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Doug Marrone earned buy-in from Jaguars the old-fashioned way

JACKSONVILLE -- Myles Jack can't talk about it. Well, he could. He just chooses not to.

That's been the outcry from fans in Duval County, Florida, since the game ended last January in Foxborough. But January in Foxborough is where that discussion will remain for the Jacksonville Jaguars themselves.

The first day they showed up this spring for the start of the team's offseason program, head coach Doug Marrone issued an edict to the players:

Don't fall into this trap of people taking you to where we were at the end of last year. That's the trap. Do we want to get back there and perform? Absolutely. But if we're talking about that and think we're going to start there? No. You never start where you left off. You always start from the beginning.

The end of last season was equal parts promising and tantalizing for the Jags. Up 20-10 early in the fourth quarter of the AFC Championship Game, they were on the verge of the Super Bowl, a precipice few imagined at the start of the season under a first-year head coach who had proclaimed the previous June that the perfect number of passes for his struggling quarterback in a game was "zero."

The Jaguars weren't supposed to be this close this soon. Winning a playoff game at home against the Bills, knocking off the Steelers in Pittsburgh the following week and then going toe-to-toe with the five-time champion Patriots until a late fold in the fourth quarter should be viewed as an accomplishment. And it is.

But Marrone, like his boss Tom Coughlin before him, is trying to prevent his players from becoming complacent with their sudden success.

"I already know -- yeah, yeah, yeah," Jack said with a laugh during a break at minicamp last week, playfully cutting off a question about the fateful moment referees whistled him down after he'd taken the ball away from Pats running back Dion Lewis and had a clear path to the end zone.

Jack continued, "You have to acknowledge the past. Obviously, last year won't bring us any success this year. But looking at the positives, the things that work for us, you have to go back to the basics. That's the main thing we did. Moving forward, knowing last year was difficult, at the end of the day, it makes Sunday easier."

* * * **

At this point last year, Jacksonville's players only saw the difficulty of life under Marrone.

I was at their facility for minicamp and was leaving the stadium with a few of them when one of those nasty late-afternoon Florida thunderstorms was rolling through downtown. The players grumbled, wishing the storm had arrived earlier -- during practice -- so Marrone would've been forced to cut the session short. The coach had been working them all spring, to the point where those who had been with the organization through the Gus Bradley/Mike Mularkey/Jack Del Rio days couldn't recall the last time they didn't cancel an OTA or minicamp day to participate in a team-building or community-relations exercise.

Marrone wanted to set a tone that told his players, if they were going to capitalize on their much-discussed talent, it would take a lot of hard work.

It wasn't so much a physical thing. It couldn't be, given the restrictions of a collective bargaining agreement that limits offseason on-field work and prohibits two-a-days. It would have to be more mental, so Marrone upped the tempo of practices and crammed in as many plays as he could within the allotted practice time.

This year, the practices are just as demanding. At the end of last Tuesday's session, Marrone had the players line up in the late-morning heat to run gassers.

"Now, we understand the craziness of Coach Marrone and his camps. Now, we're more open to him because we saw the results," defensive tackle Malik Jackson said. "Last year, it was like, What is he doing? He doesn't know what he's doing. He still had his iron fist. He was in his dictatorship, not caring what guys had to say, not caring what guys thought, but knowing he had the right process.

"Back then, I'm not going to say we were soft, but we were still accustomed to the previous coach and what he was doing."

Bradley arrived in Jacksonville in 2013 with the reputation of being a high-energy, motivational coach, but the play of his teams never matched his temperament. Year after year, the Jags signed big-ticket free agents and took talented players at the top of the draft ... but managed just four, three, five and two wins, respectively, during Bradley's nearly four seasons as coach.

Marrone took over as interim coach late in 2016 and eventually got the full-time gig, with Coughlin overseeing as executive vice president of football operations. Much like Coughlin's early days with the Giants, the players griped about Marrone's practices, fines, uniform mandates and overall ways -- until the wins started piling up.

"We had these conversations and they kind of said, 'OK, we trust you and let's see what happens,' " Marrone recalled last week. "We worked a hard camp, we started the season and they were like, 'S---, we feel good.' I would hope that carries over."

