JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- A downpour washed away the last few segments of the Jacksonville Jaguars' first practice of training camp Thursday, which might, at another time, have been an apt metaphor for the team's fortunes.
"I read that and I've got to talk to these guys," said Tom Coughlin, Jacksonville's new executive vice president of football operations who remains a local hero for building the Jaguars in their expansion years into a playoff team, shaking his head. "Right now, we'll take anything. We're trying to create a winning culture, we'll take anything."
The concerns of the Jaguars -- who won just three games last year, leading to Gus Bradley's exit and the elevation of Doug Marrone to the head job -- are manifold. They developed a reputation for lacking discipline and mental toughness. Defensive end Dante Fowler Jr. spent the day before camp opened apologizing to fans and assorted members of the team for a recent arrest for simple battery and mischief. Quarterback Blake Bortles, who had 22 turnovers last season, is in a make-or-break Year 4, with Coughlin saying he needs to see "wins" from Bortles to convince him the former No. 3 overall pick is the franchise's future. Marrone, after practice, said he has to see Bortles cut down on turnovers.
Coughlin and Marrone, though, want to feature strong offensive- and defensive-line play and a powerful running game -- which should sound familiar to those who watched them coach in New York and Buffalo, respectively -- to alleviate some of the pressure and responsibility on Bortles. The Jaguars drafted Leonard Fournette and also have Chris Ivory, and they got a glimpse of what Coughlin and Marrone have in mind on Thursday just before the rains came. At what was not even the end of a long, hot practice -- it was scheduled to run 2 1/2 hours -- Fournette broke off two long runs, a sign that the formula of wearing down an opposing defense with consistent running can pay dividends in end-game scenarios, when the Jaguars have wilted in recent years. There is other talent: receivers Allen Robinson and Allen Hurns, dynamic defenders Jalen Ramsey and Myles Jack and a promising pass rush.
Marrone, though, knows the Jaguars need to see results before the confidence will be more than just fanciful preseason predictions. Jacksonville's a perennial preseason darling, thanks to handfuls of high draft picks, but upon kickoff, the team routinely dissolves into an end-of-season disappointment. It is probably not a coincidence that Marrone planned to talk to his charges Thursday night about wanting to push them more and wanting them to finish; he thought players might have been holding back a bit to see what his practices were like, even as some of them cramped up on a not-terribly-oppressive morning. Marrone has promised physical practices, an attempt to create adversity and work ethic on a team where only one player on the roster -- tight end Marcedes Lewis -- was also in Jacksonville when the Jaguars last won. There will be one-on-one run blocking and nine-on-seven work and run blocking with receivers vs. defensive backs. The coach believes that the greatest growth comes from uncomfortable situations, and it's clear he expects a better level of practice than he got on Day 1.
"It's very difficult for someone to get up there and talk about playing with confidence without having actually gone out there and prepared them by teaching them the right technique," Marrone said. "You need some type of success."
For the optimist, the road to success seems eased by a division that has underwhelmed for years. Houston took the crown last season with a 9-7 record and quarterback play so unimpressive that Brock Osweiler is now in Cleveland the Texans are conducting a camp competition between Tom Savage and first-round draft pick Deshaun Watson. The Jaguars will get the first crack at Houston in the season opener, the start of a brutal stretch that has them with two straight division games (at Texans, home vs. Titans), a game in London against the Ravens, and then two straight road games (at Jets, Steelers). Coughlin's return has brought a jolt of energy and hope to players and fans alike, but that first month of the season will test just how much of the demand for mental and physical toughness has made a dent.
The Jaguars believe the pieces are in place for a quick turnaround. Nobody has a shorter timetable than Lewis, who is 33 and figures he has about three more seasons left.
"We beat ourselves for years," the tight end said. "We would be winning games in the fourth quarter, and lose. We would make a penalty and then we don't quickly recover. And have another penalty. Then we start arguing on the sidelines and then do the same stuff over again. That's how it's been for the last six years. It's time for that to change. If we don't handle our business when it's hot as hell and nobody is watching, we're not going to do anything on Sunday. I'm tired of losing. I'm tired of not having success. I want to win and I want to have success and I want it here."
Coughlin said he won't address the team much, leaving that role to Marrone. But Coughlin does plan to talk to them during camp about winning big in Jacksonville -- because he, alone, knows what it is like.
In 1996, the team's second year of existence, the Jaguars finished 9-7 and beat the Broncos in Denver in the Divisional Round of the playoffs. They flew back to Jacksonville in the middle of the night and the pilot diverted the plane to fly over the stadium. There were, as Coughlin recalled it, 35,000 fans in there to greet them.
"That's a story that should be told," Coughlin said. "What does it really mean when you win? How connected they become. These kids have won nothing."