Commentary

Consistency is the word in Jacksonville

The Jaguars have plenty of talent, but their success in 2007 hinges on their ability to find the consistency that has eluded them in recent years, writes Len Pasquarelli.

Originally Published: August 8, 2007
By Len Pasquarelli | ESPN.com

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- Like a four-syllable mantra, not so much rehearsed as hammered home by rote, the Jacksonville Jaguars' buzzword for this season resonates from every level of the franchise.

Consistency.

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It is a quality that hardly has been a hallmark for the roller-coaster Jaguars, a team that in recent seasons has too often played to the level of its competition each week, and has struggled to achieve and maintain equilibrium. Such an absence of consistency is a deficiency that has kept Jacksonville -- which hasn't added a postseason win to its franchise résumé since the divisional-round 62-7 dismembering of the Miami Dolphins in the 1999 season -- from taking full advantage of its talent base.

Indeed, the final month of last season was a microcosm of what has ailed the Jaguars under Jack Del Rio's stewardship.

In Week 14 of last season, the Jaguars obliterated the visiting Indianapolis Colts 44-17, rolling up 375 rushing yards. The win moved the team to 8-5 and solidly into playoff contention. The Colts exited Alltel Stadium that day licking their wounds and doubting themselves, but then righted themselves. They went on to win two of their final three regular-season contests and four straight playoff games, including their Super Bowl XLI victory.

The Jaguars? Well, they followed up the emotional and dominating victory over their AFC South rivals by dropping their final three games to end the year at 8-8 and out of the postseason derby.

"It's frustrating to me, and to a lot of the veterans who have been around here for a while," tailback Fred Taylor said after Monday morning's training camp practice in sweltering temperatures. "I mean, I was happy for Peyton [Manning] and [Tony] Dungy and all, given everything they've been through. But that was a team that we absolutely destroyed. And to watch the playoffs, to see them holding up that trophy, to know that we can play with anybody in the league but that we were sitting at home … well, it made you sick to your stomach."

It will take more than an industrial-sized vat of Maalox to remedy that case of nausea. Fortunately, the Jaguars again have a roster that is talented and deep enough to serve as an elixir of sorts, and make opponents squeamish.

That isn't to say there aren't some critical questions here, because there are. Among them: Can quarterback Byron Leftwich, coming off two seasons in which he was plagued by a bum left ankle that finally mandated surgery and entering the final season of his original contract, play all 16 games for the first time in his career? Will his wide receivers finally start to make some plays? How well will the youthful safety tandem of Gerald Sensabaugh and first-round pick Reggie Nelson perform as the new starters? Can a defense that statistically ranked No. 2 overall in the NFL in 2006 produce more takeaways?

And most important, can a supposedly more mature Jaguars team learn to handle the kind of prosperity it has too often squandered away in the past? Can the Jags finally summon the degree of consistency that has been so sorely lacking?

"I think we're ready to do all those things," said Leftwich, who has alternately been beloved and belittled by local fans. "No one is going to make excuses around here, but last year, with the [volume] of injuries we suffered … that was an aberration. I mean, we were 12-4 the season before that, and I think that's a far better [indicator] of our talent and the kind of team we can be. But it's time for us to stop talking about the team we can be, and to be that team. And that means reaching a solid level of consistency and keeping it, week in and week out.

"Some of the games we've lost, you know, to teams that should never have beaten us. Well, yeah, it's maddening."

In some instances, it's been downright inexplicable.

Case in point: The Jaguars lost twice in 2006 to the lowly Houston Texans, scoring just 17 points in the two defeats. Had the Jags simply taken care of business against a team that had no business beating them, Jacksonville would have earned a wild-card berth. In fact, during Del Rio's tenure, Jacksonville is only 3-5 versus the Texans, and has lost four of the past six encounters. Every one of the five losses to the Texans since 2003 came against a team that had either a losing or a .500 record at the time of the matchup.

In the four seasons Del Rio has been their coach, the Jaguars have defeated the Colts as many times as they've beaten the Texans. Another telling statistic: Jacksonville doesn't have a winning record against any of their three divisional opponents in the past four seasons.

Del Rio is 19-19 against teams that were .500 or better when the Jaguars faced them, but only 15-11 versus franchises with losing records. Thus, the constant emphasis on improved consistency here, a goal stressed throughout the spring and now into training camp. To win in the NFL, you must defeat the teams you are supposed to beat, and that has become a rallying point for a Jacksonville team that has suffered some ignominious setbacks because of its inability to do so.

Certainly things have gone well for the Jaguars in the division, without having even played a game yet. The Colts are reeling from the retirement of offensive tackle Tarik Glenn and what appears to be a season-ending knee injury to defensive tackle Anthony McFarland. Opening-day opponent Tennessee will play the season minus suspended cornerback Pacman Jones. Houston is breaking in a new starting quarterback, Matt Schaub, to replace Jacksonville nemesis David Carr, who always seemed to save his best games for Jacksonville.

Still, as the Jaguars have demonstrated too many times, they can't take anything for granted.

"The thing we've [preached] is that we've got to work with a purpose that means more than just matching our opponent from week to week," Del Rio said Sunday night. "We have to play our game, week in and week out, and not [deviate] so much from that. There has to be a commitment to being good every time we get onto the field."

Len Pasquarelli is a senior writer at ESPN.com.