The Jacksonville Jaguars hired Gus Bradley to be their head coach in 2013 and over the next four years they won 15 games. That includes a career-best record for Bradley of 5-11 in 2015 and a constant slew of top-5 picks.
With those top-five picks under Bradley, the Jaguars chose Luke Joeckel in 2013, Blake Bortles in 2014, Dante Fowler in 2015, and Jalen Ramsey in 2016. Three of those guys remain in Jacksonville (the other in Seattle now of course) and are now enjoying the best success of their careers. Even Bortles, who in the face of the fact that he’s still quite terrible, has demonstrated the ability to be the “Trent Dilfer” of the franchise.
We’ll never know for sure how the Jaguars may have done over those four seasons with someone other than the former Seahawks defensive coordinator, but it would be willfully stupid to assume they could not have done much better. Yes, they have added some high-profile free agents this year like Calais Campbell and A.J. Bouye, enjoyed expected improvement from Jalen Ramsey and Yannick Ngakoue, traded for Marcell Dareus, and drafted Leonard Fournette and Cam Robinson ... but Jacksonville is already in contention to win the AFC in less than one year under Marrone.
That has led to an 8-4 record, the number one defense in the NFL, and wins in five of their last six games. On Sunday afternoon (NOT MORNING!) the Jaguars host the Seahawks in a meeting of teams with identical records fighting for playoff and division positioning. To get a better idea of what this team has been up to in the four years since Seattle and Jacksonville last met, I sent five Qs to Ryan Day of Big Cat Country. In kind, he sent back five corresponding Qs.
Here they are:
Q: Jacksonville's defense almost seems too good to be true, sporting, I think, at least 10 players who could be Pro Bowlers in this league under the right circumstances. What can you tell me about the major players on defense who maybe aren't given as much credit: Telvin Smith, Tashaun Gipson, Paul Posluszny, Aaron Colvin, Abry Jones. How are they playing this season? Do you expect Smith (concussion) to play this week?
A: Well, let's go one by one. Telvin Smith is incredibly underrated and is one of the best weakside linebackers in the game. Just watch him spy Russell Wilson on Sunday. Tashaun Gipson is absolutely thriving in his center fielder role now that he's not in a scheme where he has to babysit the rest of the defense. Paul Posluszny is nearing the end of his career but he can still fill in when necessary. Just look at last Sunday -- dude was running down opposing players on sweep plays. I mean, my God. Aaron Colvin has been up and down, but when he's on he's a very good nickel cornerback to have. He is a great No. 3 in this defense. If either of Jalen Ramsey or A.J. Bouye go down, however, I don't think he has what it takes to be a starter on the outside. Abry Jones was a weak link in the first half of the season and a big reason we brought in Marcell Dareus and now our run defense is playing lights out. As far as Telvin playing this weekend, I have to believe he's doing everything he can to play.
Q: It wasn't long ago that Allen Robinson and Allen Hurns were meant to be the dynamic duo on the Jags offense but now they're sporting Marqise Lee, Keelan Cole, and rookie DeDe Westbrook. How are those receivers playing and do you expect Hurns to returns?
A: They're doing... good enough. They're not going to beat you by themselves, but in the short-term you can scheme with them. And they might make a play here or there that makes you go, "Wow." But on the whole, those guys need a true No. 1 or No. 2 to flourish. They're niche guys, largely, and they're exceeding expectations currently -- but that can come crashing down in an instant.
Q: Leonard Fournette is on pace for over 1,000 yards, but he's averaging just 4 YPC and over the last four games has 226 yards, one touchdown, and 2.94 YPC. Is Fournette playing better or worse than his stats? How much of his season numbers are a product of defenses being able to key in on him and ignore the passing game? Will the backups get any significant snaps?
A: He's injured. He got injured a few weeks ago and he's not playing to his full potential. I'm sure the injury news will come out in the offseason, but it's very obvious he's playing on a gimpy ankle. That said, he's going to try and make it work -- but he's not able to elevate the offensive line anymore. The Jaguars need more out of their line when it comes to run blocking. As far as the backups, they'll continue to get work. Chris Ivory is the true No. 2 back and T.J. Yeldon is the third down receiving back. Corey Grant is being kept fresh for the inevitable fake punt we'll run against you.
Q: When Bortles is on his game, the Jaguars might be the best team in the AFC, if not the NFL. What leads to Bortles having a good game? Like when is he at his best and when are teams able to successfully disrupt his rhythm and force him into dumb mistakes?
A: Bortles has good games when the pressure's not on him. Look at his big wins -- against the Baltimore Ravens and both Indianapolis Colts games. When the team scores early and gets out to a two-possession lead, he's out of his own head and ends up playing looser and better. I don't think that happens this week against a very good Seattle Seahawks team so it'll be interesting to see how the team responds.
Q: The Jaguars were terrible, terrible, terrible under Gus Bradley. They are now very good under Doug Marrone, but how many of the key players are new players? Fournette, Calais Campbell, Cam Robinson, A.J. Bouye, Marcell Dareus -- there are definitely some, but do you think Bradley could have won with this team in 2017? Or how significant are the changes and gameplans with Marrone instead of Bradley? Why was the former Seahawks coach/motivator such a failure in Jacksonville and could he have won with this roster?
A: Gus Bradley is the worst coach in modern NFL history. He was historically bad. He had the worst winning percentage of any head coach with a minimum of 50 games. He's awful, awful, awful. This team would be 4-8 with him at the helm. Doug Marrone has been able to mold this team in his image -- disciplined, tough, and mentally focused. He's empowered Todd Wash to absolutely cook when it comes to the defense, especially the defensive line. He's minimized Blake Bortles' impact on the game. (How you do that, I don't know.) And he's helped Nathaniel Hackett draw up game plans with a bad quarterback handing off to an injured running back, and throwing to backup wide receivers. Bradley was a failure here because he didn't know as much about defense as everyone thought he did. This happens with disciples of ingenious coaches -- they go off and falter while the original coach is evolving. They know what they created, the disciples just know how to run it. That's what happened in Jacksonville.