HOUSTON — Do all the longtime Jaguars’ naysayers, including some in their own fan base, believe now?
Isn’t it time, after a decade-plus accumulation of negativity about one of the losingest NFL franchises, to consider dismissing so many preconceived notions about the black and teal?
Or will nobody be convinced that any past Jaguars demons have been exorcised until they hang an AFC South banner, by virtue of taking down the Tennessee Titans next weekend in a division-deciding showdown?
Forget that. The 2022 Jaguars deserve better. They’ve earned a considerable supply of benefit of the doubt.
So take all the past baggage — the tarps-over-the-seats, the stupid moving-to-London rumors, the annual draft hype starting in November, the when-will-we-find-a-quarterback laments, the AFC South basement finishes, the Urban Meyer debacle followed by the fire-Trent-Baalke movement — and just put it in cold storage.
Repeat after me: “These are not the same old Jaguars. These are not the same old Jaguars. These are not …”
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If nothing else, Doug Pederson’s team deserves better than to be lumped in with so many disappointments of recent and bygone eras.
Understand this: it’s not just because they routed the Houston Texans 31-3 Sunday at NRG Stadium, ending an infuriating nine-game losing streak against a mediocre division opponent.
No, this isn’t about one game, but for what Pederson’s team has done all season. They rode some early highs, then endured one-score defeats week after week in an excruciating 0-5 October, and somehow, the Jaguars have fought back to get in a position to pull off one of the greatest comebacks in team history.
“We’re changing every week as a tone-setter for this organization, for each player,” said outside linebacker Josh Allen. “We’re a tight-knit group in this locker room, man, we want to make plays for each other.”
Nobody would have thought at any point between Halloween and Thanksgiving that this team could be 8-8, only the second time in the last 12 years the Jaguars have been at .500 after the first week of November. Never mind now being a significant favorite with most oddsmakers to win the AFC South.
“We started off 2-1, not a lot of people saw that [coming],” tight end Evan Engram said. “And then, October was rough and that’s what… those Jags were what the league and people were used to seeing, that stretch where we were struggling and couldn’t finish and we really dug out of that, really dug our way out of that .”
Walker: ‘We special‘
Allen felt it in Week 3 after the team’s 38-10 demolition of the Los Angeles Chargers, which ended an 18-game road losing streak, one of many disturbing trends the Jaguars have tossed into the trash bin this season.
He vividly remembers a conversation with fellow pass-rusher Travon Walker about the positive vibes they had about this team’s potential.
“I remember after the Chargers game sitting right on the sidelines talking to Travon,” said Allen. “That’s when he told me: ‘We special.’ Something about that energy he gave me validated that statement about being special. Even through the weeks where we were losing until now, we’re a special team. We’re going to continue to grow.”
The methodical, ho-hum manner in which they disposed of the nemesis Texans — much like they did three weeks ago in reeling off 29 consecutive points against the Titans to end an eight-game slide in Nashville — was another indicator of why these Jaguars are different.
Pederson, the Super Bowl-winning coach hired 11 months ago to repair damage from the Meyer fiasco, has nurtured the Jaguars into a dangerous AFC contender.
While the injury-marred Titans enter the regular season finale on a six-game losing skid, the Jaguars have risen to become that team nobody really wants to play.
In past seasons, a December/January road game in Houston or any AFC South venue would have been a doomsday scenario. The Jaguars lost 14 straight in those circumstances until now turning the tables on the Titans and Texans.
Despite the offense and Trevor Lawrence being quite pedestrian — save for Travis Etienne’s 62-yard touchdown run — the Jaguars brushed aside Houston as easily as lint off a suit.
“Obviously, it’s not our cleanest game we’ve had, but at this point of the year, it’s just about winning,” said Lawrence. “To be able to win that way, it shows the growth of this team when you don’t necessarily play your best, especially offensively, you can still dominate a game like that.”
This matchup had the potential for a letdown game, knowing the Jaguars could still lose and get into the playoffs by beating or tying Tennessee.
Instead, they took care of business in a matter-of-fact manner, a sign this is a confident, unified team that bears zero resemblance to any Jaguars team in recent history. That would include the 2017 AFC title runner-up that won behind a dominant defense and solid running game, but eventually withered away from too much me disease among stars like Jalen Ramsey and Yannick Ngakoue.
“That was sort of our mantra for the week was to stay locked in, stay focused and ready to go,” said Pederson. “The guys, I told them after in the locker room, the way they handled this week, very proud of them for that. That’s all part of our winning culture. There’s a time and a place obviously to rest guys. I just didn’t think this was the time or the place to do that.”
Pederson culture is different
It didn’t take long for Walker, the No. 1 overall draft pick and a stalwart on Georgia’s 2021 national championship team, to take a liking to what Pederson was building.
That’s why he didn’t panic when those October losses by 8, 7, 7, 6 and 4 points dropped the Jaguars to 2-6. Walker saw a work environment where players trusted each other and the Pederson process to turn things around.
“Talent doesn’t always get you where you want to go,” said Walker. “It’s chemistry, it’s the bond within the team, just how you and your brothers come together when it’s time to play.
“Don’t get me wrong, this team has talent. We just don’t have any of that negative energy. When we were losing earlier in the season, we still had coaches who believed in us, still giving us the information we needed to be great.”
Logan Cooke, who pinned the Texans back at their 1, 11 and 10-yard lines with well-placed punts, is in his fifth season in Jacksonville. He understands the angst of Jaguars’ fans about the team’s past history (“Rightfully so.”) as much as anyone, but insists the ’22 Jaguars are forging a different path.
“I get it, right, it’s scars,” Cooke said. “I’ve only been here for five years, and four of them weren’t very fun, especially in December. But to be able to play games in December right now that are meaningful should tell the fans something.
“I was telling a couple of guys in the [postgame] shower, it’s cool to go into a game knowing you should win the game very handily and do it. It’s fun.”
What makes this Jaguars’ run different from 2017, their only memorable season in the past 14 years, is the feeling that this team is built to last with the coach-quarterback combo of Lawrence and Pederson. Not to mention being in an AFC South division where the only future quarterback remotely close to Trevor is likely still playing somewhere in college.
“We’re hitting our peak at the right time, we’re in a good stride,” said guard Tyler Shatley, the team’s longest tenured player in his ninth season. “There’s a lot of trust and confidence. In the past, you could kind of feel it. You know, you make a bad play, ‘Ah, here it is.’ I don’t think we have that feeling anymore.”
This Titans’ showdown — the biggest regular-season game since the 1996 finale victory against the Atlanta Falcons put Tom Coughlin’s team in the playoffs — is a chance to validate what many should start to believe is a different Jaguars’ era.
As Cooke put it: “I think the Jaguars fans, especially when we get a win [against Tennessee] next week, that would really help wipe away all those old scars that we all have.”
When you have Doug Pederson overseeing a culture change, and Trevor Lawrence evolving into a top-10 NFL quarterback, it becomes easier to shed that scar tissue.
As the Titans have already learned, these aren’t the same old Jaguars.
Gfrenette@jacksonville.com: (904) 359-4540