Let’s get one thing straight right off the bat: I am as much of a Chicago Bears fan as they come.
I am a fourth-generation season-ticket holder, and have been going to games ever since I was five years old. Navy blue and orange flows through my DNA. I’m even lucky enough to have been able to write about the team on several different media outlets. Through the good times and the bad – and trust me, there have been quite a few of the latter in recent years – I have cheered on my Bears with everything I have. I will never love any NFL team more than I love the Chicago Bears.
But if there’s one other team that could come even remotely close to the Bears, it would be this year’s Jacksonville Jaguars.
It all started in the summer of 2016. I had just joined the website cover32, and, after a month or so of covering my Bears, I was offered a managing editor position by the editor-in-chief at the time. Simply put, I was elated when I was given the offer. I had only been writing for a few months – I had my own blog before I joined the website – and now I was being offered a paid editorial role to cover the NFL.
The only problem was, the editorial spot for the Bears was already taken.
This put me in a predicament. Is this going to prevent me from covering the Bears? How am I going to be able to learn enough about another team that I can write about them with confidence? Eventually, I decided that I would give it a shot. I was given the choice to cover one of three teams: the Jaguars, the Bengals and the Lions.
Surely I could never cover the Lions. That would go against everything I stood for as a Bears fan.
It came down to the Jaguars and the Bengals. The Bengals were coming off of a 12-4 season which saw them lose in the Wild Card, in classic Cincinnati fashion. The Jaguars, on the other hand, were one season removed from a 5-11 season, marking the eighth year in a row that they had failed to obtain a winning record. However, they had also made several big moves in the offseason, including the signings of Malik Jackson, Tashaun Gipson and Chris Ivory, as well as the draft selections of players like Jalen Ramsey, Myles Jack and Yannick Ngakoue.
Jacksonville stood out to me because they were the underdog. They had been the butt of many jokes throughout the 2010’s and much of the 2000’s. This team, though, was young, scrappy, and on the rise. With that in mind, I decided to become the editor of the Jaguars page.
Much to my dismay, they went 3-13 in 2016.
I had the duty of having to cover both the Bears and the Jaguars, both of whom were among the worst teams in the league. Needless to say, I developed the ability to cover a losing team that year.
However, there’s another thing that I developed: a passion for another team. Through watching their games, interacting with their fans online and covering the team, I started to feel a connection between me and a team that I barely knew anything about the year before. Although I stepped down as the editor for the Jaguars page once the Bears editorial position became available, the Jags had made an impression on me.
That’s why I was especially happy to see them turn their franchise around this season.
Although Jacksonville’s underdog status appealed to me last year, it was their complete and utter dominance on the defensive side of the ball that impressed me this season. Whether it be their completely stacked defensive line, their talented linebacker group or their secondary, there was always something about their defense which shined almost each and every week.
Free agent signing Calais Campbell was a constant nightmare for NFL quarterbacks, tying for second in the league in sacks with 14.5. Yannick Ngakoue broke out this season, while fellow youngster Dante Fowler Jr. proved that he isn’t a bust. Veterans Malik Jackson and Marcell Dareus, the latter of whom was acquired in a trade in October, continued to shine, as well.
At the second level, linebackers Telvin Smith and Myles Jack both had very good seasons and proved that they can be starters for the Jaguars for years to come. Even Paul Posluszny, who, at 33 years old, is the oldest starter on their defense, had a solid year of his own.
Jalen Ramsey had one of the best rookie seasons that a defensive back has had in recent memory. This year, though, he got even better. Alongside free agent signing A.J. Bouye, Ramsey helped form the best cornerback duo in the NFL. Their dominance in coverage helped their defensive line pressure the quarterback as well as they did. Add in safeties Tashaun Gipson and Barry Church, as well as nickel back Aaron Colvin, and the Jaguars had arguably the most talented secondary in the league.
