Game 6 Preview: @ Jacksonville

Having spent most of my life in Cleveland, I have sympathy for any team that goes through a long stretch of losing… but the 0-6 Jacksonville Jaguars make it hard to root for them, because their mistakes have been so obvious:

  • When the NFL’s free agency era began, they signed everyone to back-loaded contracts, ensuring that they’d wind up in salary cap hell and have to gut the team.
  • When the team went into the toilet as a result, they fired head coach Tom Coughlin– who has won two Super Bowl championships for the Giants
  • After firing Coughlin (who took the team to the playoffs four times and the conference championship twice in eight years), they gave nine seasons to his replacement, Jack Del Rio (three winning seasons).
  • Del Rio was fired in mid-season. The Jaguars promoted defensive coordinator Mel Tucker, who went 2-3.They decided not to hire him, but urged his successor to keep him on.
  • That successor was Mike Mullarkey, a retread who had been fired by Buffalo after going 14-18. He went 2-14.

The current coach is Gus Bradley, who has spent nine seasons as defensive coordinator of North Dakota State (which is in Division 2), three seasons coaching linebackers at Tampa Bay and then dour seasons as defensive coordinator of the Seahawks. Bradley was hired by Jim Mora, Jr, but retained by Pete Carroll..

Jacksonville has spent an enormous number of years using substandard quarterbacks. From 2005-10, Del Rio became infatuated with the mobility of David Garrard, who (except for his 18-3 TD-INT ratio in 2007) had trouble throwing the ball to the people wearing the same jersey.

In 2011, the Jaguars held the 16th pick in the draft. They traded it, and a #2, for Blaine Gabbert, a quarterback whose draft profile said things like :

Has it all physically, but has a long way to go before he’s ready to lead an NFL offense… . Played in a spread offense and will have to learn to take snaps under center and make progressions in the pocket…. Junior-eligible with only two years starting… would benefit from returning to school… team that drafts him will need to bring him along slowly, but should be worth the wait…

Needless to say, Del Rio started him as a rookie in 2011. After a miserable season (65.4 rating, 12-11 TD-INT ratio) playing in the Air Coryell system, the Jaguars hired Mullarkey– who switched them to the West Coast offense in 2012, and then decided to try journeyman Chad Henne .

When Bradley was hired in 2013, they brought in a new coordinator– who ran Mike Shanahan’s offense. Bradley and Jedd Fisch also became enamored with Henne, who has never (unless he does it this year) been able to throw more touchdowns than interceptions.

After the 2013 season, the Jaguars traded Gabbert (who was only 24) to San Francisco, for a 6th round pick. Jim Harbaugh is bringing him along slowly, and there’s a decent chance Gabbert could pan out.

In his one season as head coach, Mullarkey prodded the Jaguars to draft WR Justin Blackmon with the fifth pick in 2012. Blackmon, whose substance abuse problems make Puff Gordon seem like a Mormon elder, has played 18 games in three years.

So what’s the next step in this progression? You got it– draft a quarterback very high (Blake Bortles, third pick) and toss him into the lineup after three games.

To make Bortles’s transition easier, the Jaguars let RB Maurice Jones Drew leave via free agency and have a line that consists of:

  • LT: Luke Joeckel (second overall pick in 2013)
  • LG: Zane Beadles (who made the Pro Bowl in Denver but is struggling with the zone blocking scheme)
  • C: Rookie Luke Bowanco (sixth round pick)
  • RG: Rookie Brandon Linder (third-round pick)
  • RT: Austin Pasztor (undrafted free agent in 2012)

Thanks to this crew, Henne (who read defenses nearly as well as Brandon Weeden) was sacked 16 times in the three games he started. Bortles (who gets rid of the ball faster) has been sacked 11 times.

Naturally the Jaguars drafted receivers in rounds 2 (Marqise Lee; 10-16 for 99 yards) and 3 (Allen Robinson; 30-46 for 311 yards) and want Bortles to bond with them. Allen Hurns, an undrafted free agent, is the closest thing they have to a deep threat (18-39 for 298 yards and 3 TDs). Cecil Shorts is still there, but he’s gotten lost in the shuffle.

The starting RB, Toby Gerhart will miss today’s game with an injury. That’s not as big a loss as it sounds, since he has gained 123 yards on 48 carries (a McGahee-esque 2.6 a crack).

Given all this, it probably will not surprise you to hear that Jacksonville (13.5 points per game) has the worst offense in the NFl. Last week, it somehow managed to get outscored by the Tennessee Titans and QB Charlie Whitehurst.

Or course the defense– 30th in the NFL, allowing 30.8 points per game– might have something to do with that. Thanks to all the picks wasted on offensive players in the last five years, Jacksonville has drafted only five defenders in the first three rounds:

  • DT Tyson Alualu (#1, 2010) is still on the team, but has lost his starting job. He has 11 sacks… in his career.
  • DT D’Anthony Smith (#3, 2010) is now on his third NFL team.
  • DE Andre Branch (#2, 2012) has 9 starts and 10 sacks and might bring some heat
  • SS Jonathan Cyprien (#2, 2013) and CB Dwayne Bratz (#3, 2013) have combined for 0 interceptions and 3 passes defensed

They signed 33-year-old DE Chris Clemons from Seattle, hoping he could bring heat, but he’s been struggling.

Projection: This is a game that a good team wins by blowout. Jacksonville lost to Tennessee 16-14 (again, with Whitehurst playing the whole game) and it was a miserable performance by everyone but Bortles (32-46 for 338; a TD and an INT).

The week before that, they lost 17-9 to Pittsburgh, who played about as well against the Jags as they did against the Browns.

Jacksonville can’t run and can’t protect the passer. Bortles looks a little like Tim Couch did in 1999, in that he’s trying to carry the offense on his back, and it is very hard to blame him for the mistakes he makes, since he has so little help.

Opposing QBs have 12 TD passes against Jacksonville– and only one INT. The scored have been competitive the last two weeks, but Philly (34 points), Washington (41), Indianapolis (44) and San Diego (33)  had no trouble lighting them up. They play better run defense, but it shouldn’t stop the Browns.

One of these weeks, Bortles will, like Couch did in 1999, drop a loss on a team that takes their opponent lightly. Since the Browns let Tennessee get them into a game, it might be Cleveland.

But it shouldn’t be. This is the first of three games the Browns should win in a walk– and I’m guessing the veterans on the team will make sure they do just that. Johnny Football should play most of the fourth quarter, as Cleveland wins 34-7.

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