It's a new dawn for the Jacksonville Jaguars. Owner Shahid Khan has begun shaking things up for an organization and fan base that have had little reason for excitement over the past decade. Khan has big plans for the club, and he hasn't pulled any punches on his expectations — he intends for the Jaguars to win on the field and at the ticket gate.
Khan recently called the tarps at EverBank Field, used to lessen the seating capacity by nearly 10,000, a sign of underachievement. While it remains to be seen what, if anything, he can do to energize the fan base and replace the tarps with thousands of new and loyal Jags fans, one thing working in his favor is that it doesn't appear he will be overly patient or tolerant of losing, like his predecessor, Wayne Weaver.
The same likely will hold true for poor ticket sales. Khan has said repeatedly that he wants to keep the Jaguars in Jacksonville, but there is an out in the club's tricky stadium lease. If the Jaguars are in the red for three straight years, Khan can take his investment elsewhere.
While Weaver inexplicably dragged out the Jack Del Rio era, Khan, by all accounts, will not give GM Gene Smith and new head coach Mike Mularkey the same luxury. Before ownership of the team was transferred to Khan, Weaver worked out a new three-year deal for Smith and his staff. Of course, Khan wisely signed off on the move, keeping continuity and giving Smith the opportunity to handpick his coaching staff for the first time. Smith now has his coaching staff, his QB and his players in place. He is officially on the clock — and expecting three years to turn the team around would be naive.
Last offseason, Smith pushed all the right buttons in free agency, turning the Jacksonville "D" from punch line to packing a punch in just a matter of months. This offseason, the offense needs a similar makeover, with free agency preceding the draft. Few teams in the league have more money to spend than the Jaguars, and the team's greatest weakness, wide receiver, is an area of strength in this year's free-agent crop. It is likely Smith will add multiple weapons in the passing game for QB Blaine Gabbert, as well as potentially acquiring the final piece to the defense: a feared pass rusher. Smith could even weaken a division rival in the process if he can lure Mario Williams from Houston or Robert Mathis from Indianapolis.
Of course, the issue at hand and the reason the Jaguars aren't further along entering Year Four of Smith's rebuild is the team's previous shortcomings in the draft. Smith has repeatedly missed on receivers and offensive linemen, and although Tyson Alualu was an off-the-radar find who looks like a difference maker, no one is mistaking him for Jason Pierre-Paul or Maurkice Pouncey, both of whom were picked just after Alualu.
Could Smith be feeling buyer's remorse on QB Blaine Gabbert, the guy he traded up to select last April? How could he not, after watching Gabbert's performance as a rookie, while seeing the constant accolades for Cam Newton and Andy Dalton. But what would be the point? The Jaguars aren't making another bold trade this April to nab RG3. Jacksonville likely won't crack the top 10 on Peyton Manning's list of preferred destinations. The Jaguars will have a better contingency plan in place than Luke McCown, but it will still be just that, a contingency plan.
For better or worse, the fate of the Jaguars' future, as of now, rests on the big right arm of Gabbert, which is at least more comforting than counting on his happy feet.
Smith didn't win any popularity contests with the hiring of Mularkey or his staff, which includes offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski and QB coach Greg Olson, but they have all had success working with young QBs. They also would have been unlikely to come on board if they didn't think Gabbert could show dramatic improvement over his putrid rookie campaign.
It will be interesting to see how Khan feels about Gabbert. Although I don't expect any bold moves on Draft Day, Khan obviously isn't married to the QB the same way Smith and Mularkey are. In fact, Khan is on record as saying he would have drafted Tim Tebow. Not exactly a glowing endorsement for Smith or Gabbert from the new owner.
If Gabbert is going to be successful, it is imperative that he becomes a more courageous pocket passer. We heard last year, until we were blue in the face, that "the kid needed better coaching and weapons, as well as a full offseason to grow."
Well, that time is now. The coaching staff has been secured. The weapons are soon to follow. From there, we can begin to find out what difference it will make for a player who did not look as though he belonged on an NFL field last season. For an owner whose intentions are clear, a guy who is not going to be afraid to rock the boat, it will be fascinating to see how the dynamic between Smith, Khan, Mularkey and Gabbert plays out. It wouldn't shock me if Gabbert blossoms into a fine NFL passer. It also wouldn't shock me if he quickly fizzles out, unable to better handle the pressure, sometimes there, sometimes not.
One thing is certain: There will be plenty of pressure in Jacksonville this season, from the owner all the way down to the dormant fan base.