With a rookie quarterback playing about as bad as any quarterback could possibly play while still retaining a full-time starting position, a wide receiver corps that consisted of players that absolutely could not get open or make an impact and a schedule that featured the always tough NFC
East South and the resurgent AFC West North, the Jaguars somehow won five games in 2011.
It was truly a feat for a team that entered the season with a terrible defense the season prior and a star running back coming off knee surgery. The defense finished the season No. 6 in the NFL and Maurice Jones-Drew led the league in rushing, despite lacking the burst that Jaguars fans had grown accustomed to seeing.
With the regular season set to kick off for the Jaguars on Sunday against the Minnesota Vikings, the Jaguars are again an after-thought of the league, but should they be? With a defense that will feature almost the entire group that had plenty of success in 2011, a three-time Pro Bowl running back leading the running offense and a quarterback who can't possibly play worse than his 2011 season, improvement not only seems possible, but maybe even probable.
Everything begins and ends with Blaine Gabbert
Entering training camp in late July, the play of Blaine Gabbert was a huge question mark, and many Jaguars fans had given up hope on the second-year quarterback. Without playing a regular season game, there are certainly a tremendous amount of doubters still, but the 2011 first-round pick earned some supporters for his play in the preseason.
While he wasn't perfect, making a couple mistakes including a sack/fumble in the first preseason game, he was certainly as good as anyone would have expected after a horrific rookie campaign. With three touchdowns and no interceptions, Gabbert's 95.0 quarterback rating in the preseason was nearly 30 points higher than his rating in the 2011 regular season.
So while it's certainly up in the air how Gabbert will perform in his second year as the starting quarterback for the Jaguars, it's clear that there has been improvement made. He undoubtedly will be a better player in 2012, it's difficult to argue otherwise.
How much better? That's the question that is determinant of his future as the Jaguars' quarterback. As the No. 33 quarterback out of the 33 quarterbacks that threw at least 14 passes/game in 2011, anything is an improvement. However, if he's the No. 30 quarterback at the end of the year, that simply isn't good enough.
A fair expectation is for Gabbert to bring his quarterback rating up from 65.4 to the 80.0-90.0 range where the No. 10-20 quarterbacks fall in line. Closer to 90.0 would be a dream come true for Jaguars' fans and would make the team a playoffs contender, and closer to 80.0 and fans can at least be satisfied that significant improvement was made.
Anything less than 80.0, though, and the questions about Gabbert's viability as a franchise quarterback will continue.
Maurice Jones-Drew is still really good
Make no mistake about it, until someone proves otherwise, Maurice Jones-Drew is the best player on the Jaguars' offense. While the improvement of the team is mostly on the shoulders of Gabbert, Jones-Drew has been the most dynamic playmaker on the Jaguars for each of the last three seasons, arguably longer, and fans can expect the same in 2012.
Yes, he did have a holdout that lasted all of training camp and the preseason and, yes, he's far behind when it comes to learning a brand new playbook implemented by new head coach Mike Mularkey and new offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski. But no, the NFL's leading rusher is not facing the same situation that Chris Johnson was when he returned to the Titans following a lengthy holdout in 2011.
For one, Jones-Drew is not at all lacking in motivation for the new season, as he'll look to prove that the new contract he wants is deserved. Second, MJD spent his offseason as he spends every summer, in California training for another season.
When the running back suffered a knee injury that cost him the end of his 2010 season, he struggled with the injury throughout training camp in 2011 and was able to only take five carries in the final preseason game while missing each of the three prior.
Despite this and a clear lack of burst during the season that he recently admitted to, Jones-Drew accounted for 47.7 percent of the Jaguars' offense in 2011 and led the league in rushing without a viable compliment back or a passing game to keep defenses honest.
So while Jones-Drew is facing a challenge in 2012, it isn't on the same level as the challenge he faced and undoubtedly passed with flying colors in 2011.
New receivers change scene for Gabbert
The leading receiver for the Jaguars in 2011 was Marcedes Lewis with 460 yards receiving, while Mike Thomas led the team with 44 receptions. Both players had terrible seasons and drew heaps of criticism, and those were the two best performances the team had.
If that alone isn't indicative of the quality of player the Jaguars were attempting success with in 2011, then I don't know what is. Three receivers that spent much of the season on the Jaguars roster, Jason Hill, Jarett Dillard and Chastin West, are all free agents, struggling to find a job anywhere in the league.
While the Jaguars don't have the league's most dynamic receiving corps, the group took an emphatic step forward by drafting Justin Blackmon in the 2012 NFL Draft and signing Laurent Robinson to a five-year, $32.5 million contract. The two receivers should also help Thomas return to the role that allowed him to be successful during his first two seasons in the league.
Rounding out the additions to the group isn't a player, but receivers coach Jerry Sullivan, who brings a wealth of experience to the position, replacing coaches with résumés that really never warranted the position in the first place.
Depth woefully thin along offensive line
One of the many areas where the Jaguars struggled offensively was when it came to blocking for Gabbert. Specifically on the right side, where Guy Whimper struggled for the majority of the year. While the run blocking line hashed out strong performances consistently, 44 sacks surrendered by the Jaguars ranked as the seventh-worst mark in the NFL.
While the team made an effort to make improvements along the receiving corps and Gabbert promises to look better in 2012 than he did as a rookie, the offensive line was a need that wasn't addressed at all during the offseason.
Sure the team is getting Eben Britton back after surgery on his back ended his season early in 2011, but the loss of guard Will Rackley sent Britton inside and off-set the injury. While Britton has done well at the position, it wouldn't be surprising for the fourth-year offensive lineman to again see his season shortened because of injury.
The Jaguars have a solid left tackle in Eugene Monroe, a reliable veteran in Brad Meester and a very strong right guard Uche Nwaneri. After that, it's an offensive line that is thin and unproven. While Guy Whimper isn't expected to be relied upon again in 2012, it will be Cameron Bradfield, a second year player who went undrafted in the 2011 NFL Draft, starting at the right tackle spot.
As a starting unit, the Jaguars' offensive line looks good enough to compete at a high level, but if one of the starters was to get hurt, the depth behind those starters is painfully thin.
The search for Tony Brackens 2.0 hits a decade without results
In 2003, Tony Brackens' last season with the Jaguars, the best pass rusher in franchise history recorded just six sacks in his final season with the team. It brought his total with the team to 55.0, a number that hasn't been even close to approached since.
In fact, since the departure of Brackens, Bobby McCray's 10.0-sack season in 2006 is the only season that featured a Jaguars pass rusher reaching double digits. Whether signing free agents like Reggie Hayward and Aaron Kampman, or drafting ends like Derrick Harvey, Quentin Groves, Austen Lane and Larry Hart, an incumbent to Brackens' role has yet to be found.
Jeremy Mincey's emergence has filled the void some, but without a complimentary rusher on the other side. Mincey was much more of a rusher than a sacker and his eight sacks weren't indicative of his full impact.
Insert Andre Branch, the No. 38 overall pick in the 2012 NFL Draft, a pass rushing specialist that was set to battle it out with Austen Lane for a starting role, but instead will take over in the starting lineup due to an injury to Lane. While Branch's burst off the line was promising in preseason and his run stopping ability was stronger than coaches expected, he's still a raw end and the position very rarely yields results in the rookie season.
Barring severe setbacks like injuries or complete lack of development from young players like Gabbert, there's no reason to think the Jaguars won't be a better team in 2012. How much better is tough to say considering the team will swing significantly based on the play of Gabbert who is still a huge unknown.
8-8, 2nd in the AFC South.