Even though Jacksonville’s offense wasn’t as good as their dominant defense, it still managed to surpass expectations. They faced adversity from the very beginning, as star wide receiver Allen Robinson tore his ACL in the very first game of the year. Robinson’s second-in-command, Allen Hurns, even missed six games of his own due to injury. So, for the most part, the Jaguars had to rely on younger, less-proven talent to succeed.
And succeed they did.
Marqise Lee stepped into a sizable role, leading the team in receptions and finishing in second in receiving yards. Undrafted rookie Keenan Cole, a player of whom barely anybody had heard entering the season, stepped into the spotlight and led the Jags in receiving yards with 748. Fellow rookie DeDe Westbrook, who only played in seven games this year, flashed a lot of potential. Marcedes Lewis, who was the team’s only active player to have played in the playoffs as a member of the Jaguars prior to this season, had a decent year headlined by a three-touchdown outing against the Baltimore Ravens.
Even Blake Bortles, their oft-ridiculed quarterback, had a decent year by his standards. He finished with a career-high in completion percentage, a career-low in sacks, and the second-highest passer rating behind a 2015 season that was chock full of garbage-time touchdowns. Although he wasn’t great by any means, he was not bad enough to stop them from succeeding.
The real spark behind Jacksonville’s offense this year, though, was rookie running back Leonard Fournette. Although flashier rookies like Alvin Kamara and Kareem Hunt stole the show in 2017, Fournette had a fantastic season in his own right. He finished with 1,040 rushing yards and nine touchdowns on 268 carries in his first NFL season. He even contributed as a receiver, catching 36 passes for 302 yards and a touchdown.
More important than that, though, he put the team on his back.
Alvin Kamara is surrounded by Mark Ingram and Michael Thomas. Kareem Hunt is a part of a Kansas City Chiefs offense that also features Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce. While those two may have put up prettier numbers, neither of them carried an entire offense quite like Fournette did. Without the LSU alum, the Jaguars may have very well missed the playoffs. That sounds like an exaggeration, but it truly isn’t.
From top to bottom, this Jaguars team was full of talent this year. Solidified stars continued their dominance, and young players stepped up when they were called upon.
So, yeah, the Jaguars were good this season. But why, besides the fact that I used to write about them, did this year’s Jacksonville team excite me so much?
In a quarterback-driven league like today’s NFL, it’s a breath of fresh air to see a team’s defense be the factor that carries them to success. In what seems to be every year, Tom Brady makes it into the AFC conference championship. And, almost every year, he has run into star quarterbacks like Ben Roethlisberger and Peyton Manning on his road to the Super Bowl. The idea of a team with a subpar quarterback making a deep playoff run on the wings of a dangerous ground game and a ferocious defense is an idea that we hadn’t seen before.
Not since the 2006 Chicago Bears.
Outside of the 2010 season, Bears fans haven’t had any recent playoff success to brag about. The 2006 team was the last Bears team that teams truly feared and fans truly loved. Led by defensive stalwarts Brian Urlacher, Lance Briggs and Charles Tillman, the ’06 Bears were a force to be reckoned with. Sure, their quarterback, Rex Grossman, wasn’t a star by any means, but he didn’t have to be for his team to do well. Their offense was spearheaded by a ground game led by Pro Bowler Thomas Jones. Plus, they had special teams ace Devin Hester, who put together one of the greatest seasons that a kick returner has ever had in just his first year in the league.
Bears fans remember this team fondly, especially because it was one of the most recent teams that their team has been relevant. For years, Chicagoans have had to sit off to the side, watching teams like the Patriots, Steelers, Seahawks and, even worse, the Packers, hoist up the Lombardi Trophy.
This year’s Jaguars team was the closest thing that Bears fans have had to seeing an old-school Bears team succeed in the playoffs in a long time.
Although they came up short in the AFC championship last Sunday, they proved to the world that they are no longer the laughingstock of the NFL. For overcoming the odds, fighting hard and being a tenacious group of players, the Jaguars have earned my respect.
Great season, Jacksonville Jaguars. I hope to see you playing my Bears in the Super Bowl next year.