Monday, December 25, 2017

Florida's Best NFL Team

BY SCOTT MORGANROTH
PHOTOS BY CANDICE EBLING

Who is the best NFL team in Florida?

If you guessed the Miami Dolphins or Tampa Bay Buccaneers, then you're absolutely incorrect!

The Dolphins haven't won a Super Bowl since former Owner Joe Robbie and Hall of Fame Coach Don Shula were running the show in the 1970's.

There was some success in the 1980's and 1990's when Shula and QB Dan Marino were making the playoffs but couldn't attain championship status.

All Marino did with Shula was pad his passing statistics with the likes of wide receivers Mark Duper, Mark Clayton and Mark Ingram Sr.

After Shula retired, Jimmy Johnson, who had two Super Bowl Championships on his resume with the Dallas Cowboys, couldn't convince Marino to accept having a balanced running and passing attack.

As a result, their careers ended abruptly as the Jacksonville Jaguars mauled the Miami Dolphins 62-7 in the 1999 Divisional Playoffs in Northern Florida.

The Miami Dolphins haven't sniffed much success since Shula and Johnson departed.

They've only won two AFC East Championships since 2000.

Excluding current Head Coach Adam Gase, the last full-time winning coach for Miami was Dave Wannstedt in 2004. His career mark with the Dolphins was 42-31.

The Dolphins have been a dysfunctional organization and of the 12 head coaches in their history, they've employed eight since 2004 which includes interim coaches and now Gase.

Alabama Coach Nick Saban was in this group as he coached the Dolphins from 2005-2006 and was 15-17.

On Monday, December 11, 2017, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers honored former Coach Jon Gruden by inducting him into their Ring of Honor.

The Buccaneers won a Super Bowl 15 years ago and since Gruden stopped coaching the team, they have gone through four coaches.

Only Gruden and Tony Dungy have ever left their jobs in Tampa Bay with winning records.

Current Coach Dirk Koetter was given one more season to develop franchise QB Jameis Winston, who you see in the photo in a game versus the Detroit Lions on December 10, 2017 at Raymond James Stadium.

The only team remaining is the Jacksonville Jaguars.

This is a team which finished the 2016 season with a 3-13 record and their transformation in the past year has been tremendous.

The team fired Gus Bradley on December 18, 2016 and hired Doug Marrone as interim coach on December 19, 2016 for the final two games.

Marrone finished the season with a 1-1 mark.

Prior to coming to Jacksonville, Marrone had some success coaching the Buffalo Bills.

As the team's head coach in 2013-2014, the Bills were 15-17.

In his first season, Buffalo was 6-10 and in his final campaign, the Bills improved to 9-7.

After the 2014 season, Marrone had a three day out clause in the event of an ownership change and he quit on December 31, 2014.

What a difference two years makes since departing Buffalo and Marrone took over the interim job.

Back in January, former Jacksonville Coach Tom Coughlin was hired as the Executive VP of Football Operations.

He wasted no time hiring Marrone full-time on January 9 as Doug become the fifth head coach in franchise history, thus the culture change was underway.

The 71-year old Coughlin made his impact on the team in the NFL Draft by selecting LSU standout running back Leornard Fournette in the first round, fourth overall.

Coughlin and Marrone's impact was known as they suspended Fournette for one game because of disciplinary problems.

When we went to Jacksonville on November 12, 2017, the Jaguars faced Melvin Gordon and the LA Chargers. Their defense limited Gordon to just 27 yards and as a result defeated the Chargers 20-17 in OT.

This was Jacksonville's third straight win and doubled it's total to six by improving to 6-3, while the Chargers dropped to 3-6.

It was a hard fought contest, but the Chargers would go on a four-game winning streak before losing to the Kansas City Chiefs Saturday, December 9, 2017, 30-13.

The Jaguars only loss since we attended the Chargers game was on the road to the Arizona Cardinals, as they lost 27-24 snapping a four-game winning streak. Cardinals kicker Phil Dawson kicked a career long 57-yard field goal.

Jacksonville would go on and start a new winning streak that had reached three.

Before the Chargers game, there were rumors that the team was considering bringing in Eli Manning to rejoin Coughlin in 2018.

That talk has definitely subsided with the recent offensive explosion and continued development of QB Blake Bortles.

In addition to Marrone, Offensive Coordinator Nathaniel Hackett and QB Coach Scott Milanovich have been a major part of Bortles development.

The Jaguars have won three straight home games starting with the Indianapolis Colts 30-13, Seattle Seahawks 30-24 and when we were there Sunday, December 17, 2017, they thrashed the Houston Texans 45-7.

This game was over by halftime as Jacksonville led 31-0. The Texans self destructed by committing 14 penalties for 127 yards.

In the two games Jacksonville won against the Texans, in week one and fifteen, they outscored Houston 74-14.

