After years of wondering and worrying, recent and disturbing word came out from the developer of the new NFL-ready stadium in Los Angeles - their group is targeting the Jaguars as one of the top two teams to move to the City of Angels. In response, Jacksonville and its NFL team are in a complete PR overhaul. They have even revived "Touchdown Jacksonville" which they used to land the NFL team in the first place, as a way to spur ticket sales.
We give the Jaguars credit for at least realizing that they need to start over especially with a potential move to Los Angeles looming, but the questions remain. How did a football-hungry town like Jacksonville fail so miserably? How did it all go so wrong so quickly?
As the Jags approach their 15th anniversary season in Jacksonville, the answer comes from the main issue we've hammered owner Wayne Weaver about for the past few years. Weaver has yet to fully understand that he is competing with SEC football, not NFL football when it comes to winning over the fans in Jacksonville and his region at large.
Tampa Bay under former GM Rich McKay understood this as they drafted known players from Miami, FSU, and UF. Many of these players (Warren Sapp, Derrick Brooks, Warrick Dunn) became the face of the Bucs franchise that ended up winning a Super Bowl under Jon Gruden.
Jacksonville had a chance to do the same when Steve Spurrier was first available to NFL teams. Instead, the Jags hired Jack Del Rio to replace Tom Coughlin. Although many point to Spurrier's less than stellar record with the Washington Redskins as evidence that Weaver made the right call, SPF begs to differ.
Spurrier, going straight from the Gators to the Jags would have captured the fancy of football fans all around Florida. After his time with Washington and now with South Carolina, neither of which has been groundbreaking, people forget that Spurrier was a folk hero in Florida. His presence on the Jags sideline would have been gold for viewership and media interest.
Unfortunately the Jaguars, who had real success under coach Tom Coughlin (both on the field and off), have been saddled with an uninspiring presence on the sideline in Jack Del Rio.
Del Rio has been the definition of mediocrity with a 57-55 record and two playoff appearances in his seven seasons in Jacksonville. Worse than his record, Del Rio's mundane style of coaching has sucked the football life out of the Jags' fans in Jacksonville. Few teams are as uninspiring to watch as the Jags have been under Del Rio.
Unfortunately, Wayne Weaver jumped the gun a couple of seasons ago and gave Del Rio a huge contract extension worth $5 mil a year. With all of the Jags noted financial problems largely created by the lack of interest in the team (Mr Weaver, are you seeing a connection?), Weaver has chosen to ride it out with Del Rio - even giving him what amounts to a second chance to rebuild the Jags after failing to do it right the first time.
Last week, in a brief moment of hope, it looked like USC might take Del Rio off the Jaguars' hands. Instead, Del Rio either decided that he'd rather collect the $15 million remaining on his contract or USC decided that he wasn't the right guy for them. Either way, the Jags will feel the pain of Del Rio's continuing presence.
In keeping Del Rio to save his $15 mil, Weaver has made a mistake that many owners in the Swampland Footprint have made (Rich DeVos of the Orlando Magic, Wayne Huizenga of the Miami Dolphins, and the Glazer family of the Tampa Bay Bucs). They assume that being the only pro team in town allows them a pass to put mediocre teams on the field. They also assume that fans understand their "small market" economic challenges. This is just not so.
Take a look at the coaches of the SEC. Almost every school has either a personality on the sidelines or a proven winner or both. While not a horrible coach, Del Rio is neither a personality or a proven winner as a coach. There's a reason SEC schools like Auburn and Tennessee ate millions of dollars in coaching contracts to get rid of unpopular coaches like Tommy Tuberville, Phil Fulmer, and Mike Shula. These schools realized that keeping them on the sidelines would do more long term financial harm than paying them off to go away.
Del Rio isn't popular, and he never really will be unless the Jags win a Super Bowl next year. Sam Kouvaris of Channel 4 in Jacksonville explains:
One thing that has come out of this [supposed interest by USC in Del Rio]: Jack’s not real popular among the Jaguars fan base.
Although I’ve been saying it for a while, his personality hasn’t grabbed anybody’s attention or sold any tickets. He’ll be tolerated if he wins, but nobody’s rushing down to the stadium to see Jack coach.
Perhaps the shame of it is that it’s so easy for any coach to be a superstar in this town. They just have to be a part of this town as well.
Weaver is trying to spin this the best he can, but it looks to everyone like he kept Del Rio because he didn't want to eat the $15 mil on his contract. Take a moment to watch his explanation of retaining Del Rio:
Weaver says that the meeting between him and Del Rio was “probably the most extensive review we’ve had of the organization,” but he couldn't give specifics as to what difference this would make on the field. He says that "he believes in Jack," but what difference does that make if your fans don't care any more. Weaver continues:
“I came away from that meeting [thinking that] Jack [Del Rio] is committed to doing the things that I’ve laid out that we have to do, in my opinion, to bring this football team to an elite level.... I’ve made the best decision for the franchise. And, no, average is not acceptable.”
As Travis Hill points out his blog - Jack Del Rio has become the definition of average.
The timing of reaffirming Del Rio as the coach couldn't be worse. It comes on the heels of the Jaguars new ticket sales effort that has been coordinated with city leaders. The Jaguars lost an astonishing number of season tickets between the 2008 and 2009 seasons. Later that same night that Del Rio's return in 2010 was announced by Weaver, the team held a rally with Jacksonville's mayor, former Jag Tony Boselli, and Weaver. Del Rio didn't show. This is just one more example of how Del Rio just doesn't get it.
We agree with Gene Frenette - Jacksonville needs to keep the Jaguars. The problem is that as long as Del Rio is the face of the franchise, Wayne Weaver has basically hobbled any PR effort for 2010 before it can get started.
(As a final note, we encourage everyone to help keep the Jaguars in Jacksonville. Follow this link to the Facebook page for Team Jacksonville.)