One of the first things Marrone did last year to make the players comfortable with being uncomfortable was rearrange the locker room. Instead of sitting in position groups, he mixed the big guys with the small guys, the offensive players with the defensive players and so forth. The players believe Marrone strategically put together guys he knew didn't get along.

The unspoken message was they didn't have to like one another, they just had to respect and understand each other.

The fruits of that decision became evident, according to several players, somewhere between the middle and end of training camp last year. Whereas once there would be barking across the ball between the offense and defense, there was now a different kind of chatter -- constructive communication: Where did that blitz come from? What can I do to make it harder for you to block me? Did I do something to tip you off on my route?

Flash forward to the Wild Card Weekend win over the Bills. Jack was supposed to blitz up the middle on a play. He had known there would be a lot of traffic in there on this particular blitz call, so, during the week leading up to the game, he asked center Brandon Linder what would make it difficult for an opposing lineman to stop him. Linder's suggestion was to rip through with his arm so Jack wouldn't make his chest available to be contacted.

Sure enough, Jack squirted through on game day and pressured Tyrod Taylor out of the pocket. With a little more faith in Linder's guidance, he might've even had a sack.

"I kind of stumbled because I didn't believe it was going to work," Jack said. "I just closed my eyes and ripped through and was like, 'Oh, s---, I'm actually free.' "

That spirit of cooperation has carried forward to this offseason, as has Marrone's mantra that the players need to come together. His speech to them at the start of minicamp was that their uniforms and logos don't make them a team. It's trust in one another that truly solidifies that bond.

"You learn, 'OK, that really helped us, so let's keep it going,' " defensive end Calais Campbell said of the collaboration.

* * * **

Campbell is entering his 11th NFL season. In his first, the Cardinals went to the Super Bowl and nearly won it. Nine years and a four-year, $60 million deal to join the Jaguars later, Campbell flirted with a second shot at a title.

One of the Jaguars' leaders, he understands when the window to win is open, and that time is now for Jacksonville.

"We have a lot of young guys who are growing up fast, guys in Years 3 or 4 who have a better understanding now, and that's nice to see," Campbell said. "The Myles Jacks and Yannick Ngakoues. Young guys who are natural talents becoming leaders. That's a great sign."

The Jaguars' potential has as much to do with that nucleus of budding young talent as it does Marrone's convincing them to be a team. Consider:

-- Ngakoue had eight sacks as a rookie in 2016 and ran that total to 12 last year. He's only getting better.

"I'm more explosive. I just feel it, man," Ngakoue said of his work during OTAs and minicamp. "The way I'm attacking these [offensive linemen], I can tell when they're panicking from me coming off the ball. They're definitely showing me I got better at what I'm doing."

For Ngakoue (by the way, his first name is pronounced Yah-NEEK, not YAH-nick, as many have mistakenly called him -- and you'd better know his name by now), the spring is the time to work on technique because the players don't wear pads, so their jerseys are looser. That allows for more grabbing by the offensive linemen. If a move works in the spring, you know it'll work in the fall. And plenty has been working for Ngakoue lately, thanks in part to his experience.

"When you know your playbook and scheme, front to back," he said, "it frees you up to play fast."

-- Jack has put aside those concerns about his knee that caused his draft stock to plummet. He had 90 tackles and two sacks last regular season and played well in the postseason: 19 tackles, one sack, three passes defensed, an interception, the fumble forced and recovered against New England and the would-be touchdown that shall not be mentioned.

Jack is moving to middle linebacker to replace the retired Paul Posluszny. With that switch comes the responsibility of being more of a leader. Jack is already on his way. Jags staffers have noticed he has much more of a presence this year and is actively looking for ways to contribute in the community. There's definite growth in Jack's confidence that should translate to the field, they say.

-- Cornerback Jalen Ramsey might already be the best in the league at his position -- and by Ramsey's estimation, he should be even better this year. Ramsey trained with his father instead of attending OTAs, with the mission being to remain healthy through the spring instead of undergoing surgery, as he did in 2016 (torn meniscus) and last year (sports hernia).

Mission accomplished.

"If y'all thought I was good in the past two years," the first-team All Pro said, "stay tuned."