In the home win, the Jaguars inserted former Michigan QB Chad Henne into the line-up for mop-up duty at the 12:33 mark in the fourth quarter with a 38-7 lead.

Going into their week sixteen contest on the road against the San Francisco 49'ers, patience has paid off for the Jaguars coaching staff as this recent three game winning streak has seen Bortles throw seven touchdown passes and zero interceptions.

Bortles has performed to a career high 89.7 QB rating to date.

Against the Texans, Bortles threw for 326 yards and three touchdowns and had a QB rating of 143.8. Once again, there was no talk about Eli Manning in the press box, just the maturity of this fourth year pro from the University of Central Florida.

Texans Coach Bill O'Brien noticed improvement from Bortles since the beginning of the season.

"He played a good game, he's had a good year," O'Brien said. "Give him a lot of credit. You know he's had a good year for them, and they've got him playing real well."

Fournette missed the game due to a quad injury but as indicated by the lopsided score, the Jags didn't need him and the rookie running back had a week of rest.

Keelan Cole had a career day by catching seven passes for 186 yards and one touchdown.

Jaydon Mickens, who was recently on the practice squad and was sleeping in his car at Ever Bank Field, made sure with his performance he won't have to do this again. He amassed four receptions for 61 yards and two touchdowns.

This has been a very touching story especially hearing about this during the holidays.

During the Jags three game home stretch, they had two sellouts and have now clinched their first playoff spot since 2007.

The parking lots are getting filled with tailgaters and this town is on the verge of erupting.

When there was a shot of Coughlin in his private suite shown to the crowd, the stadium erupted. These fans know he's behind the resurrection of this incredible turnaround.

But at what point during the season did people start taking this team seriously?

When you walk into Pittsburgh on October, 9, 2017 and whip the Steelers 30-9, it's time to start paying attention.

Fournette had 28 carries for 181 yards and two touchdowns and set a franchise record with a 90-yard touchdown run.

Jacksonville's defense hammered Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger on this day. He was 35-55, 312 yards and threw five interceptions.

This win enabled Jacksonville to improve to 3-2 as it matched its win total of 2016.

A week later, the Jaguars lost to the LA Rams 27-17, but Fournette still amassed 130 yards including a 75-yard touchdown run.

Despite missing three games, Fournette has been a force on offense as he's rushed for 971 yards and has 235 receiving yards leading to 1,206 all purpose yards producing 10 touchdowns.

There is no doubt he'll be a strong candidate to win Rookie Of The Year Honors.

In the Jaguars win against Seattle, this was the first time they defeated an opponent that was entering the game at least four games over .500 since week 15 of the 2007 season (Pittsburgh).

The 2017 season can be summarized in different ways as there have been many firsts in what's been viewed as a remarkable turnaround.

After the thrashing of the Texans, Jaguars Owner Shad Khan was the happiest man in the stadium after his team clinched a playoff berth.

"It's unbelievable. To win it and win it the way we did today, mind-blowing and I'm really grateful, obviously and proud of the players," Khan said. "The football leadership and the fans, especially the last two games, have given us the energy, put it over the top. It's been awesome."

Khan knew that the fans would return to the stadium when the team started to make it worthwhile.

"It's been awesome. It's been awesome," Khan said. "We've had standing room tickets today, which certainly hasn't happened in the almost six years I've been here, so it's wonderful. The energy in this stadium, you can't replace that, and that's why we need the fans."

Khan was asked if he thought success would come this soon after bringing Coughlin back.

"I'm always an optimistic guy, " Khan said. "And certainly, whatever I was hoping for, it's that and more."

Khan had a ton of praise for his signal caller Bortles.

"I think it's been incredible," Khan said. "I think the stats show that. He's been kind of different, more confident person, and he's providing the leadership we all want out of him."

The entire theme after the game was about the fans coming back especially since this was Jacksonville's final home game of the regular season.

Marrone was asked if this team feeds off the crowd?

"No doubt. No doubt. No doubt," he said. "When you play late in the year and you need to win football games and you have a great crowd that is ready to go, that helps," Marrone said. "I've been saying that for weeks. I think that through this time that all the work that this team has put in, I've said before, we're trying to earn the, I don't know what the right word is, of our fans. I guess we want to be able to go out there and be able to perform and have them be proud of our performance."

During the course of the week, it's been interesting to see the National Media's reaction to Jacksonville's turnaround.

While I'm not in the immediate local media, thanks to my Great Friend and Jaguars Senior VP, Communications, Dan Edwards, he's been great by credentialing Myself and Ebling when we come up to the area.

It would be hard to find a nicer and classier person than Edwards!!

Thankfully, he always seems to find space for us.

But during the last two seasons, we've covered four games, two per season, and it's very easy to gain a pulse on the progression of this franchise as I see myself as somewhat of an insider and look forward to continuing to working with the Jaguars in the future health permitting.

