Since their last trip to the NFL playoffs following the 2007 season, the Jacksonville Jaguars franchise, and their fan base have been through the worst of times. The organization has seen a steady decline in attendance, wins, and players wanting to play for a team that is located in warm weather and in a state where no state employment tax is levied on pay day.
Since defeating the Steelers 31-29 in the Wild Card round of the playoffs in 2008, the Jaguars have won just 31 of 96 games, are on their fourth head coach in six years and went through a season in 2009 when nine of their 10 home games (including pre-season) were blacked out on local television.
During the time frame from 2008 until 2012, then Jags Owner, Wayne Weaver, a self-made man, who made his fortune as owner of Nine West and Carnival shoe stores, was watching, as his NFL team was now becoming a carnival on and off the field. Weaver is the man credited with pulling the greatest off the field upset in NFL history. During the great NFL expansion race of 1993, Weaver convinced NFL owners, albeit with extra time, that the college football atmosphere of Jacksonville Florida would be an ideal place for a new professional franchise instead of the NFL football starving markets of St. Louis & Baltimore. The question was, could Weaver lead a turnaround of his franchise that won 40 of 64 games from 2004 until their last playoff year of 2007?
The answer was no and the only answers Weaver could come up with was to continue to put tarp on upper deck seats, an endeavor Weaver began in 2005 and continued to do until nearly 10,000 seats were covered. This, Weaver said, would pull the stadium in line more the realistic expectations of expected ticket sales. Jacksonville is the NFL’s eighth smallest TV market. Ultimately, Weaver decided the best course of action was to sell the team, which he did immediately following the 2011 season. He sold the team to Pakistani-born American billionaire, Shahid Kahn. The sale did little to ease the pain of the fan base, as the new owner had no ties to Florida much less Jacksonville. The threat of moving the franchise was very real. Talk of moving to Los Angeles and even London filled sports talk radio talk shows and newspaper columns. To make matters worse, last July, Kahn purchased the English Football (Soccer) League team Fulham F.C. of the Barclays Premier League.
As the first minority owner in NFL history, Kahn pledged to extend the Jaguars and NFL brands in the UK and beyond when he took over, and in August 2012 made good on his word by joining NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell to announce that the Jaguars would play one home game in Wembley Stadium in London for four consecutive seasons beginning last fall—a loss to the San Francisco 49ers.
However, Kahn has also tried to put to rest those fears of moving as well as showing the fans of Jacksonville his commitment to making the product better on and off the field since taking over. To understand how Kahn operates is to understand where he came from. It’s important to know how Kahn was able to methodically build his empire—one which afforded him the opportunity to pay a little over one billion dollars for two teams. ($760 million for the Jaguars & $300 million for Fulham). Khan arrived in the U.S. from Pakistan at age 16 to study engineering at the University of Illinois. When he came to the United States, he spent his first night in a two dollar room at the University YMCA and his first job was washing dishes for $1.20 an hour. He would land his first real paying job at nearby auto supplier Flex-N-Gate, and after opening a competing business several years later through hard work, a small loan and money saved, Kahn would return to buy Flex-N-Gate and develop the company into a global leader with more than 52 plants and 16,000 employees around the world. Today, nearly two-thirds of all North American pick-up trucks and sport utilities have bumper systems based on Khan’s designs and are manufactured and supplied by a Flex-N-Gate company. Kahn obtained his American citizenship in 1991.
It hasn’t been an easy ride since taking over in January of 2012. The covered seats have been the target of national jokes and been easy fodder for shots at Jacksonville and the fan support, even Khan mentioned them when he bought the franchise. “To me, every day I look at the tarps it is like underachieving, and I can’t wait to be able to do that,” Khan told Daniel Kaplan of the Sports Business Journal in February of 2012. Khan referred to them as a “black eye”,
To help ease talk of moving and organizational black eyes, Kahn announced last June major upgrades to EverBank Field, home of the Jaguars. Kahn announced the team agreed to terms with the City of Jacksonville to undertake approximately $63 million in major enhancements to EverBank Field, including two new end zone video scoreboards that will be the largest of their kind in the world. The plan also calls for a major renovation of the north end zone to introduce a world-class entertainment and viewing area, including swimming pools for fans. This, Kahn believes, will position EverBank Field as a destination on NFL game days and help attract and keep premier events in Jacksonville.
The upgrades to start the 2014 season didn’t help during the 2013 season and at one point ticket sales and attendance were so bad that they were offered at half price rates while fans were coaxed into EverBank Field with 2-for-1 beer deals and the promise of watching other out of town NFL games on the jumbo tron.
On the field, Kahn began to upgrade his team, firing HC Mike Malarkey and GM Gene Smith following the 2012 season. In Smith’s place he hired former Atlanta Falcons Director of Player Personnel David Caldwell. As the Jaguars second full-time General Manager in team history, Caldwell’s first order of business was to hire a head coach, which he did in Seattle Seahawks defensive coordinator, Gus Bradley.
While with the Seahawks, the defensive minded Bradley survived the Jim Mora firing in 2009 and stayed on with Pete Carroll to lead a Seahawks defense that went from third worst in 2008 to fourth best in the league in 2012, his final year before being hired as head coach of the Jags. Bradley, whom many credited as the architect of the No.1 ranked Super Bowl winning squad last year, brought a good positive energy to a franchise that was quickly becoming a depressing play to play.
