It's hard to believe one play, one simple play in a season full of deciding plays, could actually turn a franchise completely around, taking it from a team of rising, young, cocky players on the verge of special times to a team in disarray, with players being discarded by an angry former coach, in-fighting in the locker room and a team that again has become what it's been for much of its 25-year existence: a punching bag to the rest of the league and especially the national media.
Yet that's exactly what happened to the Jacksonville Jaguars. It's not the first time one play seemingly sent the franchise reeling, either.
In the AFC Championship Game against the New England Patriots after the 2017 season, the upstart Jaguars held a 10-point lead against Tom Brady with 10:49 left in the game and Brady facing a third-and-18 from his own 25. With a defense that surprisingly led the Jaguars to that point, it seemed the team was on the verge of going to the first Super Bowl in team history -- even if it was Brady the GOAT.
Only the normal thing happened on that play: the defenders went off script. It's hard to actually pinpoint which player didn't play the right defense on that play, according to conversations with those who would know, but it wasn't played the right way. Somebody went rogue -- again. That happened several times that season, and this time it really cost them. The result was a 21-yard completion from Brady to Danny Amendola that kept the drive and the New England season alive.
The Patriots went on to rally to win the game and get to the Super Bowl, where they lost to the Philadelphia Eagles. The Jaguars went home and the franchise hasn't been the same since.
In the last two seasons, the Jaguars compiled an 11-21 record. In that time, returning hero Tom Coughlin, the first coach in franchise history and a favorite son, was fired as the team's football czar. Star corner Jalen Ramsey was traded to the Los Angeles Rams amid a firestorm of personal controversy and issues with Coughlin. Season-ticket sales have plummeted, and they are now playing two games next season in London, leading to more speculation that the franchise is on the move.
That's a story for another day, although it is tied to wins and losses. The frustrated, passionate fan base is so tired of the losing ways that they might be tuning the team out, and there is concern about local revenues.
This much I know: If they win, they will come. In the early days, the Jaguars filled up their 72,000-seat stadium. It was a wine-and-cheese crowd, many going to be seen rather than for the passion for the team. It was new. And they won early.
But that crowd stopped going when they started losing. Ironically that losing started after one play led to over a decade of misery. It happened in the 1999 AFC Championship Game, played in Jacksonville. The 14-2 Jaguars were backed up on their own 1 against the Tennessee Titans facing a second-and-10 trailing 17-14 with just over five minutes left in the third quarter.
A go route to star receiver Jimmy Smith was the call, and Smith got behind the defender for what should have been a 99-yard touchdown pass. Instead, a botched blocking assignment by the right side of the line led to a safety and then Tennessee's Derrick Mason ripped the subsequent free kick for a touchdown.
Game over. Super Bowl dreams over. Winning basically over.
With salary-cap issues, the losing ways set in. The franchise had three winning seasons since that title game before going 10-6 in that 2017 season. The crowds, even with a smaller stadium configuration, dissipated. But when they won in 2017, the younger fans came out in force. They formed booster clubs and they bought season tickets.
Then the play in New England happened. So began another spiral back into the football abyss.
A once-promising team came apart bit by bit after that. How does that happen? How can a young team seemingly built for much more come apart and land where it is today?
Here are some of the reasons.
In talking to players and coaches and team sources, one of the biggest issues has been players reading their press clippings. They stopped doing the work. They stopped being accountable. Not all, but many.
Jaguars receiver Dede Westbrook told me that exact thing on camera last summer, and other players have offered the same notion away from the cameras.
"It became a 'me' thing," one player said. "Guys were worried about themselves."
A divided locker room
There were some players on that 2017 team with prominent roles who weren't good influences after that. Linebacker Telvin Smith was one of them, according to sources. When veteran Paul Posluszny was there to lead, Smith was a model player, who respected Posluszny the man, which is something Smith openly talked about. But when Posluszny retired after the 2017 season, Smith became an issue in the locker room and his influence bled over to some younger players until he surprisingly walked away last year.
Smith was not alone in creating locker-room friction, which led to veterans like Calais Campbell to attempt to reign in some of the younger players, only to be called nasty names when he did so. So much for the idea that you respect your elders.
It was Coughlin who built the Jaguars from scratch as the franchise's first head coach in 1995. He had control of the entire building at the time and ruled with an iron fist. Fear was evident when he led back in the day with his laundry list of rules.
Coughlin, as he would prove in winning two Super Bowls with the Giants, was a great coach. He wasn't a great personnel man, which is why when Jaguars owner Shahid Khan brought Coughlin back as the vice president of football operations before the 2017 season after he was fired by the Giants, it stunned some. It also came as the team was closing in on possibly hiring former Falcons head coach Mike Smith. Coughlin instead hired Doug Marrone.
Coughlin also made some strange personnel decisions -- such as drafting running back Leonard Fournette fourth overall with Deshaun Watson and Patrick Mahomes on the board, and letting receiver Allen Robinson walk in free agency. But there were many more issues with him as well.
Coughlin was and always would be an old-school coach, and he was on the practice field nearly every day, almost in the middle of drills. Marrone yielded to that because he had no choice, but it wasn't a good look for the players.
Was Coughlin coach or GM? Or both again?
It didn't help that Coughlin chafed at players who didn't follow his way. When Ramsey ripped a litany of players in a GQ magazine story in the summer of 2018, Coughlin despised the look. Coughlin already hated the fact that Ramsey didn't take part in offseason workouts, choosing instead to train at home in Nashville, Tenn., with his father.
