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Gene Frenette: Jaguars have best shot among Florida NFL teams to sustain winning

SportsGene Frenette: Jaguars have best shot among Florida NFL teams to sustain winning

All three Florida teams are hovering around .500 and have reached the NFL playoffs together for the first time since 1999, but that’s about where the similarities end. 

The Jaguars, Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Miami Dolphins are nowhere near the same teams. Whether it’s organizational stability, future quarterback prognosis or playoff sustainability, the Jaguars have the edge in varying degrees. 

While it’s tough to gauge which of the Florida trio might advance further in the 2022 playoffs, if any do at all, the Jaguars merit a slight edge over the Dolphins on having the most promising path over the next 3-5 years to keep ascending as an NFL postseason contender. 

Jaguars quarterback Trevor Lawrence (16), seen here talking with Doug Pederson during last week's win over the Tennessee Titans, gives the Jacksonville franchise the best chance of sustaining success over the other two Florida NFL franchises in the playoffs.

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The last time all the Sunshine State teams made the playoffs together, it was the Buccaneers who kept the winning ride going the longest. Tony Dungy laid the foundation from 1996-2001, which included four playoff appearances, then got fired. 

The following season, the Buccaneers hired Jon Gruden and cruised through the playoffs. Gruden won Super Bowl XXXVII in dominant fashion over his previous team, the Oakland Raiders, by a 48-21 margin. 

Since there’s so much roster turnover in the NFL, along with the unpredictability of player health, it’s a crapshoot sometimes to pinpoint which playoff-bound teams will keep the momentum going into the future. 

We just saw the Super Bowl champion Los Angeles Rams fall off a cliff this season, finishing 5-12 and losing eight games by double digits. It was the worst record by a defending champion since 1982 when the San Francisco 49ers, during a strike-shortened season, went 3-6. 

It should serve as fair warning to the Jaguars, Dolphins and Buccaneers that any optimism generated by making the playoffs can be fleeting.  

Bucs, Dolphins face QB uncertainty 

Moving forward, the three Florida NFL franchises are in different places, especially Tampa Bay. The unknown over whether 45-year-old quarterback Tom Brady will stay with the Bucs one more year, leave somewhere else as a free agent or retire, puts the Bucs in a most vulnerable position. 

Todd Bowles’ team has mortgaged its future the past three years to accommodate Brady, who delivered a Super Bowl title in his first season. But once Brady leaves or retires, Tampa Bay will likely be in a significant rebuild and no telling whether Bowles or somebody else will be the one picking up the pieces. 

The Dolphins were rolling this season, jumping out to an 8-3 record and looking like they might challenge the Buffalo Bills for AFC East supremacy. Then came a five-game losing streak, fears that productive quarterback Tua Tagovailoa may not return from multiple concussions, and barely squeaking into the playoffs Sunday with an eyesore 11-6 victory over the New York Jets behind third-team QB Skylar Thompson. 

From a talent and star quality standpoint, Miami has the slightly better roster. Speedy receivers Tyreek Hill and Jaylen Waddle make the Dolphins one of the most potent offenses in the NFL, but the dilemma about how much they can count on Tua staying healthy casts some doubt on the team’s future upside. 

Tagovailoa led the NFL in third-down passer rating and in the red zone, plus completion percentage on passes of at least 15 yards, largely due to the run-after-catch ability of Hill and Waddle. 

But with Tagovailoa already being in concussion protocol twice this season, and being ruled out Wednesday for Sunday’s playoff game at Buffalo, Miami faces this big question: can the Dolphins count on Tua staying healthy enough to be a long-term answer at the position. 

The Dolphins don’t have a first-round pick this year or the money to go get another franchise quarterback. Miami lost its 2023 first-round and third-round picks when the NFL made the Dolphins forfeit them for tampering allegations dating back to 2019, both for contacting Brady and the agent for former New Orleans Saints coach Sean Payton. 

Plus, being in an AFC East division where Bills QB Josh Allen is a proven commodity, it means Mike McDaniel’s team could be looking at a tougher path to the playoffs next season and beyond. 

Owner Stephen Ross and GM Chris Grier have until May to decide whether to pick up Tagovailoa’s fifth-year option.  

Miami, which passed up Justin Herbert in the 2019 draft to take Tagovailoa with the No. 5 selection, has plenty of talent. But having a productive quarterback that can’t stay on the field makes for dicey circumstances. 

Jaguars have right QB-coach combo 

Jacksonville and Miami hired new coaches 11 months ago, with Doug Pederson coming aboard on Feb. 5 and the Dolphins signing Mike McDaniel the next day. Both teams endured highs and lows of five-game winning and losing streaks in 2022, then squeezed into the playoffs. 

Miami has the toughest playoff assignment, playing the No. 2 seed Buffalo Bills on the road, uncertain whether Tagovailoa will be cleared to play.  

