Jacksonville's Offense: The Feel-Good Story of the Year

How the Jaguars warmed the hearts of a nation by fighting their way out of the NFL's basement.

It’s the classic storybook plot line.

The scrappy underdog with virtues and morals is set back and broken down, mocked and disrespected by peers and seemingly cast away, not thought of any longer.

But then, the work begins. “Gonna Fly Now” comes on and a montage ensues. Working hard, stumbling along the way, but showing signs of progress as the hero ascends from the depths to the top of the charts.

Right now, one NFL team is in the middle of that montage, and it’s the Jacksonville Jaguars. And while they’re not quite ready to take down any heavyweight champions of the world, they’re definitely not to be ignored.

The Jaguars have won four of their last five games, and have moved out of the “top of the draft order” spotlight, allowing division-mate Houston to absorb all of the glares and jabs that come with being the worst team in the NFL.

So what have the Jaguars done to quickly ascend from winless bottom-feeders to a relatively competitive football team? Let’s take a look inside the numbers, and chart their ascent from the bottom of the league to the middle of the pack.

The Offense Was Once Hopeless

The Jaguars opened up the season against the “yet-to-be-fully-recognized-as-amazing” Kansas City defense, and the team was only able to score on defense with a safety. After that 28-2 thrashing, numberFire’s advanced metrics weren’t very kind to the Jags.

Here at numberFire, we use Net Expected Points data to determine the effectiveness and efficiency of teams and plays. NEP determines the amount of expected points that players earn or lose based on their actions. For more information on NEP, head over to our glossary by clicking here.

And after the first game of the season, no team had a worse Offensive NEP than the Jaguars. By a very large margin.

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Cleveland Browns had the next two worst offensive days in Week 1, and posted Offensive NEP numbers in the -10 to -11 range. The Jaguars? They posted a -29.83, thanks to some costly turnovers.

The actions of the Jaguars’ offense were openly destructive to their team’s chances of winning in Week 1.

I’m sure head coach Gus Bradley didn’t expect much out of his players against a Kansas City defense he knew to be very good. But a disappointing performance against the poor Oakland defense in Week 2 and the even worse (according to numberFire’s team rankings) Indianapolis defense in Week 4 must have been a disappointment for the man in charge of the Jags.

But then, things slowly started to turn around, but not before a change was made…

Blaine Gabbert is Awful at Football

I’m sure Blaine Gabbert is a really nice guy.

I honestly do dislike writing articles that so directly slam a professional athlete’s ability to do something I couldn’t dream of doing.

But I can’t sugarcoat it. Blaine Gabbert was stomping on the Jaguars’ hopes for victory with every step of his dropbacks while playing quarterback for Jacksonville.

Gabbert took part in only 98 passes in 2013, and yet somehow, he still owns the dubious distinction of being the second-worst quarterback in terms of total Passing NEP.

The only quarterback worse is Geno Smith, who has been incredibly poor, but received nearly four times the passing plays as Gabbert. On a per play basis, Gabbert and undrafted rookie Jeff Tuel are the only passers to throw more than 30 passes and have a per-play Passing NEP worse than -.50. With each drop back, Gabbert was effectively losing half a point for the Jaguars. That's tremendously awful.

But eventually, Gabbert would be forced to the sidelines, and a change would be made at quarterback. And that would ultimately change the Jaguars’ fortunes.

The Right Chemistry and the Right Schedule

With Chad Henne under center instead of Blaine Gabbert, the Jaguar offense started to creep back towards mediocrity from it's status as "horribly bad." The addition of Justin Blackmon for a month provided a bit of a spark as well. So let's take a look at the numbers and see just how the Jacksonville offense has done with various combinations of players in the starting lineup.

Gabbert -18.68 -17.15 -3.78 -0.13 -0.20 -0.06
Henne -5.21 -2.72 -2.66 0.03 0.04 0.01
Blackmon -8.00 -3.84 -3.65 0.01 0.02 0.00
Shorts -8.46 -7.03 -2.59 -0.02 -0.03 -0.01

The first column represents the starter at the given position. The next three columns are the per-game NEP numbers (Total, Passing and Rushing) posted when that player has been the starter. The following three columns are adjusted, per-play data that accounts for strength of schedule among other factors.

So it's fairly obvious that Blaine Gabbert was waging war against the hopes for victory in Jacksonville, and his presence on the sideline has benefited the offense in a major way.

But the interesting thing to note is that with Henne under center, the Jacksonville offense has actually been positive on an adjusted, per-play basis. The combination of Henne as starting quarterback and Cecil Shorts as top receiver has produced the best results of any combination in Jacksonville, and as they've built chemistry together, they've brought the Jacksonville offense to life. In fact, if you just look when these two have been starters (Gabbert and Blackmon removed), Jacksonville's per play Adjusted NEP has been positive, as they've played above expectation.

And just as Henne and Shorts have developed rapport as the starters at their respective positions, the schedule got easier for the Jaguars. Since Justin Blackmon was suspended, the Jaguars have faced three opponents in the bottom 10 of numberFire's team rankings, and only faced one defense ranked higher than 18th (the third-ranked Cardinals, and they lost that game). Because our metrics adjust for strength of schedule, however, the Henne/Shorts combination has still outplayed expectations.

The running game has been consistently "meh" all season, with no significant change based on the player lining up under center, and the defense has stabilized after a rough stretch in the middle of the season against some very good offenses, including the Colts, Broncos and Chargers.

But it's the passing offense that has seen the biggest improvement in recent weeks, and helped propel the team towards the middle of the league. And considering the leadership in place in Jacksonville and the job they've done so far, it's not a stretch to say the ascent up the NFL rankings isn't over yet.