Three Questions Every Jags Fan is Asking

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Being a Jacksonville Jaguars fan in 2012 is the strangest it has been in a long time.  This should definitely be one of the most active off seasons the Jaguars have ever had.  Before the 2011 season had ended, Wayne Weaver, the man who brought the team to Jacksonville in 1995, announced that he was leaving the team after 17 years. Shortly after, Shahid Khan was introduced as the franchise’s new owner.

New ownership will be the most radical change the franchise faces this offseason, but isn’t the only thing that the Jags will have to process.  Three major storylines cast shadows over the team through the 2012 season.

How will Shahid Khan re-shape the team?
Nobody knows for sure what kind of owner Shahid Khan will turn out to be, or if he even knows what he is doing in the NFL.  Spending upwards of $750 million for a sports franchise isn’t a decision that can be made lightly, so chances are Khan has a plan— and if anything— his credentials are appealing.  When he was sixteen, he immigrated to the United States as a student to attend the University of Illinois.  He then went from one job to the next, slowly getting to where he is as an auto parts magnate and the owner of the Illinois based Flex-N-Gate Corp.

Kahn might be the type of owner that hires personnel to run the show for him, like Robert Kraft or John Mara, or he could be one of the flashy Jerry Jones types who prefer to have the final say over everything.

Khan has given off good vibes in Jacksonville so far.  Last season’s offense was as the most pathetic squad the Jaguars have ever fielded, so hiring the offensive minded Mike Mularkey as head coach is a step in the right direction.  The wide receivers on the team have been atrocious the last few years, and Khan has said that he plans to wisely spend money in free agency.  Fans need to hope that the he doesn’t want to make a name for himself by signing Vincent Jackson to an excessively high contract.  Instead Kahn needs to plug the most holes he can by spending what the salary cap will currently allow. That money needs to go to solid players who are young enough to stay around for a while to help quarterback Blaine Gabbert get comfortable in the offense. These types of players are also less expensive and there is less of a chance that they’ll submarine any chances of getting the other pieces of a successful team later on. The bottom line is that Khan needs to focus on winning in the long term, while still revitalizing the fan base.

“I love the energy that Shahid Khan has brought to this franchise,” said Dan Hicken, Sports Director for First Coast News on NBC12 in Jacksonville.  “He’s going to go for it, with one goal in mind, winning the Super Bowl. He seems to enjoy his celebrity status here in town and he’ll make the Jags fun to watch over the next decade.”

The Jags could definitely use a little celebrity to go with a winning product on the field.

Will Mike Mularkey be able to bring the team out of the Jack Del Rio valley?
The team is finally free of Jack Del Rio’s unfortunate reign.  Most fans didn’t start off disliking Del Rio, who was often hamstrung by bad front office decisions and an owner who was afraid to spend big money on guys who were worth it.  Jerry Porter was the marquee free agent signing for the team before the 2008 season, and although he was alright in Oakland, he was definitely at the end of his rope when the Jags (under guidance of former Jags Vice President Shack Harris) gave him an insanely lucrative contract.

Yet even after a fair share of awful free agent signings and bad draft decisions, Jack Del Rio managed to get the team playing well enough to steal a playoff game from the Steelers during the 2007 postseason.  The Jaguars had hope back then.  Maurice Jones-Drew was just coming along behind Fred Taylor, and David Garrard at least looked serviceable.  The defense was on the tail end of their Del Rio era competency, so the pieces looked like they were in place for a three or four-year run of playoff contention.

However, over the next four seasons under Del Rio, the Jaguars’ record stood at a puzzling 23-36.  Some games, the team actually showed signs of promise, but it didn’t last and they would ultimately be outclassed by their next opponent.

“To me, Del Rio had a smug attitude,” said Grant McMillian, a Jaguars season ticket holder.   “Kind of like ‘I’m doing it my way, and if it doesn’t work out, somebody else didn’t do their job, not me.’  He was a player’s coach, and my philosophy is that if you’re a coach, you’re going to earn their respect no matter what. I think he played favorites.”

