Identity Theft

Just a few weeks ago, the Jaguars were sitting at 4-1, the darlings of the NFL with a tough, physical defense and a running game that controlled the clock. The team had a mobile quarterback who didn't make mistakes and was great on third down, as well as a special teams unit which was one of the very best in the league at covering kicks.

Fast forward three weeks, and the Jaguars are playing with a backup quarterback who can't look past his first read, the now 24th ranked defense can't seem to tackle anyone, and their special teams unit wouldn't be classified as special, or anything close to that. Reasons for what happened to a team that appeared to be a true post-season contender can be explained (but not excused) by injuries, distractions, and/or poor preparation.

So who are the real Jacksonville Jaguars? Are they the team that had a major defensive hiccup in the season opener against Tennessee, and then won their next four straight, or are they the team who has allowed an average of 31 points per game on defense since, while averaging just 10.3 points per game on offense? Conventional wisdom and the growing trend seems to lean toward the latter.

Can the Jaguars use injuries as an excuse? Sure. The Jags have played most of their last three games without their starting quarterback (Garrard), their last two games without their starting corner (B. Williams). Defensive linemen Marcus Stroud, John Henderson, and Reggie Hayward aren't playing anywhere near the level that they did of a couple years ago, and it appears that Chris Naeole will be out for the rest of the season with a ruptured quad. That being said, every team in the NFL has to deal with injuries from week to week, and there are no excuses (you can make them, just nobody cares).

Another excuse that can be used, at least for Sunday's game is distractions. Early last week, it was leaked in the media that defensive tackle Marcus Stroud flunked a performance enhancing substances test, and he will likely be facing a suspension by the NFL. To make matters worse, Jaguars offensive lineman Richard Collier was arrested for a DUI just hours before the team's flight to the Bayou, and Justin Durant was also locked up for resisting arrest without violence. Starting left tackle Khalif Barnes was reprimanded for violating a team curfew, and he didn't start the game.

Jaguars head coach Jack Del Rio described some of the players transgressions-

"Both of these men were out way beyond a reasonable time. I was extremely disappointed to wake up Saturday and have two of my young players involved in the situations they were involved in. To have these things happen within 36 hours is not a good indicator for your football team."

Whatever the excuse is, the reality of the situation is that the Jaguars stats look horrible, cumulatively. Offensively, the team currently ranks 19th in the NFL in scoring, and if you take out the points that were scored on defense and special teams, they would be ranked 28th in the league at 15.9 points per game. The renovated, rejuvenated passing game ranks 25th in the league after putting up over 330 yards through the air on Sunday.

Those numbers don't seem as bad when you consider that the Jaguars aren't known for being an explosive offensive team. What is really disconcerting is when you look at the defensive stats (formerly the Jaguars identity). The Jaguars are ranked 24th in the NFL in overall defense. 24th! When you have Marcus Stroud, John Henderson, Mike Peterson, and Rashean Mathis, it is inexcusable that 23 NFL teams are have allowed fewer yards than your defense. With what many believe is the NFL's second best cornerback in Rashean Mathis, the Jacksonville pass defense is ranked 26th overall, which is almost hard to believe. With the best tandem of defensive tackles in the NFL, the Jacksonville rushing defense is ranked 16th in the NFL, right in the middle of the pack.

So the sky is falling in Jacksonville, isn't it? As ESPN's Lee Corso would say, "not so fast my friend." Even with the Jaguars newly found swiss cheese defense, the team still sits with a 5-3 record, and firmly in playoff contention. Jacksonville is currently tied with Cleveland for what could be a possible final wildcard spot. The second half of their schedule features just three teams who currently have winning records, and it is possible that quarterback David Garrard, the NFL's second-ranked passer, can be back as early as this Sunday against Tennessee. As poorly as the Jaguars are playing, a victory this Sunday at Tennessee could put them as frontrunners for a playoff spot, and erase all the bad feelings of the last few weeks.



Charlie Bernstein is the Editor-in-Chief of Jagnation.com, and a regular syndicated contributor to FoxSports.com, Sirius NFL Radio, and Sportsillustated.com. Charlie is also a member of the Pro Football Writers Association, and is a columnist for the New Smyrna Observer.

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