Only four years ago, the LA Rams and Jacksonville Jaguars were kindred spirits in separate conferences. The Rams went from 4-12 to 11-5 with the number one offense and the Jaguars went from 3-13 to 10-6 with the number one defense. Jacksonville even advanced further in the 2017 playoffs than LA did that year, but in the argument that offense is more sustainable year-over-year than defense these two franchises could prove to be the smoking gun.
The Rams have gone 39-20 in the last four years with a trip to the Super Bowl. The Jaguars have gone 14-45 and would settle for a couple of strong starts by rookie quarterback Trevor Lawrence before to the end of the season.
Much has changed since the Rams defeated the Jaguars 27-17 that year in a matchup of coaching hires Sean McVay and Doug Marrone so in order to catch up with the current state of affairs in Jacksonville, I sent five Qs to Ryan O’Bleness at Big Cat Country and in kind he sent me five corresponding As.
Q - I love, love, love Trevor Lawrence. I know, not the most original take, but it seems like there are more people than there used to be who believe that rookies are not allowed to struggle through their initial NFL experiences. Where is your Trevor Lawrence confidence level today as compared to the moment you realized that Trevor Lawrence was going to be a Jaguar? Have the first 11 games shown you enough to solidify the belief that Lawrence is the long-term answer at QB? And what is maybe the number one culprit working against Trevor that we might see a lot of on Sunday?
A - I think that is an underrated point — he’s a rookie quarterback with an awful supporting cast and a struggling coaching staff. There seems to be a group of fans and pundits who just expected Lawrence to come into Jacksonville and just automatically cure over two decades (outside of a couple of good years) of futility. Even with as highly-rated of a prospect as Lawrence was coming out of college, that was never going to be the case.
For me personally, I expected Lawrence to have the normal rookie struggles and growing pains, but I also expected him to be more in a rhythm by now. Perhaps it’s taking a little bit longer than most people expected to really find his footing in the NFL, but the Jaguars have a young roster, and one that lacks both top-tier talent and depth. The team has also been hit with the injury bug. Lawrence can’t do it by himself, as he’s not at a level to elevate a team by himself yet. With that said, Lawrence has certainly flashed his potential many times this season, and all of the traits that were discussed leading up to the NFL Draft last year are all still there, but just need more development and polishing. As for my confidence level in Lawrence, I still have full faith in his future, and I think he’ll be a Pro Bowl or All-Pro player one day. But the Jaguars have to get him help to get him to that level, and have to play to his strengths more. If Lawrence fails, it will likely be because his environment was set up for failure from the get go. But I don’t expect that to be the case.
Outside of a lack of offensive playmakers by his side, and an inability by the wide receivers to create separation, the biggest thing working against Lawrence is the play-calling and game-planning. The staff needs to do a better job of calling plays to Lawrence’s biggest strengths — utilizing his legs, moving the pocket, throwing on the run, calling more designed quarterback runs or read options and getting the ball out of his hands quickly to build his confidence. Of course, the Jaguars are also playing from behind more often than not, so it’s hard to call those plays in negative game scripts, and of course, the staff wants to protect Lawrence at all costs, so having him run the ball too much could be risky, but there needs to be more creativity in the play-calling and it needs to put Lawrence in a position to succeed.
Q - In my opinion, trash talking Urban Meyer is hack at this point. All of a sudden, so many people around the country find themselves having an opinion on who the coach of the Jaguars is, when they never did before... But on the other hand, do you think that this level of offensive performance is acceptable? Do you think that given the personnel he was bestowed and the situation Jacksonville was in before he got there, that there’s nothing unusual about the Jags’ current state of affairs? Or is the Urban hate more deserved than it is a tired joke?
A - There are growing concerns with Meyer’s ability to be a head coach at the NFL level amongst Jaguars fans. In fact, there was a poll on Twitter this week after the Notre Dame job became open, and 78 percent of fans said they want Meyer to take the job with the Fighting Irish (this isn’t happening — Meyer said he wasn’t a candidate and Notre Dame has reportedly filled the job by promoting Marcus Freeman). To answer your question, no, the level of offensive performance has not been acceptable. The Jaguars rank 23rd in total offense, 24th in passing offense and 31st in points scored per game. The rushing attack is a little bit better, averaging 115.1 rushing yards per game and ranking 15th in the NFL. The team struggles to sustain drives and score points, and is second to last in the NFL with a -13 turnover differential.
But outside of Meyer’s questionable-at-best off-the-field antics, his on-field decision-making, or lack thereof, has really irked Jaguars fans. For example, running back James Robinson is one of Jacksonville’s best players and one of the few players on the offense who can actually create something on his own. And yet, when he wasn’t in the game during a crucial drive for the Jaguars against the Falcons last week, Meyer, when asked why Robinson wasn’t on the field, didn’t know why his star running back wasn’t out there — he’s the head coach. Meyer says he doesn’t want to micromanage offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell’s personnel decisions, but, it’s kind of his job to make sure that the team is set up to win as best it can be, and he needs to interject if he disagrees with something. Oddly, this isn’t the first time Meyer used the “micromanaging” line when asked about questionable personnel decisions during games. And I’ve already mentioned the coaching staff’s failure to put Lawrence in a position to succeed so far. So, it honestly hasn’t gone well so far. But it’s still early into this era.
