I don't need to spend a lot of time explaining how the landscape has changed in the AFC South. Let's just say it would surprise me more if the Kerry Collins-led Colts won their eighth division title in the last 10 years than it would if rookie QB Blaine Gabbert propelled Jacksonville to the first AFC South crown in franchise history this season.
And while I'm certainly not predicting that — the Texans are undoubtedly the cream of the crop in a talented but transitioning division — it is good news for Jaguars fans on multiple fronts. Obviously, as good as Houston looks, the door is open further than it had been in years for Jacksonville to make a move. But perhaps more importantly, owner Wayne Weaver's ultimatum to head coach Jack Del Rio this offseason to get into the playoffs or be gone should hold more weight than ever.
Ever since Del Rio and former Jaguars QB David Garrard, jettisoned by the head coach and GM Gene Smith five days before the season opener, were prematurely rewarded with megacontract extensions after one lone playoff victory in 2007, the belief was that the head coach's and QB's futures were tied together. Although Del Rio, only the second coach in NFL history not to win a division title in his first eight seasons at the helm, is still employed while Garrard waits by the phone for another opportunity, it is fitting that Del Rio's eventual undoing likely will come as a result of his handling of Garrard's replacement.
That Gabbert, who, according to Del Rio, was not ready to take the reins immediately after Garrard's release two weeks ago, now is suddenly ready after a dismal performance by journeyman Luke McCown is an indictment of Del Rio's judgment and lack of foresight. How could Del Rio not have known what he had in McCown, who was, at best, an 8-8 quarterback if everything fell right?
Furthermore, if the Jaguars were going to take their lumps and hover around the .500 mark, why not take them from Day One with Gabbert — the future of the franchise and a player with far greater upside than McCown could ever dream of?
For years Weaver has had plenty of ammunition to make a change at head coach. Del Rio-led clubs have melted down in the final month after having been in position to clinch playoff berths three times in the past five seasons. Del Rio has been stripped of his personnel power and play-calling duties in back-to-back years. The lack of leadership and coaching competence is painfully obvious to most, but Weaver has been unable to eat the remainder of his ill-advised investment. Instead, he gave Del Rio one more opportunity to get back to the playoffs in his ninth season as head coach. Yet, Del Rio's botched handling of the QB situation only further illustrates why Smith — who has made great strides in three years and handpicked Gabbert in April — needs the chance to get the final piece of the puzzle in place, a head coach who can properly lead a young quarterback and football team in the right direction.
Gabbert could be wildly successful, saving Del Rio's job and leading the Jaguars back to the playoffs. But, more likely, this team will come up short of its goal, and the pressure again will fall on Weaver to make good on his word. For Jaguars fans' sake, let's hope Del Rio isn't given another mulligan for a situation that he has handled very poorly.