ORLANDO, Fla. — A media crowd formed around the table of an unlikely individual during the AFC head coaches breakfast at the NFL owners meetings this week.
Patriots coach Bill Belichick had his media throng, although he was far from a wealth of information. Jets coach Rex Ryan was questioned about nearly everything, as you can imagine. Broncos coach John Fox enjoyed talking about Peyton Manning, but was not the person holding a captive audience.
The unexpectedly popular coach was Jacksonville coach Gus Bradley.
There he was, wearing a sports coat, clean shaven head and a smile after every sentence. Bradley explained how he was building a program. He talked about the lessons he learned as a first-year coach in 2013. Bradley gave his views about this year’s quarterback class, largely because most NFL observers expect him to select one. And Bradley made many believe he could actually turn things around in Jacksonville.
It was that same sales pitch and optimism that he used in free agency, which explains how he was able to get so many free agents to come to Jacksonville, which isn't exactly the NFL's hottest destination.
Jacksonville has signed running back Toby Gerhart, guard Zane Beadles, defensive end Red Bryant, defensive end Chris Clemons, receiver Tandon Doss, linebacker Dekoda Watson, and defensive tackle Ziggy Hood since the start of free agency. The Jaguars also re-signed defensive end Jason Babin, who started in 16 games last season.
Bradley had to get creative when he made his pitch, because he couldn't sell players on the same things other coaches can.
Could you imagine him trying to sell free agents on any of the following?
Come to the Jaguars, we finished 4-12 last season! Come to the Jaguars, we have not been to the playoffs since 2007! Come to the Jaguars, a small media market where you will rarely be on national television! Come to the Jaguars, we do not have a quarterback yet!
No chance. But Bradley had a different proposition.
"It’s an opportunity," Bradley said. "That’s really what a player is looking for is an opportunity. The other thing is can you help me get better. They want to visit with the position coach. They want to visit with the coordinator, and they need to sense that. Then they need to sense the environment is good. Does the culture allow them to get better.
"I think a lot of the credit for us in getting some of these guys is our own team because you heard Toby Gerhart call Allen Reisner (Jaguars receiver) and Chad Henne (Jaguars quarterback). These guys called players on our team, and our players really stood up and spoke from the heart about what’s it like. That’s what’s cool to me."
Here is another thing that is cool: Bradley’s excitement is contagious.
"I know this is probably not good to say, but I enjoyed last year," Bradley said. "Not the record — I wasn't excited about that, but I'm not going to miss the opportunity to see what we did well. We had valuable, valuable lessons we could teach our team. We talked about not getting consumed in defeats, not reveling in accomplishments, celebrating victories, being unselfish, learning trust — all these things came up in our conversations last year, and I love every aspect of that. If my sole focus was on winning and losing, I would have missed all that, and I don't want to go there."
Bradley has enthusiasm, but that alone will not help Jacksonville record wins against Indianapolis, Tennessee and Houston in the AFC South. Indianapolis won the division last season, while Houston hired coach Bill O’Brien to turn around its franchise. Houston has the No. 1 overall pick in the upcoming draft, which should speed up its rebuilding process.
However, it is hard to ignore Bradley’s vision for Jacksonville, or the many free agents he convinced to believe in that dream so far.
"I think we’re adding pieces to the puzzle," Bradley said. "Last year, we were trying to figure out the guys who were currently here on the roster. Then you do that during training camp and preseason and during the season. We have a pretty good feel. Now let’s help out some of our weaker areas and bring in some guys that can make that a strength for us."
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