Most things that could have gone badly for the Jaguars this offseason seemed to have done so. They traded one of their most effective defenders, Calais Campbell, to the Ravens in a salary dump, receiving a 2020 fifth-round draft pick in return. Pass rusher Yannick Ngakoue was traded to the Vikings after a lengthy feud with the front office; Ngakoue wanted out so badly that he took a nearly $6 million pay cut to make the trade possible. The Jaguars couldn’t find a trade partner for running back Leonard Fournette and wound up releasing their 2017 first-round draft pick weeks before the season started, which was another step in the total dismantling of the 2017 team that went to the AFC championship game. Across the country, Rams cornerback Jalen Ramsey, another former Jacksonville first-round pick, went house hunting on Hard Knocks. It wasn’t just that the Jaguars were losing talent; it was that the talent seemed so desperate to leave.
The departures and the dysfunction, plus a roster featuring 16 rookies, meant that the Jaguars opened the season with some of the lowest expectations in the league. Then, they started playing. Jacksonville started the season with an upset win against the Colts in which Gardner Minshew became the fourth quarterback in history to throw three touchdowns and at least 20 passes and finish with a 95 percent completion. In Week 2, the Jaguars went down to the wire in a loss to the Titans in which their offense collected 480 total yards. Rookies like wide receiver Laviska Shenault Jr. and cornerback C.J. Henderson are playing well, Minshew Mania is widespread, and the rest of the schedule is forgiving. In a surprising early-season development to some (hand raised here), Jacksonville looks too good to tank.
The best single reason for Jacksonville’s solid start is the relationship between Minshew and new offensive coordinator Jay Gruden.
“We’re coaches. We’re not very nice. We’re going to find something to be critical about. We can’t tell him he was perfect. Otherwise, he’ll get a big head,” Gruden said last week. “But as far as the first game with me, and me getting to know him, I was very impressed with the way he played.”
Gruden, who was fired last season after almost six seasons as the head coach in Washington, was hired by Jacksonville in January. It didn’t take long before he started to put a clear stamp on the offense. In free agency, the Jaguars signed veteran tight end Tyler Eifert, who Gruden coached in Cincinnati, and pass-catching running back Chris Thompson, who he coached in Washington. Gruden’s offense uses motion and play-action to give quarterbacks easy reads. It’s helped the likes of Andy Dalton and Kirk Cousins excel in past seasons. Minshew, a sixth-round draft pick in 2019, doesn’t have the size or the arm strength of many NFL starting quarterbacks, but he has a solid fundamental skill set. He’s accurate—he currently has the league’s third-best completion percentage above expectation, according to Next Gen Stats—and has good footwork, two qualities that help a former quarterback like Gruden trust a passer to execute plays the way he draws them up. Minshew is also more than willing to let go of a deep ball—he led the NFL in passer rating on deep targets in 2019, according to Pro Football Focus, and didn’t have a single turnover-worthy play on 49 such throws—which is also a good fit for Gruden’s scheme.
“He’s great,” Minshew said of Gruden. “He’s going to put us in a situation to win. We’ve had a lot of guys around the offense get the ball, step up, make plays with the ball in their hands. We’re very excited to have Coach Gruden and just to build on the things we’ve done well so far.”
Those traits—accuracy and a willingness to throw downfield—are important to Gruden, who’s had most of the success in his career doing more with less. Several years ago, I had a conversation with Jon Gruden when he was on Monday Night Football in which he told me that his brother Jay was responsible for the deep passing game when they coached together in Tampa. He told me Jay was especially creative working angles down the field for an unusual reason: He started his coaching career in the Arena Football League, where teams played in arenas that didn’t have the sideline space NFL fields have. Because of that setup, a receiver running in a straight line into the end zone was likely to go crashing into the boards, hockey-style. Go routes were often off the table.
That was no longer the case once Gruden got to the NFL, but he’d developed an understanding of how to get leverage without relying on an overwhelming amount of talent that could simply win one-on-one matchups. He was crafty. That helped him later get good seasons out of Dalton and Cousins and is so far helping him with Minshew.
Incorporating motion, which the Jags did 40 percent of the time in Week 1, and play-action has already helped Minshew, who can use his accuracy and processing ability to take advantage of those easy reads when they’re given to him. The Jaguars used play-action less than any other offense except the Steelers’ last season despite having the second-largest gap in DVOA between play-action and non-play-action passes (8.8 yards per pass with play-action, 5.7 yards per pass without) according to Football Outsiders. They made the least-frequent use of motion in the NFL last season, running it 21 percent of the time.
If Minshew is put into playmaking situations, then there’s plenty of offensive talent for him to work with, especially Shenault. So far, he is one of three players in the NFL this season to line up out wide, in the slot, in the backfield, and at quarterback, and has been effective enough as a positionless gadget player that Sean Payton is probably thinking up ways to pay him $20 million. Wide receiver DJ Chark is averaging 15.6 yards per catch, and rookie running back James Robinson is gaining 5.1 yards per carry as the primary replacement for Fournette.
“The thing I’m most pleased with is the effort these guys play with. And they play physical everywhere. We’re spreading the wealth around,” Gruden said Tuesday. “A lot of people are touching [the ball].
“I think there’s a great upside because of that for this season.”
Minshew has a strong enough foundation that it’s a decent bet that the offense will stay productive, but it’s too soon to know where that sends the Jaguars overall. They know the miserable middle of the NFL too well already—they paid Nick Foles $50 million in guaranteed money last offseason, went 6-10, and traded him to the Bears in March—and it’s hard to say if something like an 8-8 finish would do anything but slow down a rebuild.
If they exhibit any baseline level of competence, the Jaguars are incredibly easy to root for. Dolphins quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick, whose team plays Jacksonville on Thursday Night Football, billed the game as a battle of facial hair strategies between his beard and Minshew’s mustache. Fitzpatrick said on Tuesday that he thinks “the beard is cooler. Guys that grow mustaches have patchy sides.”
Minshew had a good comeback. He said he thinks his horseshoe (it’s not a handlebar, since it drops below his mouth on both sides) speaks for itself and that he’d let Fitzpatrick hold onto his opinion out of “respect for my elders, especially when they’re much, much elder.”
Charming and successful are not the same. The 2017 Jaguars had personality in spades, but falling in love with Blake Bortles did not make him a franchise quarterback. The future is still uncertain in Jacksonville, but with Minshew and Gruden, the present looks better than expected.