The roster that Meyer inherited when he took over was awful, there is no denying that. But he hasn’t done a whole let to make it better, going into free agency with more cap room than other team, yet didn’t add many high-profile free agents or get a lot of true difference-makers on the team. Perhaps most importantly, the fact that the team and coaching staff just look so unprepared each and every week is truly concerning.
For me, I’m still willing to give Meyer some more time, as he’s just 11 games into his NFL career and he has very little talent to work with. It’s hard to blame Jaguars owner Shad Khan for making this move — Meyer has been one of the most coveted coaches for several years, and Jacksonville actually landed him. Khan isn’t going to give up on Meyer right away, either. But Meyer’s tenure — both on the field and off the field — has gotten off to an absolutely horrid start, and he is going to have to make some serious changes to the way he runs things if he expects to find any success. We’ll see how long this goes before the train goes off the rails, but hopefully, some day somewhat soon, Meyers and the Jaguars figure it out before then.
Q - We know that the Jaguars need to take steps forward in 2022. Another season with 11 or more losses can’t be acceptable. Given what resources Jacksonville has at their disposal today — including another top-five pick in the draft probably — what change are you most excited to see happen next year? Whether it be filling a need in the draft, hiring a certain type of coach, extending a certain player, or finding a particular free agent, what do you see as a problem right now that should be the top priority in 2022?
A - Oh, wow, excellent questions — so many different ways to go with it. I would say pretty much all of those things you mentioned are a priority, but I would love for the Jaguars to draft Oregon defensive end Kayvon Thibodeaux or (as a Michigan State fan, it pains me to say this) Michigan defensive end Aidan Hutchinson to get an instant-impact edge rusher who can plug in and play right away for a defense that currently ranks 29th in the NFL with just 19 sacks. But at the same time, Jacksonville needs to stop relying on so much production from rookies and should attack free agency with more aggressiveness than it did this past offseason.
Perhaps more importantly than any rookie or free agent is making changes to the coaching staff. And there are many areas of improvement needed there — whether that means there needs to be a change at offensive coordinator (Darrell Bevell) or quarterbacks coach (Brian Schottenheimer) to help Lawrence’s development, or hiring a wide receivers coach (Sanjay Lal) who can teach the wide receivers how to actually get separation against defensive backs. Defensively, Meyer needs to bring somebody to the staff who can generate a pass rush with the defensive line and/or outside linebackers. To be clear, I’m not necessarily advocating that all of these coaches need to be fired, but there needs to be changes somewhere, and there also needs some serious self-scouting and identification of ways to improve in 2022.
D.J. Chark fractured his ankle this season and has been out most of the year, but assuming he is healthy going into next season, he is the player I would love to see the Jaguars extend. His contract is up at the end of the season, and the franchise has a history of letting talented wide receivers walk away in free agency.
Q - So Rams fans can get a sense of how the rebuild is going, can you rank your top five players on the Jaguars today in terms of talent, value, and performance? If Trevor Lawrence is the most untouchable player on the entire roster, who is 2-3-4-5?
A- I would certainly rank Lawrence No. 1 in terms of talent, potential and value, although, I don’t know if I would necessarily rank him No. 1 in terms of performance. With that said, yes he should be looked at as the No. 1 player on the roster.
I would say after Lawrence:
2. Linebacker/defensive end Josh Allen
3. Running back James Robinson
4. Linebacker Myles Jack (dealing with a knee injury)
5. Cornerback Shaquill Griffin (dealing with a concussion)
I think arguments can be made for wide receiver Marvin Jones Jr., offensive guard Andrew Norwell and offensive center Brandon Linder (when healthy) as well. But Josh Allen absolutely wrecked the Buffalo Bills (and their quarterback with the same name) this season and his potential remains off the charts. He just needs to do it more consistently.
Robinson is just a solid running back who averages over five yards per carry, and is a quiet guy, but goes to work every week (and is on an undrafted free agent contract). Jack played lights out in 2020 (despite playing on an awful 1-15 football team), but is dealing with a knee injury and hasn’t played quite as well in 2021, but he still remains one of the defense’s top playmakers because of his speed and ability to cover ground from sideline-to-sideline. Griffin was the biggest free agent splash for the Jaguars and has been solid and coverage and provided leadership in the secondary, but he could miss this week’s game due to a concussion.
Q - I know I’ve seen much, much, much worse offensive lines than Andrew Norwell, Jawaan Taylor, Cam Robinson, Brandon Linder, and Ben Bartch. Is the OL a strength or are some of those names struggling badly this season?
A - It’s funny, many Jaguars fans want to see changes on the offensive line and often blame the guys in the trenches when things go wrong, but the truth is, while the unit isn’t elite, it’s a solid to pretty good group. The Jaguars average 5.0 yards per rush, and according to Football Outsiders, rank sixth in the NFL in adjusted line yards, sixth in stuffed rate and eighth in power success rate. In pass protection, the Jaguars have allowed 20 sacks this season, which is the sixth lowest in the league, and Jacksonville’s 5.4 percent adjusted sack rate ranks eighth in the NFL, per Football Outsiders (granted, Lawrence’s mobility helps to avoid sacks, too). The Jaguars have dealt with some injuries on the offensive line, as center Brandon Linder missed several games before returning last week against the Atlanta Falcons, while right guard A.J. Cann is on injured reserve, but guys like Ben Bartch and Tyler Shatley have stepped up in their absences.