At the very least, marginal improvement was expected from the Jaguars this season from the previous one, when they won just three games.
After all, Doug Pederson was coming in, bringing coaching stability after a chaotic 2021. His offensive-minded philosophy could help Trevor Lawrence. And the 2021 No. 1 overall pick had a year under his belt, too. Naturally, he should make strides from a rookie season in which he threw a league-high 17 interceptions.
But what the Jaguars are doing right now? They’re ahead of schedule.
At 2-6 through eight weeks, what was most promising about the Jaguars was their outlook for 2023 and beyond — with Lawrence being more experienced in Pederson’s offense, and next season’s addition of star receiver Calvin Ridley. But forget all of that right now. Jacksonville (7-8) is already raising eyebrows this season, playing meaningful football late in December.
The Jaguars, who’ve won three straight and five of their last seven games, can secure the AFC South with a victory over the Titans (7-8) in Week 18, and also have an outside shot at a wild-card spot. Pederson is worthy of Coach of the Year consideration for Jacksonville’s drastic turnaround.
“We can’t act like we’ve arrived though, because we still haven’t clinched anything,” Lawrence said.
But the conversation is worth having: How did we get here?
Start with Lawrence’s ascension.
His 2022 campaign started much like his rookie season, filled with inconsistency and turnovers. He had 10 giveaways — four lost fumbles and six interceptions — in the first eight weeks of the season. His struggles against the Broncos in London on Oct. 30, he explained, “flipped a switch” for him. Lawrence felt terrible, and responsible for the loss. He threw two interceptions in the game — one at the goal line and another under two minutes left that ended Jacksonville’s hopes for a comeback.
“I’ll never forget how I felt in that locker room after the game,” Lawrence said Dec. 14. “Obviously, it wasn’t a good day for me, and I really just felt like that a couple times, but none more than after that game. I felt like I let the team down. … I never forgot how I felt in that locker room because I never don’t want to feel like this anymore. I’m going to start taking care of the ball, but two, I just want to be the player that I know I can be, and I think that kind of flipped a switch in me.”
Since then, he’s been a different player, performing like a franchise quarterback.
Since Week 9, Lawrence ranks third in the NFL in completion percentage (69.7%), tied for first in touchdown-to-interception ratio (14/1), second in passer rating (108.2) and tied for third in EPA per dropback (0.22), according to TruMedia. He had signature moments in the dramatic Week 12 win over the Ravens (game-winning drive) and the stunning overtime victory over the Cowboys in Week 14 (career-high four touchdown passes).
Lawrence’s passer rating is 96 this season, up from 71.9 as a rookie. The 24.1-point increase from Years 1 to 2 is the largest of any quarterback in league history, according to NFL Research.
Lawrence’s eye-popping growth, coupled with his comfort in Pederson’s offense, has taken the Jaguars’ offense to new heights.
But Jacksonville’s 2022 free-agent class also deserves a lot of credit. Many NFL observers were scratching their head when general manager Trent Baalke committed $259.5 million, including $155.25 million in guarantees, on seven players: receiver Christian Kirk (four years, $72 million; $37 million in guarantees), right guard Brandon Scherff (three years, $49.5 million; $30 million in guarantees), linebacker Foye Oluokun (three years, $45 million; $28 million in guarantees), defensive tackle Foley Fatukasi (three years, $30 million; $20 million in guarantees), cornerback Darious Williams (three years, $30 million; 18 million in guarantees), receiver Zay Jones (three years, $24 million; $14 million in guarantees) and tight end Evan Engram (one year, $9 million; $8.25 million in guarantees). But each of those seven players have been productive starters for the Jaguars.
Kirk, who has a career-high 988 receiving yards, is 12 yards away from becoming Jacksonville’s first 1,000-yard receiver since 2019. Engram is having one of the pass-catching seasons for a tight end in team history, with his 68 receptions and counting a franchise record at the position. Scherff has started every game at right guard. Oluokun leads the NFL in combined (162) and solo tackles (115). Jones has been a productive No. 2 receiver, with a career-high 778 receiving yards. Williams and Fatukasi have both started at least 10 games.
Defensively, a knack for generating turnovers has helped fuel the Jaguars’ hot streak. Since Week 9, Jacksonville has 14 takeaways, which ranks third in the NFL in that span. It starts with getting after the quarterback.
The team has a 35% pressure per dropback since Week 9, third in the NFL in that span, per Next Gen Stats.
“I think defensively, the coaches have kind of put them in positions to just free up and rush and jet up the field in passing situations,” Pederson said.
If the Jaguars reach the playoffs, they could be one of the most dangerous teams on the AFC side of the bracket — with a franchise quarterback who’s finally found himself, surrounded by a strong supporting cast.
The 2022 Jaguars, in many ways, are the team no one expected.
“We have two games left (in the regular season) to continue to prove who we are and put one foot in front of the next and keep stacking these games,” Lawrence said. “We can’t look too far ahead and say this is the team we are now. We have to do it every week.
“Really for us, it’s about being consistent, continuing to do this (against Houston),” he continued. “Great teams win these games. Games that you’ve got to win, you win them. What we’re trying to become is a great team.”
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Ben Arthur is the AFC South reporter for FOX Sports. He previously worked for The Tennessean/USA TODAY Network, where he was the Titans beat writer for a year and a half. He covered the Seattle Seahawks for SeattlePI.com for three seasons (2018-20) prior to moving to Tennessee. You can follow Ben on Twitter at @benyarthur.
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