-Jake Bowtell (@thejbse)
The Cincinnati Bengals went from worst to first from 2020 to 2021, the first team to do that in the NFL since the Chicago Bears achieved the feat from 2017 to 2018.
Which team can go from Worst to First in 2022?
Our candidates include the eight teams who finished bottom of their division in the 2021 season, which were the Baltimore Ravens, New York Jets, Jacksonville Jaguars, Denver Broncos, New York Giants, Detroit Lions, Carolina Panthers and Seattle Seahawks.
First off, we want to identify the rosters among these eight teams that have the chance to see the most improvement in a single season of football. How talented and well-coached a team is obviously plays a massive role in their ability to turn their fortunes around in a short span of time to achieve the proverbial “bounce back season” and a shot at going from worst to first.
While the obvious choices off the bat might seem like the Denver Broncos or Baltimore Ravens, with both teams widely tipped to be much improved on their 2021 showings, there are factors at play beyond those that teams can directly control. Perhaps the biggest of these is the strength of your Divisional opponents. The stronger competition around you, the harder it is to turn the tables in a single season.
Another thing to look for is the general volatility within a Division. In the AFC West, for instance, two teams (the Kansas City Chiefs and Denver Broncos) have shared the title between themselves dating way back to 2010. Over in the NFC, the East has changed hands every season for the last 17 seasons, with the Eagles the last team to repeat as Division Champions way back in 2004.
With that in mind, and having analysed all of the factors listed above, the candidate I present as the most likely to go from worst to first in 2022… is the Jacksonville Jaguars.
Why the Jaguars, I hear you ask? Let’s dive in.
The AFC South has featured a relatively high turnover rate in Division Champion since Peyton Manning departed from the Colts in 2010. Since 2011, every team in the South has won the Division Title at least once, with the Houston Texans actually having claimed the most titles in that span, with 6. While Tennessee has claimed the South the last two seasons, the Division is ripe for turnover at the top, with no team having finished as AFC South Champion 3 years in a row since those Peyton Manning Colts. What’s more, there’s first to worst precedence.
Twice in the last five seasons, a team in the AFC South has made the jump from worst to first in a single campaign. The Jacksonville Jaguars leapt from fourth to first from 2016 to 2017 en route to a run into the AFC Championship Game, while last-placed Texans in 2017 claimed the Division Title the following year in 2018. The AFC South has a certain ready-made volatility to it that allows teams to cycle up quickly if the right elements fall into place.
No-one has an iron-grip on this Division in 2022. The Titans might have repeated as champions last year, but Ryan Tannehill’s playoff implosion, and a glimpse at Derrick Henry’s mortality, leave you wondering about their ability to run it back a third time. Indianapolis under Frank Reich have had a significant talent advantage at most positions over the South, but have been unable to capitalise and seize the crown. Can new QB Matt Ryan actually give them above average play at the most important position? Finally, the Texans might have a diamond in the rough in former Stanford QB Davis Mills, but they feel at least 1-2 seasons off being any sort of contender.
In terms of their roster, Jacksonville actually has some nice talent in play at key positions on both sides of the ball.
Despite the calamity under Urban Meyer on the field in 2021, the Jaguars, in my opinion, have the future of the franchise’s most important position already locked up in second year rookie Trevor Lawrence.
There’s no doubt that Lawrence struggled more than Jags fans would have liked in his debut season, completing just 59.6% of his passes at 6.0 yards per attempt while throwing for just 12 TDs and a whopping 17 INTs as the team crashed to a 3-14 record. But a trainwreck of a rookie season doesn’t have to spell the certain end of a talented QB’s NFL career, just look at how Peyton Manning’s career began in 1998 at the Colts.
In his debut season, Manning completed 56.7% of his passes at 6.5 yards per attempt while throwing a decent 26 TDs and a disastrous 28 INTs. Of course everyone knows how his career went on to flourish, and while we’re yet to see how Lawrence responds to his first campaign, I feel confident that the player we saw dominate on some of the biggest stages in College football will find a way to produce at the pro level. The first step will be cleaning up the turnover factor.
But it’s not just the QB position that I feel good about with the Jaguars. Jacksonville actually ran the ball pretty well last season when they were put in positions to call running plays. The Jags had the 10th best yards per carry average of any team in the league last season, but they attempted to run the ball just 392 times, the 3rd fewest in the NFL. If RB duo Travis Etienne and James Robinson can see good health in 2022, I’m expecting new head coach Doug Pederson to prioritise running the football to take some of the pressure of Trevor Lawrence.
