The last time the Jacksonville Jaguars had a winning season, George W. Bush was the President of the United States. So Jaguars general manager Dave Caldwell’s comment on Tuesday that the team is ready to start winning feels long overdue.
"Leonard [Fournette]'s a guy that we've penciled in — in terms of a guy that can come in and make an immediate impact," Caldwell told SiriusXM Radio. "We are kind of in a win-now mode, as we should be, and Leonard is a guy that can come in and hopefully make the biggest difference here."
Caldwell was hired in 2013, so he can’t be blamed for the Jaguars’ five years outside the playoffs that resulted in the firings of head coaches Jack Del Rio and Mike Mularkey. But Caldwell has been around for four seasons of futility — a combined 15-49 record — and still managed to survive the tenure of Gus Bradley.
No team has dumped more money into free agency than Jacksonville, and if the rebuilding effort doesn’t finally yield some results in 2017, Caldwell will likely be fired and more changes could follow.
If ever there was a time for urgency in Jacksonville, now would be the time.
Of the six teams that finished with five wins or fewer in 2016, the Jaguars certainly have the fewest excuses. If there’s any reason why it’s hard to believe in Jacksonville, it’s that fourth-year quarterback Blake Bortles hasn’t proved himself capable of leading a winner. But that hardly qualifies as a real excuse.
There are teams with more legitimate hurdles that may be able to afford a little more patience. But the Jaguars aren’t the only ones in win-now mode.
For teams with a quarterback approaching retirement or coaches and/or executives in danger of getting fired, now is the time to put together some wins and make a run:
Urgent: The ‘Our quarterbacks are getting old’ scale
For a few teams, the need for wins is because their Super Bowl-capable quarterback isn’t going to be able to lead them to glory for much longer. Not every team gets lucky with a Dak Prescott to take over.
Drew Brees finished his 16th season in 2016 and he did a dang good job, like always. He led the NFL in pass completions, attempts, and yards, and finished with a passer rating over 100 for the sixth time in his career.
The 38-year-old quarterback hasn’t shown signs of slowing, but that’s usually about the age when things can drop off in a hurry like they did for Peyton Manning. Brees hasn’t had a clean bill of health, either, with a shoulder injury ending his time with the San Diego Chargers in 2005 and a plantar fascia tear in 2015.
At some point Brees is going to slow down, and the Saints’ options for the future are Chase Daniel and Garrett Grayson. Trying to make a Super Bowl run before they’re forced to look for alternatives has to be in mind.
Like Brees, Tom Brady hasn’t shown signs the end is near. But like Brees, Brady is probably close to the end, anyway.
He’ll be 40 before the 2017 season begins, and even if Brady told Robert Kraft that he wants to play for six or seven more years, that’s probably not realistic.
The Patriots seem to be aware of that too, and are making every effort to put winning pieces in place, even if it means trading away nearly the entire 2017 draft class to acquire veterans like Brandin Cooks, Kony Ealy, and Dwayne Allen.
“Well, start with the fact that they certainly got a good player who’s a very good fit for their offense in Brandin Cooks,” an AFC executive told MMQB. “But the second part is that, with Brady, there’s a short-term window. So trying to capitalize on that has perhaps an influence on all this. And if that works—and you get back to the Super Bowl — it’s all worth it.”
The Patriots already weren’t having much trouble blowing through teams en route to Super Bowls. New England dialing up the intensity for a final push with Brady could be a scary reality for the rest of the NFL.
Both Carson Palmer and Larry Fitzgerald considered retirement before announcing they’d return for the 2017 season. And that means the Cardinals could be in for a bit of rebuilding effort soon.
“We’ll certainly be aggressive and keep our foot on the gas pedal, try to keep pushing this thing in the right direction,” Cardinals general manager Steve Keim said in February, via AZCardinals.com. “There’s no doubt we took a step back last year. We’ve got to pick up the pieces and make some good decisions this offseason.”
But despite talking about being aggressive, the Cardinals didn’t draft a quarterback, leaving the team with Drew Stanton, Zac Dysert, and undrafted free agent Trevor Knight behind Palmer. The biggest moves the team made in free agency were the signings of Karlos Dansby, Antoine Bethea, and Jarvis Jones.
If those additions don’t help the team win games in 2017, Arizona could be in for a slow climb back to the top.
At age 35, Ben Roethlisberger would seem to be much further from retirement than Brees, Brady, or Palmer, but he apparently spent the beginning of the 2017 offseason really considering it.
“I’ve got to take it year by year at this point,” Roethlisberger told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “I’m never going to look past any year because I want to give everything I have to that year. I’m not worried about next year. I have to win now. I think we can. I believe we have just about everybody back. I want to see what we look like as a team that’s a year better.”
He’s injured on a seemingly annual basis, even if most of the time he “walks his big ass out” onto the field on Sundays to play through it.
But the fact that Roethlisberger has even considered hanging up his cleats means the Steelers better push for another Super Bowl run soon, before it’s time to start fresh with Landry Jones, Joshua Dobbs, or some other young quarterback.
