Jaguars' issues, identity concerns mounting
Jack Del Rio is pulling out some old coaching standards, and quite frankly they feel a bit high-schoolish: shuffling lockers, sending a player home, scolding laughter at inappropriate times, indicating that he thinks the locker room music is too loud.
|Tom Hauck/Getty Images|
|The chemistry of Jack Del Rio's Jaguars has been off this year -- leading to some unusual choices by the coach.|
Early this week in response to a question about team chemistry not matching last year's, he called it the $64 million question. It seems reasonable to expect that a coach who got a deal with $20 million guaranteed through 2012 would have the answer. Perhaps behind the scenes he does. What he's shown publicly and other details that have trickled out suggest he doesn't.
With his underachieving team stuck at 3-5 and its season in jeopardy, scrambling name plates on locker stalls and turning down the stereo aren't going to fix a broken team with questionable construction.
And the head coach is the guy in charge of facilitating quality chemistry, an issue that seems a little late to address now, though I guess he's got to continually try to address it. Put it on the list of things that need to be better forged in training camp 2009, when he's certain to still be in place no matter how badly the second half may go.
Identity issues: Identity in the NFL doesn't automatically carry over from one year to the next -- it has to be established and re-established.
"We were accustomed to being a little tougher running the ball and a little tougher stopping the run," Del Rio told Jacksonville reporters this week. "We haven't been that rugged team consistently. But you don't get that by talking about it. You certainly have things that you set out that you want to do that you work on, that you emphasize and we're going to continue to do that. There are certain principles that I believe in that we're going to do, and when we do them well we'll have a little more fun."
Jacksonville wants to be a tough, physical, run-it-and-stop-the-run team. For a stretch, the Jaguars' M.O. was that Fred Taylor and Maurice Jones-Drew were going to keep coming at you on offense and that the mammoth tackle duo of John Henderson and Marcus Stroud would prove too much of a load for an entire afternoon.
If the team felt it had to deal Stroud to Buffalo, OK. But it clearly overestimated what it could get from 31-year old Rob Meier, who had excelled in a supplemental role but looks to be overextended now. The pocket isn't regularly collapsed from the inside any more, putting even more pressure on the edge rushers to get the quarterback off his spot.
Losing two starting guards on opening day and playing their first six games without the starting center made things very difficult for the Jaguars, and ultimately they may point to those losses as their undoing.
Taylor is renowned for the 4.7 yard-per-carry average he brought into the season, but he's at 3.3 this year. Jones-Drew is down from 5.1 to 4.2. Because of the ineffectiveness of the run game and because they've played from behind more often, the team is on pace for 82 fewer rushes than it had last season and 57 more pass attempts. That is a significant and unplanned shift.
Pass pressure: Well put-together teams space out players. It's not always easy, but ideally any position group is a mix of veterans, players at their peak and youngsters. Jacksonville failed to rush Peyton Manning and Tom Brady sufficiently in 2007 and focused their draft on edge rushers -- spending their top two picks on Derrick Harvey and Quentin Groves. The kids have combined for 15 tackles and 1.5 sacks so far.
They should be starting to show more after half a season, but the Jaguars shouldn't be in position to be so reliant on them. There is more pressure on them because Paul Spicer, 33, and Reggie Hayward, perhaps an old 29 after a serious Achilles injury in 2006, have been underwhelming with just three sacks between them.
The Jaguars were expected to blitz more under new coordinator Gregg Williams, but no member of the secondary has a sack and linebackers account for just three of the team's 11. They rank 29th in sacks per pass and are on pace for 22, a drop-off of 15 from 2007.
The Jaguars need to be patient with the young ends, but that doesn't help them much right now as they try to salvage things. Quarterbacks are too comfortable against them with a passer rating of 91.7, up more than 15 points from last season.
Their combined totals at the halfway point: nine games, six catches, 61 yards, no touchdowns.
Porter was stalled after hamstring surgery in the summer that cost him training camp, but Del Rio's hardly been enthusiastic about him. Quarterback David Garrard sounds intent on getting Porter involved.
"I still do not think he is quite the way he was when he first got here, but that is what happens when come off of major surgery," Garrard said. "He is definitely at a point now where he can definitely start making plays for us. I am going to start looking for him more."
Soon, Jacksonville may not have much of a choice. Matt Jones has been a rare bright spot, but the team's leading receiver is awaiting word from the league on his appeal of a three-game suspension for a violation of the league's substance abuse policy. When he disappears, things will become even more difficult of
Linebacker play: Del Rio was a linebacker and the Jaguars are supposed to be built around a strong group. But leading tackler Mike Peterson was the guy sent home Wednesday, and Daryl Smith and Justin Durant haven't been the sort of dynamic playmakers the team needs.
How to solve it all?
Del Rio falls back on a time-honored cliché.
"Just make plays," he said. "I think you make plays, you make more plays, make one play, make another play. I think as you start doing that, you start stringing them together you start feeling good about it. You just need to play. There is no magic or speech or words or fairy dust or anything like that. That's why coaches are always talking about just going back to work, because that's what you have to do. You have to get ready for that next opportunity and then when you get the next opportunity, play well."
Even if that ball gets rolling Sunday in Detroit, I expect at season's end the Jaguars will be left lamenting how it was two weeks too late.