Sports

How in God’s Name the Jacksonville Jaguars Got Good

Last season’s NFL laughingstock is on the brink of the playoffs—and a new era.

Lawrence smiles with his helmet off and gives some guy a dap, a Dallas Cowboy laughs behind him
Trevor Lawrence after defeating the Dallas Cowboys at TIAA Bank Field on Sunday in Jacksonville, Florida. Mike Carlson/Getty Images

The Jacksonville Jaguars, in recent years, had two problems. The first was that they were a bad football team, with worse players than most of the NFL. That is usually a recipe for losing, and indeed, the Jaguars were bad enough two seasons ago, in 2020, to grab the first overall pick in 2021’s draft. The second Jaguars problem was that a season ago they hired one of the worst NFL coaches in the history of NFL coachdom. For all of his collegiate success, Urban Meyer was an unmitigated disaster in the pro game, where his management style, authoritarianism, and lack of an Ohio State Buckeyes–like talent advantage rendered him helpless. That’s how the Jaguars picked first overall again this past April.

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2022 has brought tangible signs of progress, though. After Meyer didn’t make it through his only season, the Jaguars replaced him with Doug Pederson, a perfectly cromulent NFL head coach who’s still not even five years removed from winning a Super Bowl while leading the Philadelphia Eagles. The Jags have had growing pains, but everything about them has been noticeably less catastrophic. Now, in the season’s final three weeks, America has no alternative but to reckon with the question of whether the Jags might sneak into the playoffs this year. Whether they’ll get there in the next few years feels almost beyond doubt.

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They’re right there in the race. The Tennessee Titans lead the AFC South at 7–7, but the Jags are a game behind them and have a 43 percent chance to surpass them, according to FiveThirtyEight. The time for contemplation of a Jaguars postseason appearance arrived the moment they pulled off a fairly stunning comeback against the 10-win Dallas Cowboys on Sunday, winning 40–34 in overtime after trailing by 17. Safety Rayshawn Jenkins dealt the final blow by picking off Dak Prescott in the extra period and running it back 52 yards for the clinching touchdown that brought the world to the precipice of a new Jaguar era:

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Though the defense finished the job on Sunday, the Jaguars’ turnaround revolves around the quarterback. Trevor Lawrence, the first of the team’s past two back-to-back No. 1 overall picks, had a terrible rookie season in which he often looked overwhelmed. There are no easy transitions from the ACC to the NFL, but Lawrence looked nothing like what he’d been at Clemson, an all-time hyped-up recruit who won a national championship as a true freshman before delivering two more years of elite play and taking his perch as the most celebrated draft QB prospect since at least Andrew Luck in 2012. Traditional stats, advanced ones, and game charters like those at Pro Football Focus agreed that Lawrence didn’t have it.

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Much has changed, including Lawrence no longer being stuck in the endless vortex of calamity that was the Meyer NFL experience. The comeback against Dallas was one of the best games of Lawrence’s career, a descriptor that one could attach to his performances most weeks now. The four touchdowns and 300-plus yards were good, but it’s also down to how Lawrence looks. He is back to being the mobile sentry gun he was at Clemson, where rifles like this one were commonplace:

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Lawrence is better at just about everything now. He had big accuracy problems as a rookie, when his completion percentage was 5.4 percent lower than it should’ve been based on the difficulty of his throws, according to the league’s Next Gen Stats. Those numbers have almost perfectly converged this year and have particularly improved in the past few weeks as Lawrence has started dealing. He is throwing interceptions exactly half as often as he did as a rookie (1.4 percent of the time, down from 2.8). He’s getting rid of the ball more quickly, and he’s looking infinitely more comfortable now that he’s washed his hands of Meyer and gotten a bit of offensive help. The Jags spent a lot of money on free agent receivers and linemen after last season, and good running back Travis Etienne returned from a foot injury. Etienne, who was Lawrence’s teammate at Clemson, has been a huge help, averaging 5.5 yards on a team-leading 209 touches between rushes and receptions. (He has fumbled five times, so there’s room to grow.) All three of Lawrence’s top targets—and 4 of his top 5, going down to Etienne—did not play for the team in his rookie year. Wideouts Christian Kirk and Zay Jones have been critical, along with tight end Evan Engram. Together, those three free-agent additions get 63 percent of the targets.

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The Jaguars’ defense is mostly a passenger on this journey from the bottom of the NFL to its middle class, but it’s gotten steadily better and more opportunistic. Despite giving up 5.7 yards per play this year, up from 5.6 in 2021, the Jags have let up 3.5 fewer points per game. They’ve improved from getting a turnover every two games to averaging 1.5 a week, a game-turning difference. They don’t have a dominant pass-rusher, but they have four guys with at least 3.5 sacks who have been pretty good at cutting down on opposing QBs’ comfort. They could be getting more out of this year’s No. 1 overall pick, Travon Walker, an outside linebacker or defensive end or tackle whom the Jaguars have not figured out how to use, as Yahoo Sports’ Charles McDonald noted a few weeks ago. Jacksonville wants Walker to be a conventional pass-rusher rather than a game-wrecker who plays a lot in the middle of the line.

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The thing about the 2022 Jaguars is that these are comparatively benign problems. They should be getting more out of Walker. Their defense could sharpen up a lot. Lawrence could (and will) still improve. But these are small potatoes in the context of what Jacksonville went through last year, when Meyer lit team cohesion on fire and made the Jaguars something less than a real pro football team. Jags players have not worked hard to hide their disdain for the failure who came before Pederson or to express their admiration for Pederson, the new guy who’s brought them together in ways that might not show clearly on the stat sheets. “I’m so happy for Trevor,” safety Andrew Wingard told reporters after a recent win, because “he had to deal with Urban Meyer last year.” After Jenkins’ winning pick-six on Sunday, a reporter asked him what was different this year, and he just said, “Coaching. I’m gonna be very upfront and honest with you. We’re a way smarter team now.” Simply going from Meyer to Pederson fixed a ton.

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The Jaguars should have Lawrence for the next decade-plus, after they give him a big contract extension in a few years. He should keep getting better, and that alone should prevent the franchise from going back into a ditch for a while. Someone could also imagine a world where the defense extracts more from the ultratalented Walker and builds a strong unit around him. The Jaguars could have franchise cornerstones anchoring both sides of the ball for many years, and it doesn’t require squinting hard to see it.

But the future also could arrive in the next three weeks. Having beaten the South-leading Titans two weekends ago, the Jaguars control their own divisional destiny despite not currently leading. Wins over the rapidly fading New York Jets and league-worst Houston Texans would give the Jaguars a chance to win the South only by beating Tennessee at home in the final week of the season, even if Tennessee wins its other remaining games. Large, Duval County cats in the mirror might be closer than they appear.

Correction, Dec. 19, 2022: This article originally misstated that Travis Etienne tore his ACL.

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