Gene Frenette: Looking behind AFC South enemy lines, Jaguars' future looks brighter
When the NFL realigned to four-team divisions in 2002, putting the Jaguars in the AFC South and no longer battling the Pittsburgh Steelers or Baltimore Ravens for division supremacy, it should have been a prime opportunity to seize more playoff berths.
That never happened. After winning two division titles and twice being a wild-card team in the old AFC Central over a seven-year period, the Jaguars have the same number of postseason appearances in the last 21 seasons. They trail the Indianapolis Colts (14), Tennessee Titans (7) and Houston Texans (6), who began their membership as an expansion franchise.
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Not much of a secret as to why the Colts dominated the AFC South more than anyone else. They had Peyton Manning, who led Indianapolis to seven division titles and two wild-card appearances during his nine-year run (2002-10) in the division, making the Pro Bowl every season.
Then No. 1 draft pick Andrew Luck landed in the Colts’ lap. He guided them to a pair of first-place finishes and wild-card berths from 2012-18, making four Pro Bowl trips.
Every franchise this century that has owned its division for any significant length of time features the same common denominator: an elite quarterback.
Whether it’s Patrick Mahomes with the Kansas City Chiefs (five straight AFC West crowns, 26-4 record against division opponents), Tom Brady with the New England Patriots (16 AFC East titles in 18 years), Aaron Rodgers with the Green Bay Packers (10 playoff appearances in 15 seasons) or Ben Roethlisberger with the Steelers (12 playoff berths, 8 AFC North crowns in 18 seasons), nobody has a run of dominance if they don’t have stability at the most important position.
The Jaguars finally have that in 23-year-old Trevor Lawrence, and when you look at the AFC South landscape, the timing couldn’t be any better.
Lawrence is ascending just as the rest of the division is either starting a rebuild with a new quarterback, or in the Titans’ case, facing some hard decisions about how much longer they want Ryan Tannehill, who turns 35 in July, running their offense.
The Jaguars can’t waste this chance to seize control of the AFC South for the foreseeable future. It goes beyond just having Lawrence at quarterback, but also extends to the whole offense – the Jaguars were 10th in total yards and scoring last year, compared to at or near the bottom for Tennessee, Houston and Indianapolis -- that looks far more potent than their division rivals.
Challenge of finding franchise QB
The Colts had grown accustomed to being the envy of the league at quarterback. They hit the mother lode on two No. 1 picks, a Hall of Famer in Manning and a promising one in Luck before he stunned the football world by retiring at 29.
Now Indianapolis, like Houston and possibly Tennessee when Tannehill’s contract expires after next season, finds itself in quarterback purgatory.
It’s a virtual certainty the Texans will take a quarterback, likely Alabama’s Bryce Young or Ohio State’s C.J. Stroud, with the second overall pick in the NFL draft after the Carolina Panthers use the No. 1 on the other.
What the Colts do at No. 4 becomes a much deeper mystery. General manager Chris Ballard has been kicking the quarterback can down the road since Luck’s exit, trying to fill the void by taking one-year flyers on Jacoby Brissett, Philip Rivers, Carson Wentz and Matt Ryan.
None of it has panned out, though a 39-year-old Rivers did lead them to a playoff berth. The Colts are coming off a horrendous year where they lost seven games to end the season, which hadn’t happened since 1953, the franchise’s first year.
Signing former Jaguars’ quarterback Gardner Minshew is a nice insurance policy, but Indy needs to draft and cultivate another Manning/Luck type. This year, the Colts are bucking tough odds when selecting the third QB in any draft, albeit Houston pulled it off in 2017 by taking three-time Pro Bowler Deshaun Watson at No. 12 overall.
What’s clear is everyone in the AFC South is chasing the Jaguars because Lawrence caught fire in the second half of last season. Trevor sent a message to the rest of the division, just as Manning did in his early years in the AFC South, that he might be on the brink of owning it.
Manning at least had strong competition for a brief period in Titans’ quarterback Steve McNair, the co-league MVP with Manning in 2003.
Lawrence has nobody for the moment except possibly Tannehill, who lost 36-22 to the Jaguars in Nashville before an injured ankle forced him to the sidelines for the Titans’ last four games. Lawrence threw for 368 yards and three TDs at a venue where the Jaguars seldom had success, igniting a six-game win streak to overtake Tennessee for the AFC South.
He also rallied the Jaguars from a 27-point deficit to beat the Los Angeles Chargers 31-30 in the wild-card game, elevating his stature in a loaded AFC quarterback hierarchy.
With so much momentum going into 2023, and the rest of the division reeling, the Jaguars could put a stranglehold on the AFC South. They’ve got the best quarterback, who has the benefit of being in his second year with Doug Pederson’s system and a big-time weapon with the acquisition of receiver Calvin Ridley.
Tony Dungy, the Hall of Fame coach who guided the Colts to a Super Bowl victory when he had Manning throwing to a ton of quality receivers and dependable tight end Dallas Clark, sees a Jaguars’ future that could potentially be just as impactful.
“Going into this year, you have to say the Jags are the favorites [in AFC South] and as long as Trevor stays healthy, that will be the case for a while,” said Dungy, an NFL analyst for NBC. “Even though Doug [Pederson] wasn’t there for his first year, he got to see what Trevor did well.
“They’ve got a good blueprint for what fits and what works. I think they’ll be lights out for a long time. The advantage the Jags have is a great quarterback on his rookie contract. A lot of teams start losing guys when the quarterback gets to his second contract and is making $45 million a year.”
While the Titans’ massive injury list undoubtedly played a part in the Jaguars snatching the AFC South crown, the bigger concern now for their division foes is dealing with a quarterback who is rapidly ascending.
Tannehill is still good enough to maybe keep Tennessee relevant, but the future of bell cow running back Derrick Henry remains a bit murky. Nobody in the division is making much of a free agency splash like the Jaguars did last year, which paid huge dividends.
In Houston, GM Nick Caserio isn’t exactly putting on a full-court press, being ultra-conservative with $38 million in cap space. The Texans signed receiver Robert Woods and traded for tackle Shaq Mason, which are nice upgrades, but not game-changers.
Indy has some nice pieces in running back Jonathan Taylor and pass-rusher DeForest Buckner, but questions persist whether the Colts’ offensive line that slumped badly in 2022 can regain its form.
So who is best positioned to maybe keep the Jaguars from repeating as division champions?
“It depends on who finds the quarterback,” said Dungy. “Is Tannehill going to be guy [in Tennessee] for any more than one year? It comes down to who finds their guy first.
“It’s going to be hard for any of those three teams to realistically compete with the Jaguars unless they find a quarterback they can count on.”
While there are no guarantees in the NFL, and injuries can dramatically change any team’s fortunes, the door is open for the Jaguars to ride Trevor’s coattails and be kings of the AFC South over and over again.
The Colts, Titans and Texans all had their turns to stay atop the division. Now it feels like it’s the Jaguars’ time to do the same.
Gfrenette@jacksonville.com: (904) 359-4540
This article originally appeared on Florida Times-Union: Jaguars have it good, especially looking at what rest of AFC South faces