The Jaguars, facing the Los Angeles Chargers on Saturday night at TIAA Bank Field, are the only Florida playoff team carrying any momentum into the postseason. The Jaguars are also the franchise with a more promising future. 

A lot of that is because Pederson, a Super Bowl-winning coach with the Philadelphia Eagles in 2017, has made a strong connection in the locker room among the players and with GM Trent Baalke. 

What gives the Jaguars a better chance to sustain winning over Miami and Tampa Bay is the quarterback-coach combination. It’s not a reach to think the Buccaneers, who host the Dallas Cowboys in an NFC wild-card matchup Monday night, will have new people in both those jobs next season or by 2024. 

In Miami, with Tagovailoa’s injury history, there’s no telling what the Dolphins might do long-term at quarterback. Investing big money in the southpaw gunslinger remains a huge question mark. 

The Jaguars, especially with the progress Lawrence has made the second half of this season, have no such issues. Barring any unforeseen regression, Lawrence could be getting a massive contract offer after the 2023 season. 

Pederson, a backup NFL quarterback for 10 seasons, was salivating at the possibility of coaching Lawrence before the Jaguars even hired him. The pair have since developed such a level of mutual respect for one another, it figures to elevate the Jaguars in the coming years when Lawrence develops a better understanding of Pederson’s system. 

With free-agent acquisitions Christian Kirk, Zay Jones and Evan Engram enjoying banner first seasons as Lawrence’s top targets — and the Jaguars likely to extend Engram’s one-year deal in the next two months — the NFL’s 10th-highest scoring offense (23.8 ppg) has a real chance to get to a higher gear in 2023 and beyond.  

“It makes me excited though for the future, and moving into the postseason, from where we are to see us just keep growing and growing,” Lawrence said Tuesday. “I was talking to Zay [Jones] last week about it just to see how far we’ve come in less than a year. 

“Imagine where we’re going to be at this time next year and just moving forward. It makes myself and makes all the guys excited to be a part of something where you already see the chemistry starting to click pretty early and just to have time together, I think that’s huge, and building that over time is going to be really cool.” 

Jaguars’ 1999 letdown proved costly 

On Jan. 23, 2000, the Buccaneers and Jaguars both experienced the dejection of falling one game short of the Super Bowl. The previous week, Dolphins coach Jimmy Johnson and quarterback Dan Marino were ushered into retirement after being routed 62-7 by the Jaguars in the AFC divisional round. 

The fallout from those playoff exits proved to be a lot harder on the Jaguars. While Tampa Bay kept going back to the postseason until winning the Super Bowl three years later, and Miami returned to the playoffs the next two seasons under Dave Wannstedt, the Jaguars floundered. 

A torn right quadriceps injury to right tackle Leon Searcy in 2000 training camp shelved him the entire season and proved to be the end of his career. Then came salary cap troubles, forcing head coach Tom Coughlin to expose Hall of Fame left tackle Tony Boselli to the 2002 expansion draft for the Houston Texans. 

Whatever Super Bowl window the Jaguars had came undone with post-1999 seasons of 7-9, 6-10 and 6-10, ultimately costing Coughlin his job. 

Tight end Kyle Brady, one of three expensive free agents brought in prior to the ‘99 season, stayed around long enough to see the Jaguars return to the playoffs as a wild-card in 2005. But the opportunity lost from that 33-14 loss at home to the Titans in the AFC Championship game was a dark cloud that hovered over the franchise far too long. 

“In 2000, we had the core of that ‘99 team returning and could have easily been a playoff season,” Brady said. “They appeared to be on a winning trend for some time. But some tough injuries and salary cap trouble caught up to us.” 

Miami was respectable for three years after Marino retired, but not good enough to be a Super Bowl contender. Only the Buccaneers, relying on the stout defense built during the Dungy years around Hall of Famers Warren Sapp, Derrick Brooks and John Lynch, would hoist a Lombardi trophy in Gruden’s first season. 

The Bucs nearly upset the St. Louis Rams and the “Greatest Show on Turf” team in the ‘99 NFC Championship, losing 11-6 on the road. It set a winning tone that Dungy suspected would ultimately pay off, even if his replacement was the one who reaped the benefits. 

“What people don’t understand is everything has to go perfectly [to win a Super Bowl] and then you got to start all over and do it again,” said Dungy. “We had injuries at both offensive tackle positions [Paul Gruber, Jason Odom] that really hurt us in the [1999] playoffs. 

“I thought what he had was the beginning of a good run. We had a good defense that was going to grow and we should be good for a long time, and we were.” 

Over two decades later, three Florida NFL teams are finally back in the playoffs at the same time, each going through long stretches without reaching the postseason. 

Now it’s a question of whether the Jaguars, Dolphins and Bucs can be more than a one-hit wonder. Who has the roster makeup, the right quarterback and organizational structure in place to continue being a playoff team and a Super Bowl contender in the coming years? 

Right now, it looks like the Jaguars are the best bet. 

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