Patient: Young quarterbacks allow teams to wait
It’s hard to dial the expectations too high for teams with rookies or second-year quarterbacks under center. A disappointing start to a passer’s career can still result in a firing — like it did with Jeff Fisher in 2016 when Jared Goff was forced into action but struggled on the field — but there’s rarely a real sense of urgency to win with a rookie at quarterback.
Strong play from Dak Prescott and Carson Wentz during the 2016 season tore down some of the patience afforded to young quarterbacks. But the Denver Broncos, Los Angeles Rams, Chicago Bears, and Cleveland Browns can all enter the 2017 season without much pressure to expect greatness right away from their young passers.
The Houston Texans may be the exception for the 2017 season, trading away a future first-round pick to get Deshaun Watson — about as battle-tested of a quarterback as college football has ever produced. With an elite defense already in place, the Texans are expecting Watson to make a Prescott-esque impact as a rookie and take the team to another level.
Even with Brock Osweiler struggling his way to 15 touchdowns, 16 interceptions, and an eventual spot on the bench, the Texans still made it to the divisional round of the playoffs with him under center. Getting a competent quarterback would seem to be the missing piece for Houston.
Urgent: The ‘We’re gonna get fired’ scale
It can be tough to gauge who’s really on the hot seat before a season. But for coaches and executives who have slogged through disappointing results for a few years, sometimes putting a winning squad on the field can be the only job saver. This is how the Jaguars fall into the “win-now mode” category.
Under Jim Caldwell, the Lions have a 27-21 record with two trips to the playoffs. That impressive mark has yielded zero playoff victories and zero NFC North titles. The team has finished just below the league average in total offense and total defense in each of the last two seasons.
Overall, they’ve been underachievers.
Matthew Stafford has been relatively consistent over his career and posted his sixth consecutive season with at least 4,000 yards and 20 touchdown passes. But even his record-breaking amount of fourth-quarter comebacks in 2016 wasn’t enough to get the Lions over the hump.
In the offseason, Detroit went after T.J. Lang and Ricky Wagner — two of the most expensive offensive linemen on the market — and filled up the defensive depth chart with plenty of signings and draft picks.
If the team struggles to do much more than hover around .500 again, it could mean the end of the road for Caldwell.
Marvin Lewis is already the golden standard for doing enough to keep a job but not enough to actually make anyone happy.
In 14 seasons in Cincinnati, he hasn’t led the team to a single postseason victory. Only Jim Mora has more career games under his belt without a playoff win, and Lewis is set to pass him during the 2017 season. Mora got fired by the Saints after 11 seasons before coaching four more with the Colts, but Lewis has stuck with the Bengals his entire tenure.
The last time the Bengals won a playoff game was January 1991. The 26 seasons without a victory in the postseason is the longest active streak in the NFL.
But the Bengals have been a relatively consistent contender during the Lewis era. Falling to 6-9-1 during the 2016 season puts Lewis on thin ice, though. The team is retooled offensively with John Ross and Joe Mixon, so another disappointing season in 2017 could be the final straw.
The Mike Maccagnan/Todd Bowles era in New York started with an impressive 10-6 season and then lurched in the other direction with a 5-11 mark in 2016. The team was bad on offense and bad on defense, but both Maccagnan and Bowles kept their jobs.
New York threw a Band-Aid on its quarterback problems by signing Josh McCown, but the team may need more than McCown and a pair of rookie safeties to turn things around.
The Jets selected Jamal Adams and Marcus Maye with their first two picks of the 2017 NFL draft, raising questions about where Calvin Pryor fits in the New York secondary and ending Marcus Gilchrist’s tenure with the team. Continuing to add young defensive talent is a good thing, but the team doesn’t look much better off in 2017 after the additions.
The good news for the Jets brass is that the bar is pretty low. It won’t take too much to improve beyond 5-11 and show that the ship has been righted. But if the team struggles to approach .500 again, it could mean another big transition for the Jets.
Patient: Job security takes the pressure off
San Francisco 49ers CEO Jed York promised he learned his lesson and will give John Lynch and Kyle Shanahan time to rebuild the team. After parting ways with Jim Harbaugh, the 49ers gave one year each to Jim Tomsula and Chip Kelly — but with general manager Trent Baalke out, San Francisco is finally starting fresh.
There isn’t much of a quarterback situation to be excited about — the team signed Brian Hoyer and Matt Barkley before drafting C.J. Beathard. The 49ers appear far from being a winner, but it would be shocking if Lynch or Shanahan lost their job after the 2017 season.
Even a poor showing in 2018 may not be enough to end their time in San Francisco.
That kind of patience was afforded to Gus Bradley and Dave Caldwell in Jacksonville to unsuccessful results. It worked wonders for the Oakland Raiders, though, where Reggie McKenzie endured 11 wins in his first three seasons as general manager while he patiently pieced together one of the best rosters in the NFL.