If the New York Jets are looking for inspiration as they embark on a potential get-well-soon offseason, they can look at the Jacksonville Jaguars.
Yes, the Jaguars, perennial losers who will play for the AFC championship on Sunday. Behold, the poster team for the quick turnaround.
On Sunday, the Jaguars upset the Pittsburgh Steelers in the divisional round, joining the 2006 New Orleans Saints as the only teams since the 1970 merger to reach the conference championship after winning three or fewer games the previous season.
Adding a game-changer on offense, such as the Jaguars’ Leonard Fournette, is a key for the Jets this offseason. Geoff Burke/USA TODAY Sports
The Jaguars were 3-13 last season, with a crummy offense (25th in points scored) and an underachieving defense (25th in points allowed). They reinvented themselves by hiring no-nonsense leaders in football czar Tom Coughlin and coach Doug Marrone, drafting an offensive star in Leonard Fournette and spending lavishly (and wisely) in free agency.
They also did it with a mediocre quarterback, Blake Bortles, which is all the more reason for the Jets to believe it can be done.
On paper, the Jets are in a similar situation as the Jaguars were a year ago: 5-11 record, 24th in offense and 22nd in defense. The biggest similarity: cap room. Jacksonville went into free agency last year with about $74 million in cap space. The Jets figure to have close to $100 million after dumping a few big salaries.
It can be done. It won’t be easy, but the Jets can rebound if they make smart decisions. The Jaguars provided the blueprint for teams that don’t have a franchise quarterback.
The three keys:
• Crush free agency. The Jaguars signed three defensive starters: end Calais Campbell (four years, $60 million), cornerback A.J. Bouye (five years, $67.5 million) and safety Barry Church (four years, $21.6 million). They galvanized the defense, which was arguably the best in the league (Sunday’s 42-point hiccup notwithstanding). Campbell is a candidate for NFL Defensive Player of the Year.
The Jets certainly have the resources to sign at least three impact players. Can they do it? They promise to be active, but the trick is being active and effective. Six of the 10 top-spending teams last offseason made the playoffs, proving that the draft isn’t the only way to build a winner.
• Develop the homegrown talent. Coughlin and Marrone didn’t inherit a bare cupboard. Previous draft picks such as cornerback Jalen Ramsey, linebacker Myles Jack, defensive end Yannick Ngakoue and linebacker Telvin Smith developed into productive starters. In Ramsey’s case, we’re talking about a legitimate star.
The Jets, too, have invested heavily on defense. Can they expect the same growth from defensive end Leonard Williams, linebacker Darron Lee and safeties Jamal Adams and Marcus Maye? The potential is there.
• Find a game-changer on offense. With the fourth overall pick, the Jaguars chose Fournette, which allowed them to implement a power-running offense. It’s a great example of how an organization can marry personnel and philosophy. Fournette’s terrific play as a rookie reduced the pressure on Bortles, a classic game manager, and gave the team an offensive identity.
Whether it’s through free agency or the draft, the Jets must decide what they want to be. Will they go all-in on a quarterback, or will they use their resources to build around a less-than-ideal quarterback situation?
For the Jets, the one aspect of the Jaguars’ turnaround that can’t be emulated is the change in leadership. That, no doubt, played a huge role in Jacksonville’s success. The Jets have already re-upped with general manager Mike Maccagnan and coach Todd Bowles, believing that they are the right guys to pull a Coughlin-Marrone.
Don’t laugh. It isn’t impossible. But it’ll take a monster offseason.