Ramsey heard from a few players who at first were upset he wasn't with the team for OTAs. But once he explained his logic and vowed to come back in shape, they understood. It also sounded like the coaching staff and front office -- many of whom, like Coughlin, usually preach getting in as much work with the team as possible -- weren't concerned with Ramsey skipping the optional workouts.

"I know the type of competitor he is," Marrone said. "I know his dad and I don't know if anybody can train him as well as his dad."

-- Offensively, the Jags are expecting guard Andrew Norwell's arrival to only further solidify a running game that ranked first in the league and went for 100 yards in 14 of the team's 19 games (playoffs included). Left tackle Cam Robinson should make a jump in his second year. Like Ramsey, running back Leonard Fournette missed OTAs, but he was back for minicamp and in great shape. Behind him, T.J. Yeldon and Corey Grant give the team hopes of a deep backfield.

Wide receiver Allen Robinson left via free agency and might make a big splash for the Bears. But the Jags know they couldn't pay everybody big money (a handful of players like Jack, Ramsey and defensive end Dante Fowler are in line for possible extensions soon) and did well without the injured Robinson last year. Keelan Cole (42 catches for 748 yards in 2017) was a revelation in his rookie season and has packed on 15 pounds to a previously wiry frame this offseason.

And then, there's Bortles ...

* * * **

At this time last year, Marrone was issuing an ultimatum: "If you continue to turn the ball over, you won't be our quarterback. It's that simple. Everything else we can work on, but that is non-negotiable."

Marrone said that is still the No. 1 point of emphasis for Bortles, whose interception percentage has dropped from 3.6 in his rookie year to 2.5 last season.

But the Jags giving Bortles a two-year extension this offseason (albeit with only $6.5 million guaranteed in 2019) shows they're expecting more from him this season -- something along the lines of what he showed during a three-game homestand against the Colts, Seahawks and Texans last December: completing 65 of 91 passes for 903 yards, seven touchdowns and zero interceptions, equaling a passer rating of 128.6.

That kind of play requires a better understanding of what's happening all over the field. With the help of his defensive teammates during practice, Bortles is getting there. Offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett gushed about Bortles making a change at the line of scrimmage recently when he didn't get the look from the defense the offense had expected.

"The more you can put him in those situations and he can start adjusting, it is really good to see," Hackett said. "Now he can just go out there and play, and it's not a panic mode of, Oh, gosh -- where are they coming from? It is really trying to dissect it and see if he can figure it out."

Last season, the Jaguars simplified Bortles' reads early on, allowing him to read only half or a third of the field on a given play. It was partly because he had new pieces around him, but also to build his confidence. As the season progressed, they began to open up the field for him. That continued into an impressive spring.

"It's not about learning a new play. It's about, How can I make this play better?" Hackett said. "I think those are the good things about where Blake is going."

Insert Marrone tempering expectations here:

Marrone continued, "Blake's shown enough, so it's just a matter of being ready every day and getting better. You see him more comfortable working."

* * * **

Comfortable. Coughlin detests that word.

So does Marrone, which is why he's uncomfortable being comfortable with his team. In one breath, he says he's "happy" with the progress. In the next, he's warning about the dangers of getting complacent and thinking a flip of the switch will get the Jags right back to the Super Bowl's doorstep.

A big emphasis of Marrone's chats with the team this year has been on situational football and poise. Without actually saying it, because we're not looking back at last season, it's clear he wants more poise from his players under pressure. (SEE: fourth quarter, Foxborough, AFC title game.)

"Your first year, it's kind of easier. You have a chip on your shoulder, you haven't won any games, no one is really giving you anything, no one's talking to you, not a lot of media around, just your local people," the coach said. "And then, all of a sudden, you start winning and guys start playing well, it starts to pick up. There's a little bit more. You're getting more phone calls for tickets. More people want to be around you. Then, it comes to you have to learn from the past. There are certain lessons we can carry over from last year to this year, but it's not the end result of what happened."

Marrone realizes there's some validity in what the doubters say, especially if the Jaguars and their players start to believe the hype.

"Last year, you can easily say we might've caught a team (by surprise). But I don't think we're going to catch anybody (this year)," he said. "Now, everyone's gonna know they have to play a good football game and they'll be ready for us."

Follow Mike Garafolo on Twitter @MikeGarafolo.

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