JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- Maurice Jones-Drew isn’t the same player he was two years ago, but the Jaguars need him just as badly as they did then.
Not for anything he’ll do on the field, though.
The Jaguars need Jones-Drew to help bridge the gap between the old and new Jaguars, to carry the franchise from the last five tumultuous seasons into what appears to be (right now, at least) a stable, energized and successful environment.
Jones-Drew needs the Jaguars, too, because doing that would add another piece to his legacy in Jacksonville and ensure that he’ll be considered among the greatest ambassadors of a franchise that many around the country believe never should have existed in the first place.
So the two sides agreeing on another contract -- whether it’s a two-year deal worth $10 million with incentives or something a little more -- to enable Jones-Drew to finish his career in Jacksonville needs to be done quickly.
Jones-Drew is one of six current players who were on the team that made the franchise’s last playoff appearance in 2007. The five seasons after that were a downward spiral that culminated in last season’s 2-14 record. Coach Jack Del Rio was fired 11 games into the 2011 season, original owner Wayne Weaver sold the franchise (and somehow kept the negotiations secret), Mike Mularkey was hired, and new owner Shad Khan eventually fired GM Gene Smith and Mularkey after the 2012 season.
It was not exactly an environment conducive to success. Several players -- all starters or key contributors -- have quietly admitted they were miserable over the last few seasons. They hated coming to the facility, felt no connection to the coaching staff and didn’t want to be associated with the franchise.
Jones-Drew didn’t help the atmosphere by sitting out the entire 2012 offseason, training camp and most of the preseason because he was unhappy with his contract.
But things are different now. Khan fired Smith and hired Dave Caldwell, who worked with both Bill Polian and Thomas Dimitroff. Caldwell hired Gus Bradley, an energetic, positive coach who was a successful defensive coordinator under Pete Carroll in Seattle. There’s a positive energy around the facility now, players are happy, and they’ve completely bought into the Caldwell and Bradley regime.
It’s not a surprise that the young players on the roster -- 41 of the 53 have played less than five full seasons -- would do that. Veterans, though, are much harder sells, but the six who still remain from the 2007 playoff team (Jones-Drew, Marcedes Lewis, Uche Nwaneri, Brad Meester, Josh Scobee and Jeremy Mincey) are all in, as well.
The most important one is Jones-Drew. He’s the face of the franchise, the one player with national recognition, the guy who would occasionally pop off when things weren’t going well. If he has bought in then how can any young players, many of whom have grown up watching Jones-Drew play, not do the same?
This wiser and more mature Jones-Drew appears to understand that his role as a leader in the locker room is as much, if not more, important than what he does on the field. He’s still effective (719 yards rushing) but he’s not as dynamic and explosive as he used to be.
He can’t put the team on his back on the field any longer. But he can help carry it into what looks like a bright future, which is why both sides need to come to an agreement so he can finish his career as a Jaguar.