Marrone was asked if the Us Against The World is a good description of this team.

"I've said before people on the outside might feel that way," Marrone said. "I don't use 'us against the world' per se. I talk about putting in the work, gaining the respect and the only way to do it. You know, good football teams win in December. We're just trying to keep pushing the players to be better and not really riding any theme  like 'us against the world,' because it's not. We have our fans. We have the other side of the building in the business section of it. We have our media. We have a lot of people that are with us. So maybe it's all of us against the world."

Bortles will be making his first playoff appearance and he's using the rest of the regular season to improve his game, he's definitely looking forward to playing post-season football.

"It feels good. Obviously, I think everyone knows the history of the organization to be able to say that we are part of the group that kind of changed the culture and changed the narrative about the Jaguars is special," Bortles said. "I think it's a never ending battle. You do it one week or you do it for a couple weeks or for one season. It's something we have to find a way to make consistent on a weekly basis and on a yearly basis."

Bortles added that he's pleased the crowds are coming back.

"It all comes with winning," he said. "I think that is the main thing, that is the main key, the main ingredient. People want to come watch a team win. They want to be part of a winning organization. Now that we are able do do that and give them that and put a good product out on the field that they can come watch, I think it only makes it more exciting for them. To be able to do it in front of them and have them be as loud and cheer like they did in the playoff change at the end. It's pretty cool and surreal."

Against the Texans, Jacksonville's defense once again made life difficult as Houston amassed only 186 yards in total offense.

Overall, the Jaguars lead the NFL with 879 tackles and 52 sacks. This defense will be a force to be reckoned with in the playoffs.

Texans QB T.J Yates was running for his life all afternoon and was sacked four times.

Yates only touchdown was to standout wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins for 25 yards shown in the photo, Hopkins would finish the afternoon with four receptions for 80 yards and a touchdowns. This kid is a stud and will be a superstar for many years to come.

During the season, the Jaguars have been hit with numerous injuries, losing wide receivers Allen Robinson, Dede Westbrook and Allen Hurns but they continue to play through these using the next man up.

Jacksonville added defensive tackle Marcell Dareus to bolster their defense.

There is a saying that defense wins championships and I'll be curious to see how Jacksonville's will fare against the elite QB's and offenses come playoff time. It will also be interesting to see the continued progression of Bortles.

But as I look at the tale of two seasons between Houston and Jacksonville, it can be summarized in this respect.

Houston lost defensive standout J.J. Watt earlier in the season and then their QB of the future DeShaun Watson succumbed to a season ending ACL Injury.

Prior to Watson's injury, he threw for 1,699 yards and 19 touchdowns and eight interceptions. He also rushed for 289 yards and added two more touchdowns.

With a 4-11 record to date, it would be unfortunate to see Texans Coach Bill O' Brien to lose his job come "Black Monday, January 1, 2018."

As for Jacksonville, it's hard to believe that a year ago, this squad finished with a 3-13 mark and was a laughingstock.

Khan found this term rather enlightening and said, "Well, I've been through life when I was a laughingstock in whatever business I was in, auto parts or what have you. You have to stay in it and success comes. It's a story of perseverance."

Truly, I think the Jaguars are on house money because nobody expected them to be where they are now so anything they accomplish is a building block.

In my 39 years of covering sports, I've covered numerous championship teams and it's always a building process to reach elite status and maintain it.

It will be interesting to monitor the Jacksonville Jaguars over the coming weeks.

The Jaguars and their fans have had a tough task as they faced the San Francisco 49'ers , who are playing much better with the acquisition  of Jimmy Garoppolo from the New England Patriots.

Against the Jaguars, Garoppolo threw for 242 yards and a touchdown to lead San Francisco to its fourth consecutive win.

As for Bortles, he threw for 382 yards, two touchdowns and one interception as his squad dropped to 10-5.

The 49'ers defeated the Jaguars 44-33. But the big news of the day was the LA Rams defeating the Tennessee Titans in Nashville. For the first time  since 1999, The Jaguars have clinched the the AFC South Division.

As a result, the 10-5 Jaguars will host a playoff game for the first time since 1999. It's been announced that they received permission from the NFL and their sponsors to remove the tarps in the upper level of EverBank Field and sell those tickets for their home playoff game next week.

The NFL prohibits changes in seating capacity during the regular season, and tarp sponsorship's
are sold on a season-long basis.

The additional 3,501 seats went up for sale Friday Morning at 10 A.M. ET and took just six minutes
to sell out according to the team.

The Jaguars are Florida's Best NFL Team and I don't see the Miami Dolphins or the Tampa Bay Buccaneers catching up anytime soon!

Scott Morganroth can be reached at www.scottsports33.com and is a member of The Detroit Sports Media.

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