JACKSONVILLE -- The two-and-a-half-hour practice was ending, and the gassers were just starting Monday at Jacksonville Jaguars camp. Doug Marrone's grueling workouts had set a tone exactly a year ago, when they helped launch a long-moribund franchise, which had gone nine years between winning seasons, to the brink of its first Super Bowl appearance. It was easy to get players to buy in last year, when they still had to impress new bosses. It should be even easier now, when the Jaguars find themselves in an unfamiliar spot -- having to battle the comfort that comes with success, remembering that the lasting image of 2017 might be a stunning turnaround fueled by a smothering defense, but it was capped by a painful failure in the AFC Championship Game.
There is only one way to improve on it all -- the record and the results.
"Letting no points at all," defensive end Yannick Ngakoue said. "The most we can give up is a field goal. No touchdowns."
When Malik Jackson predicted last summer that the Jaguars, coming off a three-win season, would go to the Super Bowl -- to the dismay of the team's then-new executive vice president of football operations Tom Coughlin -- the football world snickered. Nobody is laughing anymore after a 10-6 season and a run to the AFC title game. When Jackson followed that up recently by proclaiming that the Jaguars would go 16-0 this season, it didn't seem any more outlandish than Ngakoue's standard.
The Jaguars had the No. 2 defense in the league last season and, as a result, their element of surprise is gone. They won a playoff game by allowing just three points and won another the following week by scoring 45 on the Pittsburgh Steelers -- a testament to an oft-overlooked offense. Then they came achingly close -- leading the Patriots by 10 midway through the fourth quarter -- to a colossal upset in the AFC Championship Game.
Which is why the buzzwords of Jacksonville's training camp this summer are "closing" and "consistency." The exhausting practices in high heat make sure the Jaguars aren't easing off after finally tasting success. But it is lost on no one here that, in the first month of the 2017 season, the Jags crafted both a 10-sack masterpiece win over the Texans that gave meaning to the apropos moniker "Sacksonville," and allowed 471 yards in an overtime loss to the offense-starved Jets.
The challenge, then, is to have no lapses, to elevate a defense that has few perceptible holes. One day this week, Ngakoue said, the players talked about that in a meeting, that no matter who came off the field, and no matter who came on in their place, no beats can be missed. They will have plenty of tests this season. The Jaguars open against the Giants, then host the Patriots and Titans. They also go on the road against the Chiefs, play the defending-champion Eagles in London and host the Steelers in November.
"We've got to be more disciplined," defensive lineman Calais Campbell said. "We've got to finish better. As talented as we are and as well as we played, too many times we didn't finish the way we could have. I'm talking about assignment discipline. Everybody knows the system better, they know exactly where they are supposed to be. We can play off each other. If we play that way, with the talent we have, it will be really tough to beat us."
The structure of the Jaguars, emphasizing the running game and stellar defensive play to relieve pressure on the quarterback, recalls other great teams that have won with defense, most recently the Denver Broncos. The comparisons are starting to abound. The depth of the defensive line -- where Campbell, Jackson, Ngakoue and outside linebacker Dante Fowler combined for 42.5 sacks -- and the strength of the secondary recall the Broncos team of 2015, for which Jackson also played and which won the Super Bowl. Ngakoue traded pointers with Von Miller at the Pro Bowl -- Miller likes Ngakoue's cross-chop move, while Ngakoue admires the power and bend that have made Miller a star in Denver.
Ngakoue confirms what defensive coordinator Todd Wash says about him: He plays with a chip on his shoulder, the result of being drafted in the third round of 2016 rather than in the first, where Ngakoue and Wash both thought he belonged. He recorded 20 sacks in his first two seasons, and as much as Campbell is the elder statesman and unquestioned leader of the defense, it is Ngakoue who considers himself the go-to when a sack is needed, much the way Miller does in Denver.
"I take the role on a lot," Ngakoue said. "We need a sack, everybody looks at me -- not just a sack, a strip-sack, get the ball back. The offensive coordinator comes to me during the game like, 'Y'all, we need the ball back.' 'I got you.' "
Marrone, not surprisingly for a coach trying to keep his players from getting overconfident, won't even say this is the deepest defensive line he's been around in his own career. When he was first starting out as an offensive line coach on Herm Edwards' staff with the New York Jets, the D-line featured John Abraham, Jason Ferguson, Josh Evans and Shaun Ellis.
"When Denny Marcin was the defensive line coach, I remember that he came to me," Marrone said. "They were good, and they were deep. I was like, 'Jesus, Denny, you think maybe I can get a first-round pick one of these years? You keep getting all these picks on the D-line.' I'll never forget -- Denny Marcin looked at me and he said, 'Marrone, you can't even understand how hard it is to coach these first-round picks.' I said, 'Denny, I would love to find out.' "
Now, he has a line at least as good as that one, on a team that has a pleasant new perspective on the season. Ngakoue said his first year, 2016, was "miserable," as the Jaguars bottomed out, fired coach Gus Bradley before the end of the season, packed their bags and went home to watch everybody else in the playoffs on television. Last year, it was the rest of the league watching the Jaguars in the playoffs. After being on both sides, it clarified for Ngakoue which one he wanted to be on. And he marvels, like many others, at how quickly the Jaguars switched sides.
But it is often easier to make big leaps than it is to take those final steps. That is where the Jags are now. Having climbed so far, they are on the precipice of greatness and trying to navigate the most difficult terrain of all, to find ways to continue to surprise opponents who won't overlook Jacksonville anymore.
"If you're staying the same, you're getting worse," Jackson said. "Now, let's get more intricate, so we can be Todd Washes on the field. Last year was our second year together and the first for some, that was just the basics. He threw the kitchen sink at us. Now we're putting the pots and pans into the sink, too."