The fight was on. It was star player against football-decision maker, and it came to a head when Ramsey got into a sideline-shouting match with Marrone last season in Houston during a game. That led to a postgame meeting that in turn led to Ramsey disrespecting some in that room. He asked for a trade, and he was promptly sent to the Rams for two first-round picks.
The player many expected to be the face of the franchise left many sad faces behind. Some of his teammates were happy he was gone, while others took to social media to take up for him.
Ramsey also played a big role in it all going south for that young team. He wasn't exactly well-liked by teammates and, in fact, had an on-going rift with fellow corner A.J. Bouye, according to sources. Bouye was traded to the Broncos this week for a fourth-round pick in large part because the cap-strapped Jaguars could save over $11 million by sending him packing.
Coughlin, a man of the rules as long as they are his own, also didn't follow them as it related to the CBA, which led to fines for players that were later rescinded by the league. That, in turn, led to the NFLPA warning players about signing with the Jaguars, writing in a statement, "25% of the grievances filed by the players in the entire league have been filed against the Jaguars. You as players may want to consider this when you have a chance to select your next club."
Don't get it twisted, though -- there were plenty of fines that were warranted for that group.
Even so, many players came to think of Coughlin as a guy who only wanted to interact when things went wrong or to complain. That warning by the NFLPA helped expedite Coughlin going out the door, a failed hero in his return as he has become the punching bag for the fans for all that has gone wrong.
The quarterback situation
When the Jaguars went to that title game, it was with Blake Bortles at quarterback. He was the team's first-round pick in 2014, a pick made by general manager Dave Caldwell, who was still with the organization under Coughlin the past three years and remains in his current role.
The team passed on taking Deshaun Watson and Patrick Mahomes in the 2017 draft for Fournette -- a move made by Coughlin, who loved big backs -- and decided to stick with Bortles. When Bortles helped get them to the title game, they made the mistake of giving him a contract extension. Bortles was benched in 2018 and released after that season.
The Jaguars panicked last spring and paid Nick Foles a four-year deal worth $88 million with a signing bonus of $45 million, and Foles lost his job to sixth-round rookie Gardner Minshew after he returned from a broken clavicle he injured in Week 1. That benching marked more lost millions on the quarterback position.
If only they had drafted Watson or Mahomes, right? But Coughlin's love of big backs dates back to his early days with the team when he tried to trade two first-round picks to move up and take Penn State running back Curtis Enis. The Bears kept the pick, took Enis fifth overall, and Coughlin bristled because he didn't get his power back.
So he took another back with one of his two first-round picks, No. 9 overall. That back was Fred Taylor.
Fournette has been a decent back, and he was good in his rookie year to help the Jaguars get to the title game against New England, but he isn't a game-changing back, which makes it sting even more. He also had his share of issues with the team before becoming a model player and better locker-room guy last season as he showed his maturity.
The Jaguars head into this offseason with Minshew as the favorite right now to start at quarterback. Marrone said last week at the combine that it would be an open competition, and don't expect Foles to be traded despite his bloated cap number. The contract would be tough to dump, and the team would take too much of a cap hit to let him go.
The question now is whether Minshew can maintain that magic from last season, or will Foles and his Super Bowl-pedigree get the job back? Foles didn't exactly endear himself to the local fans with some of his post-loss comments last season about building a culture, while Minshew has become the fan favorite.
Whoever it is certainly won't be in the class of Watson or Mahomes.
The defense that took the field for the AFC Championship Game in 2018 featured a talented group of 11 with a nice backup pass rusher in Dante Fowler. Of those 12 players, four remain, with the entire secondary now gone after the trade of Bouye this week.
Some of those losses were for cap reasons, and there was also the Posluszny retirement. Of the four who remain, one is defensive end Yannick Ngakoue, who said this week he wants no part of playing for the Jaguars after not getting a long-term contract extension and facing playing this coming season for the franchise tag.
The Jaguars offered Ngakoue a deal that would have paid him $18 million a season last summer, but he turned it down. The talk during negotiations was that Coughlin kept pinging Ngakoue for his run defense, which is why he took a hardline approach to the discussions. With Coughlin gone, the hope now within the organization is that a deal can get done, but it is not necessary with the tag.
Even so, you don't want a player who turns 25 later this month as a core player showing up right before the season to play games and not get the necessary work on the field.
The team was considering moving to a defensive look last season where Ngakoue and rookie Josh Allen, who went to the Pro Bowl, would be standing up as edge players. But when Ngakoue held out, that plan went awry. That is still a hope this season to try and get Allen more snaps, since there were too many games where he played fewer than half the defensive snaps.
If Ngakoue were to be traded, the only players on defense who would be left who started the game against New England would be end Calais Campbell, nose tackle Abry Jones and linebacker Myles Jack. Campbell, by the way, will be 34 this fall and played too many snaps last season, even though he is still a productive player.
The Jaguars do have six picks in the first four rounds of this year's draft, including two first-round picks, one at No. 9 and one at No 20. They have 10 picks overall and nine next season, including two more first-round picks. That can spur a quick turnaround if the picks are used wisely. Four first-round picks in two seasons can quickly help infuse a roster with talent, and this roster badly needs it.
That can lead to sustainable success if Minshew can prove to be more than a sixth-round pick who just found time-lapse magic last season. Then maybe all the bad things from the past two seasons will fade away.
Maybe then, that third-and-18 that sent this franchise reeling might be able to get shoved into the background. For now, it's the starting point for when it all went wrong.