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Don’t Look Now, but the Jaguars Are Exciting

We’re not quite ready to call Jacksonville good, but the team appears to have a promising future

Jaguars running back Leonard Fournette runs the ball against the Houston Texans Shanna Lockwood-USA TODAY Sports

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Let’s forget, just for a little while, that Jaguars wide receiver Allen Robinson tore his ACL and is done for the year. Let’s push aside the fact that Blake Bortles is still the team’s quarterback. And let’s forget that strange things happen in Week 1 every season. Instead, let’s allow fans in Jacksonville—and fans everywhere who just enjoy good football—to bask in the afterglow of an exciting Jaguars game. It may end up a fleeting moment, but at least on Sunday, Jacksonville was something it hasn’t come anywhere close to being in recent memory: fun to watch.

The Jaguars have a winning record for the first time since September 2011, and after blowing out the Texans 29-7 and watching the Titans and Colts both lose, the team sits alone atop the AFC South.

Over the past three or four years, the Jaguars have been defined by a spectacular, extraordinary inability to see a return on their investments. By the end of last season, you would’ve been hard-pressed to find many fans who still trusted the process in Jacksonville when the team fell flat after spending nearly $180 million in free agency. They’d brought in defensive tackle Malik Jackson, safety Tashaun Gipson, and running back Chris Ivory, and put together what was all but unanimously regarded as one of the best draft classes in the league, adding cornerback Jalen Ramsey, linebacker Myles Jack, and pass rusher Yannick Ngakoue—a series of big moves that translated to a net gain of … negative-two wins.

After a 3-13 year, head coach Gus Bradley was fired, Doug Marrone replaced him, and the team hired Tom Coughlin as executive vice president of football operations. Undeterred and still flush with cap space, Jacksonville went right back to the free-agency well this offseason, spending another $157 million in contract worth on cornerback A.J. Bouye, pass rusher Calais Campbell, safety Barry Church, and linebacker Lerentee McCray before adding running back Leonard Fournette, tackle Cam Robinson, and a handful of others in the draft. But while they’d put together what looked to be, on paper at least, one of the most talented defensive groups in the league and given the offense a new, theoretically foundational player in Fournette, it was easy to remain skeptical that a breakout season was on the way. Bortles, who has been one of the biggest impediments to success over the last few years, was still under center, and based on recent history, the Jaguars would find a way to squander all that defensive talent. Right?

Well, there’s still plenty of time for that to happen. But on Sunday, the Jaguars looked like a team that had finally taken a big step forward. It started up front on defense, where Campbell looked like a capstone piece, the catalyst that makes everything work together. The former Cardinal finished his first game as a Jaguar with a franchise-record four sacks, slicing through Houston’s offensive line to knock down quarterback Tom Savage again and again (then, after Savage had been benched, Deshaun Watson, too). Campbell created havoc, pushing opposing linemen right back into the pocket …

GIF of pass rusher Calais Campbell pushing opposing linemen into the pocket

… or shedding blocks to get into the backfield.

GIF of Campbell shedding blocks

And when it wasn’t Campbell bringing the heat, the Jaguars’ other pass rushers stepped in. Jackson registered a sack of his own, Dante Fowler added another, and Ngakoue contributed another two, one a strip-sack that was returned for a touchdown. Jacksonville overwhelmed the Texans’ line to the tune of 10 sacks—another franchise record and a mark no team had eclipsed in a single game since 2012.

But it wasn’t just the Jaguars’ front line that dominated—every level of the defense, and importantly, the guys the team has recently spent big money or top draft picks on, showed up to play. Jack finished with 14 tackles, Ramsey played tight coverage and registered three passes defensed, and Gipson grabbed an interception. We can add a few offensive players to that list, too. Fournette looked like the game-changer that the Jags envisioned him being when they took him fourth overall in April. The former LSU star became the first Jacksonville back to hit 100 yards rushing in his first game, as he finished with 100 yards and a touchdown on 26 totes while adding 26 yards on three catches.

Fournette’s numbers look good, sure, but the style in which he ran is the real reason he has a chance to completely change the Jaguars’ offense. The 6-foot, 240-pound running back didn’t take long to deliver his first truck-stick highlight run, barrelling through Texans cornerback Kevin Johnson on his second rushing attempt as a pro …

GIF of Leonard Fournette running the ball against Texans cornerback Kevin Johnson

… before doing the same to safety Andre Hal later in the first quarter.

The Jags must have been encouraged, too, to see Robinson, the team’s new left tackle, hold his own in his debut against a top-flight defensive line that features J.J. Watt, Jadeveon Clowney, and Whitney Mercilus. Houston failed to sack Bortles, and registered just two quarterback hits.

Sure, there’s a good chance that this is all a mirage. The defense dominated what has been, for a few years running, one of the league’s worst offenses. And the Jacksonville offense, while impressive in some areas, netted just 280 yards and 4.7 yards per play—which is actually worse than their season average of 5.1 yards per play last year.

But none of that matters at the moment. In addition to being fun for the first time in as long as we can remember, the Jaguars seemed to accomplish what they had set out to do two offseasons ago. That plan involved putting the finishing pieces on a good defense to turn it into a dominant one, and so far, it seems to have worked: Jacksonville's defense created four turnovers and a touchdown on Sunday and limited the Texans to a pathetic 2.9 yards per play. With that type of performance, you might not even need an offense—but the Jags had one on Sunday, albeit very different in style from last year. The new offensive game plan played out exactly how the team had planned: Fournette was the focal point of the offense, taking the ball out of turnover machine Bortles’s hands and asking him to merely manage the game. Bortles finished with just 21 pass attempts (he averaged 39 per game last year), completing 11 for 125 yards and a touchdown for a respectable 86.4 passer rating. The plan is working. At least as long as it’s Week 1.

An earlier version of this story incorrectly described Gipson’s interception as a pick-six; it was just a long return.