The kind of attitude McMillian describes led to a predominant idea among the fan base that there was always this sense that, no matter how good the team could look at times, they were still the Jaguars, and Jack Del Rio was still their head coach.

Strangely, most of the stories that came out right after Del Rio was fired quoted players who were really sorry that he had to take the heat for their poor play.  There was never any talk of a volatile locker room in Jacksonville, or stories of players not liking Del Rio.

Mike Mularkey, the former offensive coordinator of the Atlanta Falcons, is the new head coach.  Although his offense didn’t put up any points against the World Champion Giants in the 2012 playoffs, he’s had a decent track record in Atlanta.  The work he put in transformed the Falcons offense from something similar to Jacksonville’s to a high power offense led by QB Matt Ryan.  Blaine Gabbert looked like an absolute train wreck trying to run the offense last season, so bringing in Mularkey from a team that’s at least competitive year in and year out seems like a great idea.  Even if Mularkey doesn’t pan out entirely, he’s at least a breath of fresh air compared to the smog that was Jack Del Rio.

Is Blaine Gabbert Really a Franchise Quarterback?
In his first season, starter Blaine Gabbert not only looked like a typical rookie quarterback making wrong reads and inaccurate passes, but he never showed signs of confidence.

“The drive for Blaine Gabbert doesn’t look like it’s there,” said Jim Prescott, an FSU graduate and long-time Jaguars fan.  “He shies away from tackles, [and] shies away from sacks. He’s just gun shy in general. He needs to step up and take the big hits, and show that he can take hold as a leader.”

This idea seemed to echo around Jacksonville throughout his rookie campaign. All quarterbacks should be a little scared of getting hit in the pros because when they do get hit, it is undoubtedly hard.  However, Gabbert looked like he was scared to step into throws all year, no matter what pressure was being sent, and instead of getting more comfortable as the year went on, he seemed to get less.

The question becomes whether Blaine Gabbert’s season reflects that of a total bust or a late bloomer. He does have an upside: Gabbert’s a tall, athletic dude with a really strong arm, and if there’s anything NFL teams love in a quarterback, it’s height and strength.  My worry is that Gabbert will fall somewhere in the middle, playing well enough to offer the occasional glimmer of hope, but ultimately leaving the Jaguars in the same shape he found them.

The new Collective Bargaining Agreement helps teams that make the wrong decision on a rookie recover faster.  By making rookie contracts shorter and less costly to teams all around, Gabbert ended up getting a $12 million deal over four years. This is nothing compared to Sam Bradford’s rookie contract after the 2010 draft, which netted him $50 million in guaranteed money. As a result the Jags will have some flexibility when it comes to figuring out what to do with him. If it happens that in 2012 he’s as bad as he was this past season, however, I can’t see him staying.

Those three questions are going to be central not only to what happens to the Jaguars in the 2012 season, but what happens during the majority of the next decade. If Khan proves himself a smart and culpable owner, the team should be on the right track. But any owner that makes the wrong decision on his first head coach is facing an uphill battle, so Mularkey needs to be the guy that can light a fire under the team and hopefully give some sort of guidance to the insipid offense that’s been a staple of the franchise for years. And even if it is overstated, this is a quarterback’s league now more than ever. Making the decision of buying or selling on Gabbert’s ability is absolutely pivotal to the Jaguars’ success.

Tough decisions lie ahead for the Jacksonville Jaguars’ head office, but fans should be excited. This is as active as the team has ever been in free agency, and the team has drafted well with Gene Smith as the General Manager. If he can continue to draft quality players throughout the draft, subsequently adding those players to a good crop of free agent signings, the team just might have the pieces to bring themselves out of the despondency they’ve been in for the last several years, going from a perennially mediocre franchise to a winner in the span of just one offseason.