The Jacksonville Jaguars can make the playoffs this season.
It might seem like a crazy statement to make about a team that hasn't won more than five games in a single campaign since 2010. But the fact is, these longtime cellar dwellers are in the midst of an honest-to-goodness turnaround that has them positioned to far outstrip the ghosts of their recent past. And while the Jaguars might still be a year away from truly establishing themselves as no-doubt contenders, one can actually make a plausible argument that they're capable of winning right now.
It's happened before, after all; think of the Kansas City Chiefs last season, who went from 2-14 in 2012 to 11-5 and a playoff berth in 2013, consistent with the rebound that many (myself included) thought they could pull off. The Jags might not be getting the same kind of buzz the Chiefs did last offseason, and they might ultimately fall short of the playoffs this year, but they have the potential to surprise some folks in 2014.
Below are five reasons to think the Jacksonville Jaguars have a reasonable shot to elbow their way to the postseason stage.
1) Gus Bradley gives this team a real edge ...
The competitive balance in the NFL makes coaching very important, perhaps more so than ever before. Bradley has drawn praise for pointing the team in the right direction in a general sense, but his presence will also have an immediate and concrete impact this season. Bradley was a relatively well-kept secret when Pete Carroll -- who is pretty darn good at selecting coaches -- kept him as defensive coordinator after taking Seattle's head job in 2010. But since then, it's become apparent that Bradley is simply a special guy who has an excellent rapport with his players.
Consider the move Bradley made after Jacksonville dropped to 0-8 last season following a drubbing at the hands of the San Francisco 49ers in London. While many other young or inexperienced head coaches might have recommitted to the practice schedule with gusto, he gave his charges some time off to, in effect, start a new season in the second half. The Jags responded to the break by winning four of five following their Week 9 bye, salvaging a campaign that had started in disaster. And Bradley's skill at connecting with players -- which was on full display at both the Senior Bowl, where he served as a coach, and the NFL Rookie Symposium, where attendees sat on the edge of their chair when he spoke -- isn't his only strong suit. He's also a great X's and O's guy, especially with regard to defense; he has a special ability to see the whole picture.
As with the head man, it's crucial to have a quality staff in place in order to keep up with the competition. Jacksonville has done that, starting with offensive coordinator Jedd Fisch and defensive coordinator Bob Babich. Other standouts include excellent receivers coach Jerry Sullivan and special teams coordinator Mike Mallory.
2) ... as does GM David Caldwell's front office
Caldwell's group has been key to turning things around in Jacksonville. A series of bad drafts prior to his 2013 arrival -- going back about six years and including such disappointments as Blaine Gabbert and Justin Blackmon -- really hamstrung this team; the two drafts on Caldwell's watch, meanwhile, have been a boon.
The Jags have become very big on analytics, which can help a team get better quickly; this front office is on the cutting edge of every new idea that comes out. It helps that there are some very smart guys there. Owner Shad Khan's son Tony, who holds the title of senior vice president of football administration and technology, is very bright and very good at what he does. Director of college scouting Kyle O'Brien is another standout guy, a product of Harvard who cut his teeth in the New England Patriots' system.
3) Blake Bortles has what it takes to work some magic
The Jaguars continue to say they want to let No. 3 overall pick Blake Bortles develop behind veteran quarterback Chad Henne this season, and it's not a bad plan. Henne is a pretty good player who has never really had the benefit of a solid supporting cast at the NFL level, and he can win some games for them. With Bortles, however, the sky is the limit -- he has the potential to make things happen now.
Think of Ben Roethlisberger's rookie campaign in 2004. The Pittsburgh Steelers were going to have Roethlisberger sit behind veteran Tommy Maddox for the duration of the season, but then Maddox went down early, forcing Big Ben to step in -- and he went on to lead the Steelers to the AFC Championship Game and win the Offensive Rookie of the Year award. I can easily foresee Bortles' career starting in a similar way, with the Central Florida product having to come in for Henne and pushing Jacksonville to the playoffs.
I understand the Jaguars' line of thinking, and again, I think Henne is a serviceable quarterback. But I'd like to see Bortles start. There's no question in my mind that he'll be a success, regardless of when he hits the field; between his smarts, size, leadership qualities and the presence of Fisch -- who looks like a future head coach to me -- I think he can handle it this year. And if Bortles winds up under center in 2014, the Jaguars will reap the rewards.
4) This roster is better than you think
Regardless of who starts at quarterback, no man can make Jacksonville into a winner by himself. Fortunately for the Jags, they've made significant upgrades over the past two years.
Toby Gerhart was obviously overshadowed by star running back Adrian Peterson when he was with the Minnesota Vikings, but he's shown promise; while he had just 36 rushing attempts last season, he did average almost 8 yards per carry. Stepping in to replace Maurice Jones-Drew in Jacksonville, Gerhart can be the 1,000-yard, 40-catch running back the Jags will need to make the playoffs. Gerhart is a big back who has some wiggle and running ability, and he's a good receiver.
Beyond Gerhart, rookie receivers Allen Robinson and Marqise Lee have potential, especially working with Sullivan, while second-year pro Ace Sanders is one to watch and Cecil Shorts is solid. Denard Robinson, the former Michigan quarterback who was drafted by the Jags last year, is a special player who can run, catch and throw, and make himself an integral part of the Jags' attack. The offensive line will get Luke Joeckel, the No. 2 overall pick in 2013 who missed much of his rookie season with an ankle injury, back on the field, while adding promising rookie Brandon Linder and free agent Zane Beadles.
The team also made a number of moves to boost its defense, adding former Seahawks Red Bryant and Chris Clemons and ex-Steeler Ziggy Hood to the line. Jacksonville could have a pretty good secondary, with second-year pros John Cyprien, Dwayne Gratz and Josh Evans all on the rise. And don't forget about veteran linebacker Paul Posluszny, who had the second-most tackles (162) in the NFL last season.
5) The schedule presents a real opportunity
The Jaguars might not take the NFL by storm, but they don't need to in order to make the playoffs; nine or 10 wins will likely suffice. Looking at their schedule this season, it's not outlandish to think they could reach this total.
Jacksonville's first advantage is playing in the relatively weak AFC South. I think the Jags match up well against the Tennessee Titans and Houston Texans and have a realistic chance to sweep both teams this season. Andrew Luck's Indianapolis Colts, of course, present quite a challenge, but the Jags have a shot to split that series, perhaps by surprising the Colts when they come to town in Week 3.
As for the rest of the schedule, playing two consecutive road games right off the bat is tough, but upsetting Indy could start something for the Jags. In Week 4, they visit the Chargers, then host the Steelers in Week 5, two teams that are difficult to peg right now. The Browns, Dolphins and Giants -- depending on which version of Big Blue they draw -- are beatable, and I think Jacksonville's experience playing in London could give the team a bit of a leg up when it faces the Cowboys there in Week 10.
Finally, don't forget that four of the Jaguars' home games will come before November -- notable because it will be hot in Jacksonville, and the Jaguars can make their opponents sit on the sunny side of the field in dark-colored uniforms. It can get uncomfortable quickly in those conditions, and the tactic could give the Jags a small boost.
While the Jaguars might be on track to truly contend in 2015, this franchise has turned things around, and it's conceivable Jacksonville makes some serious noise a year ahead of schedule.
Follow Gil Brandt on Twitter @Gil_Brandt.