This is how it’s supposed to be.
The Jacksonville Jaguars are back in the NFL postseason. They host the Los Angeles Chargers in the wildcard round of the playoffs Saturday night, the team’s second primetime game in as many weeks.
It’s a return to the promised land after such a promising season for the big cats in 2017. That team won the AFC South and made it all the way to the AFC Championship game, falling to Tom Brady’s New England Patriots.
There proved to be no sustainable momentum. The Jags finished last in the AFC South in 2018 after going 5-11. Then they finished last again in 2019, won exactly one game in 2020, hired and fired Urban Meyer in 2021. The Urban Meyer experience, completely predictable, further cratered a team that had one winning season over a 15-year stretch.
It’s easy to think the Jaguars are supposed to be bad. That if there has to be a cellar dweller in the NFL, that team may as well be in Jacksonville.
That’s not how it’s supposed to be. It never was.
The Jaguars started playing football in 1995, which was perfect timing for kids like me. I was 12 and almost ready to counter anything an adult told me. I tried rooting for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the Miami Dolphins, but the fit was never quite right. My favorite team played on Saturdays anyway.
So when the Jaguars showed up in Jacksonville, a big city people from places like Ocala two hours south looked up to, I was ready to welcome them with open arms. They had a cool cat logo and teal jerseys, and they would soon have Florida Gator star running back Fred Taylor.
And they started winning right away. After a break-in year in 1995, the Jaguars made it to the NFL playoffs four years in a row. Twice they made it to within a game of the Super Bowl but couldn’t quite make it all the way.
No bother, I figured. The Jaguars were as young a team then as they are now. It was only a matter of time until they were playing for the Lombardi Trophy.
This was how it was supposed to be.
But then the Jaguars started losing. Jacksonville hosted the Super Bowl in 2005 and showed the world – as well as way too many Patriot and Philadelphia Eagle fans – how unready* it was to be a big city.
*Seriously, there were so few proper hotel rooms in Jacksonville that the city brought in several cruise ships on the St. Johns River for people to stay.
I was in Jacksonville during the Jaguars last stretch of stability in the mid-2000s. While a student at Jacksonville University, I bought season tickets in the second deck on the 30-yard line. The cost for the whole season was $199.
Soon, the Jaguars became so awful that even 200 bucks was too much of an investment.
The thing about the NFL is if you lose bad enough for long enough, good things can happen. The Jags have had too many top draft picks – and too many draft busts – to count. But even they knew what to do after getting the first pick in the 2021 draft.
Trevor Lawrence, the star quarterback at Clemson, came to Jacksonville to start his career under Meyer. It’s amazing that he persevered through such absolute incompetence.
Free of Meyer and now under the tutelage of Super Bowl winning coach Doug Pederson, this year Lawrence has played like the budding star we all figured him to be. During the second half of the season, no quarterback played better. He played well enough to help the Jags finish on a five-game winning streak.
Now, no one wants to play the Jaguars this postseason. Shoot, if Lawrence keeps improving and the young team keeps maturing, no one may want to play the Jags for years.
Hope has fully returned to Jacksonville. The possibilities seem as exciting as they did 25 years ago.
Football will break your heart if you watch it long enough, but it can also remind you from time to time that rooting for your team is a worthwhile investment. In another year where my beloved Gators couldn’t win anything important on Saturdays, the Jaguars have become the most stable rooting interest I have.
Sundays in the fall have a little more glow on them when the Jaguars are playing well. Weekends in the winter are a little warmer when the Jags are still playing.
Such is the case this Saturday. This is how it’s supposed to be.