The Jaguars struggled early on in 2013 and went into the bye week with an 0–8 record. Bradley got his first win as a head coach on November 10 with a 29–27 victory over the Tennessee Titans and that was followed by a respectable showing against the Arizona Cardinals, despite a 27-14 loss. Bradley and the Jaguars would then reel off three straight wins, including two over the Houston Texans before finishing with three straight losses.
The excitement Bradley was able to create with just four wins became an eye opener for some and when free agency opened in March, Bradley, who learned a thing or two from the college, minded Pete Carroll in Seattle was able to help land quality starters. Players looking for a new home became intrigued with Bradley, as a leader of men instead of the usual Florida perks of good weather and the lack of a state income tax.
Ex-Vikings running back Toby Gerhart, former Broncos guard Zane Beadles and two of Bradley’s former pupils, ex-Seattle defensive linemen Red Bryant and Chris Clemons all joined the Jaguars, even with other options. The fans were paying attention but would they pay to come back to watch? Jacksonville continued a solid offseason electing to re-sign veterans like defensive end Jason Babin, cornerback Will Blackmon and quarterback Chad Henne.
The re-signing of Henne didn’t distract the Jags from addressing the QB need in the recent NFL Draft and with the third pick two weeks ago made what many experts called a reach pick— but a value reach– if that’s possible. Jacksonville selected quarterback Blake Bortles, who played his college ball three hours south in Orlando. Not only was Bortles a local kid, who stayed in Florida to attend school but he played his college ball with a great deal of success. Bortles didn’t quarterback the mighty National Champion Seminoles, Gators or Hurricanes but the University of Central Florida Knights, whom he led to an impressive BCS Bowl victory over the highly ranked Baylor Bears in January.
The organization decided Bortles would be the guy that the struggling franchise would lay their seat-tarp lifting future on and not a defensive stud, which there were many, for the defensive minded Bradly. The fan base loved the pick and when the Jaguars were able to land first round talent in WR’s Marquis Lee and Allen Robinson in the second and third round, the fans were starting to feel gitty again in northeast Florida.
The rest of the draft seemed to fall into place for the Jaguars, who hadn’t seen much success in the NFL’s annual job fair in recent years. It was almost as if the Jags were turning in coupons on talent instead of name cards at the draft. For one reason or another, a lot of players that should have been drafted higher fell to them in later rounds. Players like Oklahoma CB Alvin Colvin, who likely would be have also been a late first rounder had it not been for a knee injury he suffered at the Senior Bowl. They selected LB Telvin Smith from those BCS National Champion Seminoles in round five. Telvin, a possible early third round selection fell real far after testing positive at the NFL combine. And with their ninth and final pick in the seven round draft, selected Bortles UCF backfield partner RB Storm Johnson, whom many felt could have been drafted in the fourth round or even earlier.
Jaguar’s fans showed their appreciation for the success of this offseason last weekend when they turned out in record numbers for the Jags rookie camp. A day after 2,378 fans showed up for the start of 2014 rookie minicamp, which would have by itself been impressive considering where the franchise has been, a whopping 6,214 attended Saturday’s practice. The prior all-time record attendance for any practice was roughly 4,500 fans and that came at a training-camp practice, not an offseason session.
The workouts included only rookies and tryout players but the local excitement surely flows from the team’s aggressive and smart approach to free agency and the draft. It may be a stretch to expect the Jaguars to contend for an AFC South title this year—-or is it?
We know how parity rules in the NFL. Last season, for the 11th straight year, an NFL team made the leap from last place to first. It’s the best streak in the NFL. Last year, two teams actually pulled it off – the Panthers (12-4) and Eagles (10-6) won their divisions after going 7-9 and 4-12, respectively, in 2012. While the Texans would be the AFC South’s candidate for that distinction, the Jags could be could be a new playoff team. After all, since the 12-team playoff format was adopted in the NFL in 1990, at least four teams have qualified for the playoffs that were not in the postseason the year before. Five teams – Carolina, Kansas City, New Orleans, Philadelphia, and San Diego – accomplished that feat this past year.
The Indianapolis Colts, who many have ruling the division for the foreseeable future, did not have a good offseason and had only five picks (none in the first round) in a very deep draft. If the Colts stumble, the Jaguars could be there to pounce. With the uncertainty in Houston following a 2-14 season and the Titans seemingly on the rebuild with only six picks in the draft and nary a solid signal caller, why not Jacksonville?
It’s not a stretch to compare what Davis and Bradley are doing to what happened in Seattle after Pete Carroll took over. Carroll was 7-9 in his first two seasons in Seattle but drafted well and signed valuable but inexpensive free agents to compliment his draft classes. It’s a blue print the Jaguars used this past offseason to get the fan base involved once again and as they proved in Seattle over the last few seasons, a lot can happen when the 12th man is paying attention and approves of what is happening. Shad Kahn will continue to work to rebuild the Jaguars and the franchises image, it’s a guarantee when you look at his rags to riches work ethic.
They say companies are a reflection of their owners and leaders— well if that’s the case in Jacksonville, From Kahn to Caldwell to Bradley to Bortles—happy days are likely hear again for Jaguar fans.