Jaguars coming full circle under Tom Coughlin with playoff win

JACKSONVILLE -- Back in the summer, on the day before training camp opened and months before these Jaguars would brand themselves "Sacksonville," executive vice president of football operations Tom Coughlin sat in his old office and explained that he wanted to address his once and future team about what he knew.

He, practically alone, had seen success here. It had been a long time ago, when Coughlin, then the head coach, built the franchise from the ground up, hiring nearly every person that had something to do with football in the building. They had gone to the conference championship game twice. But prior to this season, the Jaguars hadn't been to the playoffs in a decade, hadn't hosted a playoff game in this millennium. Tarps covered part of the stadium because local interest had waned.

Coughlin had gone on to win two Super Bowls as head coach of the New York Giants, while football was fading here. He had been brought back last January to import his acumen and luster, and he was trying to figure out a way to stay out of head coach Doug Marrone's lane while also imparting some wisdom about being a team in Jacksonville.

"You know how it was in Jacksonville," defensive tackle Malik Jackson said Sunday afternoon. " 'Oh, in Jacksonville, people go to die.' They wanted to change that culture. You come here. You work. You get better. You either go somewhere else to make another team better or you stay here and make it better for us."

Jackson predicted right before that first practice that the Jaguars would win the Super Bowl this season, a statement that seemed outlandish after the team finished 3-13 in 2016, necessitating the reset that brought Coughlin back and elevated Marrone. Coughlin shook his head when asked about it, and vowed to talk to the team about not making headlines, but Jackson might have been on to something. The Jaguars did get better -- and fast -- and on Sunday they won the kind of ugly, grinding football game they are specifically built for, ending one Cinderella season and extending another in defeating the Buffalo Bills, 10-3.

The tarps were gone, the stands were full, the Jaguars earned a Divisional Round matchup against the Steelers, and Coughlin was embracing old friends outside the locker room afterward.

Coughlin and Marrone had approached this season expecting to lean on their defense and running back Leonard Fournette, and to limit mistakes and wait and see on quarterback Blake Bortles. A decision on Bortles' future is imminent -- he is due to make $19 million if he plays out his fifth-year option -- and still, the Jaguars have no definitive picture of what they have. In spurts -- like a late-season run of games -- Bortles looks like a franchise quarterback who has clear decision-making and makes few mistakes, and recently it has seemed as if Jacksonville might be tilting toward keeping him rather than pursuing another quarterback in the offseason.

Too often, though, Bortles is so erratic that the idea of the Jaguars relying on him seems like folly. It is intriguing to imagine what a consistent veteran like Kirk Cousins or Alex Smith or Eli Manning could accomplish when accompanied by so much other talent. The good and the bad of Bortles was on display Sunday, and it is why this game was such a nail-biter despite the Bills' own foibles, with an offense that produced just 263 yards. Bortles ran for 88 yards and passed for 87, narrowly avoiding a harrowingly embarrassing stat line. According to Pro Football Reference, no quarterback since 1958 had run for more yards than he'd thrown for while attempting at least 25 passes. Bortles attempted 23.

Still, on the Jaguars' lone touchdown drive, Bortles scrambled when he needed to and threw a dart of a 1-yard touchdown pass to Ben Koyack when nobody in the stadium thought he should be allowed to put the ball in the air.

Marrone was subdued after the game -- or maybe a little exhausted -- and he explained he was already thinking about how the Jaguars could get better before they face the Steelers next Sunday. Marrone believed early on that a quick turnaround was possible for the Jaguars because, he said, he learned as a player and then as an assistant coach that if he didn't believe it, the players will quickly realize it. So he never wanted to be the one to put limits on his players.

"I always try to keep my expectations higher than the players'," Marrone said in the hallway after the game. "I use it against them sometimes, because, listen, if my expectations are higher than your own, we got problems. You never know where someone is going to reach their full potential. Who are we as coaches to say they can't do something?"

How does that fit with Bortles?

"I've been around a lot of great players," Marrone said. "As far as mental toughness, for what he's gone through, I don't know how many people would be able to do that and show up every day and work their butt off and act like he hasn't heard the things we hear. People can say what they want if he doesn't throw well or do this well, but one thing I never wavered on is his toughness. That's been able to get him to a point where he keeps competing like he does."

Still, the Jaguars do not build game plans around him. They entered this contest expecting to be able to run on Buffalo, which had given up more than 160 yards rushing in three separate December games, and to use the play-action pass. Fournette was drafted for the express purpose of being able to chew the clock to preserve a lead. But twice within the last six minutes of the game, the offense could not hold the ball long enough to close out the game, prompting one member of the team to gather the offensive line and plead, "Can we get one f------ yard?"

Instead, it fell to the league's second-ranked defense to repeatedly hold off the Bills, whose first appearance in the playoffs in 18 years was short-lived. For a defense as laden with talent as the Jaguars' unit, that is a dream scenario, one that Calais Campbell said he has had since he was 6 years old. Like the Jaguars, the Bills have a quarterback decision to make, although Tyrod Taylor -- who suffered a head and neck injury late in the game -- seems almost certain to be gone. And like the Jaguars, a new regime has raised expectations and overhauled the culture.

In Jacksonville, Jackson said, Coughlin and Marrone had brought "sternness, any verb with stern." It was what, after seeing what the Jaguars had in offseason workouts and minicamps, inspired Jackson to make his bold prediction. The front office would bring accountability and a work ethic that would push players to their limits, and the results would surprise the league.

What Coughlin mused about addressing on that summer day was what it was like to win in Jacksonville. He wanted the players to know how the fans turned out to greet the Jaguars at the airport after a Divisional Round victory. He wanted them to anticipate what Campbell has gathered in the last few weeks -- how much craving there is for success again here. And so, just before the season began, Marrone showed his team some statistics. In the five seasons leading up to this one, the Jaguars were 17-63 and had the NFL's worst winning percentage.

Marrone might be worrying this week about how to maximize the next 65 plays his team has earned, but back then, the concerns were more overarching: Could the Jaguars ever again be what Coughlin remembered?

"He showed us the stats -- they were very disappointing," Jackson said. "We all had the same mindset -- that's not us. We understood the point he was trying to make -- change the culture and the city. We've been working every day like we were 3-13. We're just trying to make sure everybody knows, like what I said on the field. This isn't your uncle's Jaguars team. If you play us, you better be nervous."

Follow Judy Battista on Twitter @judybattista.

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