Analysis

Jacksonville Jaguars showing promising growth despite 1-5 start

When Jaguars coach Gus Bradley arrived in Jacksonville, one week after general manager Dave Caldwell did the same in January of 2013, the two men quickly cut to the chase during a meeting that remains vivid to this day.

"How are we going to build this team?" Bradley asked Caldwell. "Do we start with offense or defense?"

The original answer was a general one: The Jaguars just needed players. Anywhere and everywhere. It would be a complete makeover. But Caldwell and Bradley both would soon realize it did indeed mean a specific emphasis on offense.

And so, with the Packers and Patriots as models, the Jaguars devoted the bulk of their draft resources to building a group that could grow together. First, a left tackle. Then, a quarterback. And some wide receivers. And a couple of guards.

You might not realize it -- and locally, you might not want to hear the excuses -- but with the growing noise about Bradley's job security in the wake of four consecutive losses, the Jaguars' plan is actually coming together with encouraging results.

How, you ask, can we possibly use the word "encouraging" to describe a 1-5 team? How, you wonder, can Bradley possibly deserve patience when Jacksonville's defense (his specialty) ranks 30th in points allowed and last in takeaways and third-down percentage?

Well, let's start by recognizing three things:

A) The initial plan, again, was to build the offense first before devoting full attention to the defense.

B)Dante Fowler Jr., the third overall pick in the 2015 NFL Draft, suffered a season-ending injury on his first day of work.

C) Upon arrival, Caldwell and Bradley found this organization in a dismal state.

And now, forget Bill Parcells' overvalued philosophy that "you are what your record says you are." Such a shortsighted perspective might be the very reason why Parcells himself failed to stick around Dallas and Miami long enough to complete a makeover.

The truth is, the Jaguars should not be defined by their record at this point -- and outside any lack of progress by the season's end, nobody should be calling for anybody's jobs. (By the way, according to multiple high-level sources in the Jags building, patience does indeed remain intact despite frustrations with the defense's progress.)

After just 2 1/2 years, the best way to gauge this team is to consider the area that has received the most attention: the offense. Specifically, the passing offense.

In his 13 starts last season, Blake Bortles threw nine touchdown passes against 15 interceptions. This year? He already has 13 TD strikes against seven picks in six games -- and no quarterback in the NFL has more pass attempts over 20 yards on the season. Beyond the numbers, Jaguars sources are specifically impressed with the way Bortles is escalating his game as a playmaker, something that is likely not even recognized by a bulk of the NFL audience that has watched very little of the Jaguars this season.

And remember last year's highly touted group of rookie wide receivers across the NFL, including first-rounders Sammy Watkins, Mike Evans, Odell Beckham Jr., Brandin Cooks and Kelvin Benjamin? This season, Jaguars second-year receivers Allen Robinson and Allen Hurns (the latter of whom was signed last year as an undrafted free agent) have more yards than all of those big names except Beckham, who has one more yard than Robinson.

This group, just as designed, is growing together -- made vivid by an offseason of informal workouts spent with one another at a local high school in Jacksonville. By most every account, from the protection of the O-line to the playmakers at wide receiver, this offense is surging toward being more than a young, promising group.

None of this rosy optimism -- as Jacksonville heads to London this week to play an angry Bills team -- can disguise the issues on defense, no doubt. And that leaves Bradley especially vulnerable to critics, since he was hired in part for the way he helped Seattle's group of unknowns turn into champions.

It certainly is true that Bradley's defense needs to play better, especially late in games, if the Jaguars are going to put themselves in contention within a very weak division. But it is also true that you'd be fooling yourself if you thought Bradley could easily do with this defense what Seattle accomplished during his tenure as its coordinator.

The 2015 Jaguars essentially had to do a patchwork job to assemble its defense, with four free-agent acquisitions from this past offseason immediately hitting the starting lineup. Yes, the team knows it is time to invest in defense through the draft, and this year started the process with a top-three pick devoted to Fowler.

So while it is not ideal for any team to start 1-5, especially in the third year of a regime, the Jaguarsdo have a plan. Unfortunately, that plan will keep them squarely in position to take the brunt of the league's jokes for a little longer. And it could also cause plenty to plead for a change in leadership.

But with just a little more patience, the Jaguars will be more than a team that needs to be defended with words. They will be a team turning the corner, a group that soon will threaten a division that is currently up for grabs.

Follow Jeff Darlington on Twitter @jeffdarlington.

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