Commentary

Tip Sheet: Del Rio resurrects Jaguars

Originally Published: December 11, 2009
By Len Pasquarelli | ESPN.com

With the potential for the Colts and Saints to go unbeaten, the Minnesota Vikings' solid performance, the resurrections performed in Green Bay and Cincinnati, and the San Diego Chargers' annual turnaround, Jack Del Rio probably won't be the NFL's coach of the year this season.

But Del Rio, a seven-year veteran who has the Jacksonville Jaguars in control of their destiny at 7-5 after a 0-2 start, deserves to be in the discussion.

Winners of four of their past five games, the Jags go into Sunday's home contest against Miami holding down the final AFC playoff spot and amazingly in control of their future. If Jacksonville wins its remaining four games, including difficult matchups with Indianapolis (Dec. 17) and at New England (Dec. 27), it will make the playoffs as a wild card.

[+] EnlargeJack Del Rio
Michael DeHoog/Getty ImagesJack Del Rio surprisingly has the Jaguars (7-5) in the playoff hunt.
A month ago, mired at 3-4 and with an average differential of 18.5 points in their defeats, the Jags' current status might have been unthinkable.

"But we keep grinding things out," quarterback David Garrard said. "We just persevere. And we believe in ourselves and our coaches."

Suddenly, it's hard for the rest of the league to ignore the Jaguars, even if their once-loyal fans seem to have abandoned the team en masse. Even with tarpaulins covering roughly 10,000 seats at Jacksonville Municipal Stadium, the Jaguars can't sell out. Sunday's game against the Dolphins is blacked out. Yet the players physically and emotionally deliver nearly every week, a tribute to Del Rio.

Earlier in the season, Jacksonville appeared aimless, especially on offense. Now, though, Garrard refers to the Jaguars as "a team of destiny." Del Rio, whose future once seemed in jeopardy, now is all but assured of returning in 2010. Missing the playoffs two of the past three seasons and dropping 24 games in that stretch, Del Rio has lost some clout in the organization.

But he hasn't lost his team.

INSIDE TIP SHEET
There's more to explore in this week's Tip Sheet notes. Insider

  • Rookie Lacey a Colts' find
  • Bush's future in peril?
  • Excitement about a man named Suh
  • Campbell still on shaky ground
  • Steelers coach in jeopardy?
  • Houston's missing element
  • Cardinals' standout reserve
  • Fourth and desperate
  • Portis' future in D.C.
  • Saintly subs
  • "There is a lot of heart on this team, and [Del Rio] never gave up on us," said wide receiver Mike Sims-Walker, who in just his third season has become a go-to guy for Garrard. "And the heart is beating strong."

    The Jaguars' potential playoff spot comes even though they have been outscored 273-225, are minus-22 in sack differential (34-12) and have six new starters on defense. The defense, which for years featured massive run-stuffers in tackles John Henderson and Marcus Stroud, has been rebuilt. Third-round pick Derek Cox has been forced into a season-long starting role. Coordinator Dirk Koetter, at Del Rio's behest, has simplified things on offense.

    Garrard has played better than he did earlier in the season. Del Rio has mandated that his quarterback audible less and hand the ball more to mighty mite tailback Maurice Jones-Drew. Although he has averaged just 3.4 yards per rushing attempt the past three games, the 5-foot-7 Drew has become the offensive centerpiece in his first year as full-time starter with 1,077 yards rushing.

    The future of professional football in Jacksonville, where the crowds have been small despite a five-game home winning streak, is in question. Thanks to the Jaguars' recent run of success, the future of Del Rio is not.

    Len Pasquarelli is a senior writer for ESPN.com.