This has been one of the more interesting offseasons in the brief history of the Jacksonville Jaguars. In terms of being newsworthy, it ranks up with the inaugural season for sheer volume and quality.
The team begins training camp knowing that its stadium has a new sponsor, more than 90 percent of its season ticket base from 2009 renewed their commitment, and 13,000 (and counting) new season ticket holders await the arrival of the first game.
That is just the tip of the iceberg.
If the only exposure you have to the Jaguars comes through the talking heads in the national sports outlets, you probably look at the Jaguars as being an afterthought. Not one pundit from any nationally recognized source has gone on record declaring the Jaguars will finish better than fourth in their own division, and most are expecting the team to wind up with a losing record.
It is probably a good thing they actually play the games, because with that kind of doom and gloom prognostication there is nowhere to go but up.
Despite the ominous predictions of another losing season, there is clearly optimism popping up in Jacksonville, and it is having an impact on the team in a positive way.
With the bar being set so low, there is little pressure for the Jaguars to meet or even exceed expectations. The experts have spoken, and they have determined the team simply will not match the level of competition on the schedule this year.
Still, if you listen to the coaches, players, or staff inside the halls of EverBank Field, there is a genuine excitement about the upcoming campaign.
Sure, in past seasons the coaches paid lip service to the notion that things would be great. They said all the right things, and preached a good game. But, there was always lingering doubt about just how accurate their assessments were, and how much of what they were saying to the press was linked to a script and not grounded in their beliefs.
This year is different.
When you hear Mel Tucker or Dirk Koetter talking about the team, there is a genuine excitement in their tone. They really cannot wait to get back to work. Jack Del Rio looks like a man renewed, grinning like a Cheshire cat about the prospects for his team any time he is in front of a camera.
What do they know that has them so genuinely confident in their team? Or, are they completely delusional? We will know soon enough.
What we do know is that the fans have bought in. They see the efforts to make significant strides in rebuilding the roster, and they believe in the process. We know this based on the level of buzz the team is getting locally.
No other team can brag about taking a dismal season ticket situation and turning it around as quickly as the Jaguars have. There is a very real possibility that the team will avoid blackouts this year. With the economy still in the tank, and the team coming off another losing season, that is a monumental feat.
It is so notable that NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell plans to visit the Jaguars' training camp next week. This is a vote of confidence from the league following a verbal slap-down over market sustainability that sparked the My Team Teal effort in February. When Goodell singled out the Jaguars in an address discussing ticket sales, the message was clear: sell tickets or say goodbye to Jacksonville.
The My Team Teal effort was undertaken by volunteers led by former Jaguar Tony Boselli and publisher Carl Cannon. It actually started last November, when Touchdown Jacksonville was resurrected to get community support from local businesses and fans alike. Their goal was to sell out the prime time game against the Indianapolis Colts. They succeeded, and a plan was hatched that became My Team Teal.
When the season ended, the machinery was already working to turn around the ticket sales issues in Jacksonville, so the declaration by Goodell was simply added motivation in pushing forward with the goals of turning around season ticket renewal rates and rebuilding the entire season ticket base.
Because the Jaguars saw their season ticket base fall to its lowest levels in franchise history prior to the 2009 season, because 17,000 tickets were not renewed, and because the economy was still in the midst of a meltdown, the Team Teal crew had a major effort that most expected would take at least a couple of seasons to complete.
But Tony Boselli hit the rubber chicken circuit, talking to any group willing to host him, and the former offensive tackle crafted a presentation and pep talk that would have left Knute Rockne envious.
Ticket sales were cranking from the moment the 2009 season ended. During periods where the Jaguars normally sold just a handful of tickets, they were selling several hundred new packages a week.
Meanwhile, the Team Teal crowd was cobbling together a partnership with local businesses to come up with perks that would encourage the purchase of season tickets. Again, the response was amazing. Companies lined up to offer discounts that would become part of the Teal Deals package, adding other bonuses people could enjoy when purchasing season tickets.
Team Teal, and more specifically Tony Boselli, have taken a dire situation and turned it around in a matter of months. With the current numbers, the Jaguars are within reach of avoiding blackouts for the season, and more importantly, they are selling tickets to people who truly want to get behind the team.
Everything has aligned for the Jaguars to surprise the pundits and to pay back the fans who have gladly jumped on the bandwagon to support their efforts.
With the continued efforts of general manager Gene Smith, the roster has steadily improved both in front line quality and depth. The critical areas of need on both lines have been addressed.
The coaches are confident the team will turn around its biggest concern: a lack of any sustainable or effective pass rush. The fix starts at the top with the addition of Joe Cullen, the new line coach. His fiery style is a significant change, and a more aggressive pass rush is at the top of his priority list. During minicamp earlier this year, the change was most notable in the amount of running he has the line doing.
Most significantly, the addition of Aaron Kampan to the defensive line is having an immediate impact. His work ethic and attention to detail has been attributed to the transformation being seen in Derrick Harvey, who has completely changed his training regimen and appears to be working his way toward becoming the player he was hoped to be when drafted.
Add Larry Hart to the mix on the outside as an undersized pass rush specialist, and the unit has the potential to go from being worst in the league to being towards the top of the heap very quickly.
The additions of D’Anthony Smith and Tyson Alualu to the roster solidify the interior of the line, which will hopefully cause it to reemerge as the dominant unit it was when John Henderson and Marcus Stroud were the anchors.
Upgrades to the linebacking corps should allow for a more aggressive style of play. Kirk Morrison is a proven entity who immediately makes the entire unit better and allows Daryl Smith to return to his more natural position on the outside.
The offensive line should show improvement again this year. The offseason conditioning program has proven to be a lifesaver for veterans like Brad Meester, who has dropped weight and appears ready to compete for the starting position.
Eugene Monroe has shed 30 pounds and has made a remarkable improvement in his level of play according to offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter. Eben Britton has also made strides in his conditioning and is quickly becoming the vocal leader of the group.
The Jaguars expect the interior of the offensive line to be one of the prime battles as Meester fights to keep his position. Veteran guard Justin Smiley should provide a push that could wind up forcing Uche Nwaneri into the center position. Vince Manuwai also needs to show a rebound from a mediocre 2009 season where he struggled to return from his knee injury.
If the team has any hope of silencing the critics, it has to start with both lines. The Jaguars have clearly focused a lot of energy on improving both sides of the ball in the trenches.
If the offensive line is in a better place, it will help David Garrard rebound from a difficult season, and it will provide Maurice Jones-Drew with the necessary lanes to make his job easier.
If the defensive line improves its pass rush significantly, it means fewer blown leads and more time for the offense to put points on the board.
It all starts up front, and it appears the Jaguars understand this and have put every ounce of energy into making sure these are strengths in 2010.
The improvements on both sides of the ball would explain the quiet confidence emanating from the Jaguars' front office, coaches, and players. It would explain why the local buzz about a return to traditional Jaguars' football has fans buying into the rebuilding process and buying tickets to support the team.
All we need now is to strap on the gear and hit the field. The long road to validation begins tomorrow.
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