To Undo a Mess, the Jaguars Trust in the People Who Made It

There are many types of roster rebuilding projects in the N.F.L., from a perennial contender’s on-the-fly soft reboot to a new regime’s all-out salary cap purge. And then there is what the Jacksonville Jaguars did this off-season, which was akin to desperate settlers eating their breeding stock and draft animals because they failed to prepare for a harsh winter.

The Jaguars released two-time 1,000-yard rusher Leonard Fournette on August 31 and traded Pro Bowl defender Yannick Ngakoue to the Minnesota Vikings for a pair of draft picks the day before. Both players are just 25 years old.

Their departures were part of an off-season-long clearance sale in which the Jaguars traded quarterback Nick Foles to the Chicago Bears just one season after signing him to a four-year contract worth up to $88 million, sent five-time Pro Bowl selection Calais Campbell to the Baltimore Ravens for a pair of mid-round draft picks and traded former Pro Bowl cornerback A.J. Bouye to the Denver Broncos for a fourth-round pick.

Two other potential franchise cornerstones, Pro Bowl cornerback Jalen Ramsey and pass rusher Dante Fowler, were traded to the Los Angeles Rams in successive Octobers.

Who does that leave in Jacksonville? There’s quarterback Gardner Minshew, who looks like a bootleg T-shirt seller outside a 1974 Black Oak Arkansas concert but who plays like your typical mid-tier prospect. There is a smattering of talent that might be almost good enough to crack one of the league’s better rosters.

Finally, there are head coach Doug Marrone and general manager Dave Caldwell, the proud engineers of both the current demolition project and the condemned structure which needed to be torn down in the first place.

After nine years without a winning record, the Jaguars finished the 2017 season at 10-6 and reached the A.F.C. championship game. That team surprised opponents with a brash, turnover-happy defense led by Bouye, Campbell, Fowler, Ngakoue, Ramsey and others. All bumbling quarterback Blake Bortles had to do most Sundays was hand off to Fournette and stay out of victory’s way. He usually succeeded.

When the Jaguars fell to 5-11 in 2018, Bortles was (rightfully) singled out as a primary culprit. So the Jaguars splurged for former Philadelphia Eagles Super Bowl hero Foles, believing their defense could return to the playoffs with some competent leadership on offense. That belief was unfounded. Foles suffered a collarbone injury but was ineffective when healthy, the defense took a step back, Ramsey was traded after a sideline scuffle with Marrone, and the Jaguars finished 6-10.

A December report that the Jaguars accounted for 25 percent of N.F.L. Players Association grievances — Fowler, most notably was inappropriately fined $700,000 for failing to attend injury rehabilitation sessions — revealed one probable reason morale was low and the team’s brightest young stars were leaving town.

Former Giants coach Tom Coughlin, hired as the Jaguars vice president of football operations before their sudden 2017 rise, was fired soon after the grievance reports went public. Coughlin has a reputation as the N.F.L.’s grouchiest father-in-law, so it’s tempting to blame all of the poor decisions of the last two years on him.

But Ngakoue, who did not sign his franchise tender this July, had feuded on Twitter with a member of the Jaguars ownership family in April, well after Coughlin’s departure, while Ramsey’s primary beef was with the hot-tempered Marrone. Caldwell, meanwhile, was overpaying for veterans like Foles long before Coughlin bumped him down the org chart.

It’s also tempting to label all the departing Jaguars as malcontents and/or disappointments, though the coaching staff and front office has remained the same throughout. So too has the team’s conflict resolution strategy: get rid of the players and eat their remaining salaries.

The Jaguars will absorb $44.8 million in dead cap space this year as a result of the leftover money guaranteed to discarded players. That’s not necessarily a bad thing: With little hope of reaching the playoffs, they are at least repairing their credit a bit. They have also stockpiled two picks in each of the first, second and fourth rounds next year, giving them plenty of chances to pluck prospects who emerge from the largely theoretical 2020 college football season.

The Jaguars roster is now so thin that Marrone fielded questions after Fournette’s release about tanking — losing on purpose this year so the team can splurge in the draft and free agency in future years. Tanking is a popular internet theory because it allows fans of bad teams to frame losses as secret successes (“we’ll have the last laugh when we draft six Hall of Famers next year”), but it’s a suspect roster-building strategy, especially when a team parts ways with rising stars and worthy building blocks like Ngakoue and Ramsey. At any rate, the Jaguars have been so inept in so many ways for so long that if they set out to purposely lose games they would probably finish the season 13-3.

Whether it’s labeled rebuilding, tanking, or filing for the salary cap equivalent of bankruptcy, the Jaguars are essentially giving up on this year so they can start from scratch next year. They are also letting the individuals who caused the problem try to fix it. The results will inevitably be squandered resources and unwatchable football. In other words, a typical Jacksonville Jaguars season.


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