Jags want to end blackouts, playoff drought
JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (AP)
Garrard understands them all. He even agrees.
''This is definitely a pivotal year for everybody, not just myself,'' Garrard said.
Indeed. The Jaguars are entering arguably the most important season in franchise history, with more blackouts looming, the futures of Garrard and Del Rio at stake, and owner Wayne Weaver and commissioner Roger Goodell evaluating Jacksonville's viability as an NFL market.
The Jaguars finished 7-9 last season and missed the playoffs for the eighth time in the last decade. They dropped their final four games, faded from postseason contention and spent the year serving as the poster child for slumping ticket sales.
Jacksonville was blacked out for nine of 10 home games, prompting Weaver and Goodell to offer critical assessments of the team's fan support. Weaver insists the franchise will turn things around - on the field and in the stands. He envisions several sellouts and a postseason appearance.
If not, Garrard and Del Rio could be scapegoats.
Weaver questioned Garrard's leadership skills in January, days after Del Rio said the 32-year-old starter was in the ''middle tier of quarterbacks in the league.''
Garrard has thrown 30 touchdown passes and 23 interception the last two years, been sacked 84 times and knocked down way more often. His toughness has never been in doubt, but his ability to read defenses and get the ball to open receivers have been the team's main concerns.
''You're not going to play quarterback in the NFL and be scared to take some of the pressure and take some of the load that comes with it,'' Garrard said.
Jacksonville ranked 18th in the league in total offense and 24th in scoring, well behind AFC South rivals Indianapolis, Houston and Tennessee.
The team's defense was even worse. The Jaguars ranked near the bottom of the league in just about every defensive category. They finished with a franchise-low 14 sacks and allowed three of the best passing performances in NFL history (Kurt Warner, Peyton Manning and Tom Brady).
It was an embarrassing effort that led general manager Gene Smith to overhaul the defense and left many wondering how long Weaver would stick with Del Rio, who has one playoff win in seven seasons.
Weaver kept Del Rio, and the front office focused on revamping the defense. The Jaguars signed proven pass rusher Aaron Kampman, traded for veteran linebacker Kirk Morrison and used their first four draft picks on defensive linemen.
They also parted ways with two-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle John Henderson and fellow aging linemen Rob Meier and Reggie Hayward.
The moves made the Jaguars younger and more athletic. But will they be better?
''It's not important to try and talk it,'' Del Rio said. ''It's most important that we get out here and get to work on doing it. There are a lot of things we have to do better. A lot of them have been regurgitated so many times this offseason that I'm frankly getting tired of looking at them. But it is what it is because it's what it was. But what it was is not what it will be going forward.''
Weaver is looking for a similar turnaround at gate.
There have been some positive signs: The Jaguars sold naming rights to the stadium for the first time in three years, sold naming right to the practice fields and have just a few thousand season tickets remaining to avoid more blackouts.
Weaver insists he has no plans to sell or move the team. But he also realizes attendance has to improve to keep the franchise viable in one of the league's smallest markets.
''I think we're going to get there and we're going to erase the word 'blackout' in our community,'' Weaver said.
Goodell has expressed support for Jacksonville, but hinted that fans need to do more to keep the team in town.
''This is a great opportunity for this community to demonstrate their passion for this team and their passion for football,'' Goodell said earlier this month. ''We want this team to be successful and we want it to be here. We just want to make sure that we're playing in front of large audiences and hopefully sold-out audiences because that's what we do expect in the NFL.''
Weaver, Del Rio and others believe fans will show up if the team wins. That remains to be seen, though, considering Jacksonville blacked out several games last year despite being in the playoff hunt.
Players, meanwhile, are modeling their season after New Orleans. The Saints were out of the postseason picture for two years before turning things around and winning their first Super Bowl.
''I look at this team and say, 'Why can't we be the New Orleans Saints of the 2010 season?''' Morrison said. ''Why can't we? We have everything that kind of lines up. We have position players that can get the job done. We have a defense that is hungry. We're ready to go. I see it in everybody's eyes.
''I don't know what happened at the end of last year, but I know what's going to happen this year.''