator, especially on defense, and has acquired guys through the draft that are fast, aggressive, and can succeed in the Jaguars system. These moves have given Jacksonville a defensive identity for the first time in the franchise's brief existence. Another positive in the Del Rio era has been the Jaguars play in nationally televised games. The Jaguars have played their regular season football when the whole country has been watching. The Jaguars are undefeated on Monday Night Football in the Del Rio era, and have won six of seven games while being featured nationally.

With the good, there is also the not so good, and there wouldn't be any questions about Del Rio's future if everything in Jacksonville was perfect. After improving the Jaguars each year in '04 and '05, the team took a pretty big step back in '06. A major cause for the step back was injuries (the Jaguars placed 15 players on IR), and also a tougher schedule. The Jaguars lost their starting quarterback, their best pass rusher, best linebacker, and best safety for large chunks of the '06 season, which certainly isn't the coaches fault. However, the NFL is a bottom line business, and the bottom line is that the team was .500, and collapsed at the end of the season.

Another issue that has many people concerned is some of the off the field issues of certain members of the team. The Jaguars have had six arrests in the last 12 months, and although Del Rio didn't hand any drunken Jaguars the keys to their cars, or place any stolen hand guns in any gym bags, some of the poor behavior reflects upon his leadership, warranted or not. One more reason why Del Rio's future in Jacksonville may not be rock solid are his relationships with general manager James "Shack" Harris, and owner Wayne Weaver. Harris and Del Rio couldn't come to an agreement on this April's first round pick, as Del Rio wanted to take quarterback Brady Quinn, and Harris was in favor of safety Reggie Nelson. This probably wouldn't be construed as that big of a deal if it wasn't for the perceived rift between Del Rio and quarterback Byron Leftwich, after Del Rio benched Leftwich last season. Harris has always publicly been a Leftwich supporter. Another issue regarding the draft pick is that Del Rio made his stance on Quinn public, possibly to cover himself in case Leftwich has a poor year. Del Rio's relationship with Weaver seems like a positive one, but it has been reported that Weaver wasn't that fond of the way Del Rio handled himself while being courted for the vacant LSU job a few years ago.

Perhaps the two main reasons for Del Rio's future after '07 to be in question are the Jaguars lack of playoff success and the team's perceived ability to play up or down to the level of its opponents. Although the team has made solid strides in the four seasons that Del Rio and company have been in Jacksonville, the net result has been no playoff wins, and that can't sit all that well with Wayne Weaver. The other reason is that the Jaguars don't take care of business against the "have-nots" of the NFL. Last season, the Jaguars defeated the defending Super Bowl champion Steelers (in a shutout), and five other playoff teams including a demolition of the eventual Super Bowl champion Colts (44-17 blowout). The team also managed to lose to Washington, Buffalo, Tennessee, and Houston.twice. Since the Del Rio era began, the Jaguars have a 3-5 record against the Houston Texans, who are yet to experience the first winning season in their existence. The Jaguars have continuously lost to opponents with lesser talent ever since the '04 season (when there were opponents with lesser talent).

The 2007 season is going to tell the tale on whether or not head coach Jack Del Rio's future is secure in Jacksonville. Some of what Del Rio has going for him is that he coaches in a small market, with an owner who isn't an enormous tycoon. Wayne Weaver is less likely to pay two people to do one job for an extended period of time which lends itself to being more lenient in terms of retaining his current head coach. Del Rio also appears to have pretty solid fan support around Jacksonville. Fans don't hire coaches, but if ticket sales dip, they can be a big reason for the firing of them. I believe that Del Rio has done a decent job in Jacksonville thus far, but the team really needs to advance this season. The talent is in place for this Jaguars team to contend for a division title and make a deep playoff run assuming they stay healthy, and anything less than that would be underachieving and largely considered a disappointment. .

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