This would make sense in terms of the depth of talent in the WR room too. Despite the Jaguars adding former Cardinal Christian Kirk on a 4-year $72M deal, I don’t believe that Jacksonville has a true No. 1 receiving threat in their arsenal. There’s some serviceable options there, but I envisage them grabbing a true No. 1 next season if they get the chance via the Draft, trade or free agency.
The defense is a spot where I think Jacksonville has made significant strides in the space of one off-season. Adding two cream of the crop defensive talents in Georgia’s Travon Walker and Utah’s Devin Lloyd with their first two picks in the 2022 Draft gave the Jags an instant infusion of weaponry on that side of the ball.
Walker nabbed 7.5 tackles for loss and 6 sacks in his final season of College ball as the Georgia Bulldogs won the National Championship. Lloyd absolutely wrecked shop as his Utah Utes claimed the Pac-12 title, amassing 111 total tackles, 22 of those for loss, with 7 sacks, 6 passes defended, 4 interceptions and 2 touchdowns. To go with his on-field production, Lloyd was also named as a Consensus All-American in 2021 as well as the Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year.
The addition of both of these players has the ability to greatly increase the damage the Jaguars can do to opposing offenses, especially when you consider they will be combining forces with 2019 1st Rd edge-rusher Josh Allen who totalled 71 tackles, 12 tackles for loss and 7.5 sacks in 2021. Allen had some help on the pass rush from Duwuane Smoot last season, but Jacksonville ranked 27th out of 32 teams for sacks per game, with just 1.9 per match.
The signings of former Rams DB Darious Williams and former Falcons LB Foyesade Oluokon help add some extra pro-level experience to the defensive side of the ball down in Jacksonville, and help me to believe that Doug Pederson and his defensive coordinator Mike Caldwell can get the Jaguars to a much more competitive level on defense in 2022.
Speaking of Doug Pederson…
CONSISTENT PRO LEVEL COACHING MATTERS
The Urban Meyer “era” in Jacksonville lasted just 13 games in 2021, as the former Ohio State Buckeye kicked, groped and bungled his way out of the job. What the Jaguars of 2022 should get from new coach Doug Pederson, at the very least, is consistent, pro-level coaching. Which makes a massive difference.
Jacksonville were disorganised, disjointed, and bereft of identity and cohesion last season. I would expect a coach with Pederson’s NFL experience (over two decades as a player and a coach) and achievements (led the 2017 Eagles to victory in the Super Bowl) to drastically improve the day to day running and on-field organisation of this franchise almost immediately. Before going 4-11-1 in a messy final season in Philadelphia, Pederson had led the Eagles to a 38-26 record in four seasons with a 4-2 record in the postseason. Unlike his predecessor, Pederson knows how to manage professional athletes, which isn’t a bad place to start.
But can a new coach really take a team that struggled so badly in 2021 from first to worst?
YES… BUT THEY’LL NEED SOME HELP
As discussed at the top of this article, the Jags will need a variety of elements to align if they’re to be the team that jumps from worst to first in 2022.
They’ll need a high level of production from the key pieces on their defense, players like Travon Walker, Josh Allen and Devin Lloyd, while on offense it’ll be up to the running game to help out their less talented receiving group have opportunities to thrive by relieving some of the pressure.
Trevor Lawrence needs to limit his turnovers and play to his 1st Rd potential, the Jaguars simply cannot win if he plays anything like he did in 2021. His scores were too few, and his turnovers too numerous. That needs to be flipped on its head if Jacksonville are going to make a jump in 2022.
Finally, some things remain out of their control. If Ryan Tannehill’s postseason flame-out was an anomaly, and Derrick Henry remains healthy, the Titans will be tough to unseat, while the Colts remain primed to make a run at the AFC South title. If those two teams play to their potential, it makes Jacksonville’s road from worst to first an uphill battle.
Stranger things have happened though, and only as far back as last year. 2021 saw the Cincinnati Bengals rise up from finishing last in the AFC North in 2020, to falling just 3 points short of a Super Bowl title against the LA Rams.
The Super Bowl feels a long way off for the Jaguars in 2022. The AFC South title, however, may not be quite as far out of reach as it seems.
Jake Bowtell talks about the NFL multiple times a week on The Jake Bowtell Sports Experience. Listen wherever you get podcasts.
Feature photo: CincinnatiEnquirer