It’s rare in sports to have one moment so perfectly sum up a team’s entire season. That’s especially true in the NFL, where parity reigns supreme and every team ends up experiencing more twists and turns over a four-month period than an episode of “Lost.”
On Sunday afternoon, we all got to witness the rare “perfect snapshot” during the course of Jacksonville’s dispiriting 20-3 loss to Houston in the regular season finale. It came during the second quarter, with the Jaguars down 10-3, when the CBS cameras captured running back Leonard Fournette and T.J. Yeldon sitting on the bench, arms crossed, blankly staring up at the video scoreboard while the Jaguars’ offense was on the field.
The moment, which encapsulated the way the two sat on the bench the entire game, summed up the Jaguars’ 2018 season — one filled with dysfunction, disappointment, apathy and frustration.
It also led Jaguars executive vice president of football operations Tom Coughlin to issue an angry statement.
“I am disappointed in the behavior today from T.J. Yeldon and Leonard Fournette,” Coughlin’s statement read. “They were disrespectful, selfish and their behavior was unbecoming of a professional football player.”
Yeldon was active, so he should have been standing near his offensive coaches whenever the offense was on the field, ready to go in.
The Fournette criticism is mysterious since he was inactive due to a foot/ankle injury. He had a tumultuous season, one marred by a nagging hamstring injury, a stupid fan altercation, got ejected in a loss to Buffalo which also resulted in a one-game suspension against the division rival Indianapolis Colts. Fournette, the fourth overall pick in 2017 who rushed for 439 yards and five touchdowns this year, had a disappointing sophomore campaign, and it’s clear the 23-year-old must mature. The team also took the action in voiding the remaining guarantees in Fournette’s rookie contract, according to an Associated Press report.
But while we’re holding people accountable in Jacksonville … Coughlin needs to take a look at himself, in addition to general manager Dave Caldwell and coach Doug Marrone. They are, after all, part of the three-headed braintrust that stewarded this embarrassing 5-11 campaign. The 2018 Jaguars will go down in history as one of the most disappointing preseason Super Bowl contenders ever, and most of the blame for that lies with them, despite the fact team owner Shad Khan announced Sunday all three will return in 2019.
The roots for this disaster were planted in February, when the Jaguars re-signed Blake Bortles to a three-year extension worth $54 million. On its own, the decision to bring him back was defensible. Bortles, the former No. 3 overall pick, was coming off a 2017 campaign in which he set a career high in completion percentage (60.2) and quarterback rating (59.2). He also took a career low in sacks (24) while throwing for 3,687 yards, 21 touchdowns and 13 interceptions.
Those numbers aren’t eye-popping, but Bortles — who turned 26 in April — showed an improved ability to make big throws when necessary while leading the Jags to a 10-6 regular-season record, the AFC South crown, a surprising divisional-round upset of Pittsburgh and an appearance in the AFC championship game last season.
So again, the fact they brought him back was OK. But you know what wasn’t? The deal itself, which will make his dead-cap contract an albatross if he’s cut before 2020 … especially when they already had him under contract in 2018 via the fifth-year option they exercised the previous May. Bortles’ lack of accuracy, pocket poise and iffy mechanics have been issues since he entered the league, yet the Jaguars decided against investing a high draft pick in a talented young quarterback/replacement and letting Bortles play out his fifth year.
The New England Patriots attempted to hedge their bets in a similar way with Jimmy Garoppolo, who they drafted in 2014 as protection for their ageless-wonder quarterback, Tom Brady. Brady’s prime extended beyond what anyone would have expected, and the Patriots ended up shipping Garoppolo off to San Francisco, but you can’t convince me that Garoppolo’s presence wasn’t part of the reason Brady extended his prime. No way a competitor like Brady was just gonna cede the job to the kid; he worked to make sure it didn’t happen, and the Patriots were better for it.
The Kansas City Chiefs experienced a similar situation when they drafted Patrick Mahomes in 2017. And after sitting for a year under incumbent starter Alex Smith — who posted a career season just months after Mahomes was selected — Mahomes has taken the job this year and run with it, throwing for 50 touchdowns and 12 interceptions while taking the offense to new heights.
You know who also adopted this philosophy? The Baltimore Ravens, who moved up to select Lamar Jackson No. 32 overall in April as a hedge against their increasingly unsteady veteran quarterback, Joe Flacco, and so did the Steelers, who used a third-round pick on Mason Rudolph in case Ben Roethlisberger retires this offseason.
But the Jaguars? Nah. Not only did they pass on Mahomes and Houston’s Deshaun Watson in 2017 in favor of Fournette in the first round, they also used their 2018 first-round pick on defensive lineman Taven Bryan, who finished his rookie season with 19 tackles and zero sacks in 16 games. By doing so, they passed on Jackson, whose dual-threat ability has played well in Baltimore. He’s even led them to a 6-1 record as a starter since taking over for Flacco behind a revitalized, ground-heavy attack, one that would have also been been easy to see him leading in Jacksonville with Fournette. The Jaguars even have a smash-mouth philosophy similar to the Ravens’.
Yet the Jaguars didn’t swing for Jackson, and they didn’t even take a swing on Rudolph, either, as they opted to take receiver D.J. Chark (14 catches, 174 yards in 11 games) in the second round and roll with 25-year-old Cody Kessler, for whom they dealt a seventh-round pick to Cleveland, as the backup. It wasn’t a good decision, as many could see Jackson’s obvious talent months ago — even some on the Jaguars’ own roster.
“I would’ve picked [Jackson] earlier than 32,” star cornerback Jalen Ramsey told GQ in August. “I think he’s gonna do a good job. Especially with the [Ravens’] offensive coordinator — he likes running quarterbacks, likes that read option. And just being honest about it, [Joe] Flacco sucks. I played him two years in a row. He sucks.”
Everybody was focused on the hilarious “Flacco sucks” part of that quote, but Ramsey was on to something. Maybe drafting Jackson would have given the Jaguars hope, hope that would have prevented them from going into the tank following Bortles’ five-turnover outing in a 30-14 loss to the Chiefs on Oct. 7. The Jaguars fell to 3-2 with the loss; they shouldn’t have ended the season 2-9 the way they did.
By the time Jaguars coach Doug Marrone went with Kessler as his starter before Week 13, the Jaguars were 3-8, losers of seven straight, and the season was essentially over. With a better backup in tow, Marrone would have had a better option than Bortles to turn to earlier, one that perhaps could have saved the season. And in a perfect world, maybe the presence of a Jackson-type would have helped take Bortles to a different level, as Smith did in 2017 because of Mahomes’ presence. At which point they could have dealt either of them.
But alas, there was no help on the way for the 2018 Jaguars, as the front office’s mismanagement of the situation allowed Bortles’ struggles to take the entire team down with him. Bortles’ last pass of the season on Sunday was, quite fittingly, an interception, one that surely led to eye rolls from teammates and curse words from Jags fans.
From that standpoint, Fournette’s and Yeldon’s body language was understandable. Coughlin may have been annoyed by their behavior, but he should also understand their frustration about an unnecessarily lost season — one in which the Jaguars wasted one of the league’s best defenses — is one that was ultimately caused by himself, Caldwell and Marrone, too.
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