There’s a good chance I may regret writing this article. It’s potentially inflammatory, loaded with speculation, and fairly blunt. Despite this it is an article that has to be written, especially since I feel that if this problem isn’t fixed the Jacksonville Jaguars could very well be the next franchise stolen away from it’s hometown (Poor Thunder/Sonics. There will be more about them over the summer when there is much less to write about). I also want to state (so there is ABSOLUTELY NO CONFUSION) that I am not talking about every individual Jags fan, but the Jacksonville, Florida fan-base as a whole. I do believe that Jaguars fans truly love the team they root for. Still…
The problem with Jacksonville Jaguars fans is that, by nature, they are college football fans.
At first glance this doesn’t seem like that big of a deal. If anything, it should be beneficial. The city is full of fans who love the sport of football and understand the ins and out’s of it. Before the creation of the Jacksonville Jaguars the city had already been hosting countless Florida/Georgia rivalry games (masquerading as a “neutral site” despite being vastly pro Gator, at least in my experience) so the locals had gotten a yearly chance to watch a live game in their own backyard. Since college fans are inherently passionate to a higher degree than most, Jacksonville seemed like a great city to build a new franchise and expanding the NFL to 30 teams (too many teams for any American pro sport in my opinion, but I can write about that another time).
Unfortunately, the NFL (and everyone else) forgot one crucial point here: college football is NOT NFL football. The difference between a terrible college team one year and great college team the next is one or two five-star prospects. The difference between a terrible NFL team and a great NFL team is a three to four year rebuilding process with a couple of bad years in the middle.
Football fans in Jacksonville have seen bad teams before (Pre-1990′s, the Gators had a knack for “snatching defeat from the jaws of victory”), but from year to year the expectation is that the team will be good, because that’s the way the college system works. Also, once a team becomes good in college, they stay that way. FSU was good for 20 years under Bobby Bowden and Florida hasn’t had a losing season in my lifetime. The closest they came was 6-6 in 1987 when they lost in a bowl game. No NFL team can compete with that type of success. In the NFL, each game is a challenge, and there are some times when your team will be just plain bad.
Strangely enough, the Jaguars, who played their first NFL game in 1995, found quick success, playing (and losing) in two AFC championships in 1996 and 1999. That’s only 1 year after playing their debut and they came within one game of the Super Bowl. Twice. While many Jaguars fans I know fondly remember those great years with Mark Brunell and Tom Coughlin, this great run was the worst possible thing that could have happened to the young franchise.
Don’t get me wrong. In the short run, this success was great, especially financially. The city was ecstatic and it became cool to wear Jags gear. Every game was sold out in what was (and still is) one of the largest NFL stadiums ever built (76,867 originally… let’s call this the “pre-tarp” era). The problem is that the fan-base was full of people expecting quick success and they got it. These former college fans, not knowing the intricacies of the NFL, began to expect greatness on a consistent basis. Not only that, but when the team began to slide they were ready for another quick breakthrough that never came. The Jaguars were suddenly like every other team in the NFL and required time to grow and get better.
The fans didn’t understand this and began looking for someone or something to blame. That quickly became coach Tom Coughlin (who has since won a Super Bowl with an arguably less talented team). He was fired after coaching a Jaguars team that he stated had “less talent than the [inaugeral] 1995 team” to a 6-10 record in 2002. Wayne Weaver, the Jaguars’ owner, hired Jack Del Rio, and tried to change the whole team’s identity, drafting Byron Leftwich immediately after hiring his new coach. Management did not go with Coughlin’s guy, David Garrard, who I see as a much better talent. They did go back to Garrard years later (much to the dismay of some Jaguars fans), but by then Garrard’s growth as a player had been severely stunted, effectively lowering his ceiling.
When the team didn’t improve right away the fans stopped showing up, leading to TV blackouts. To combat this the organization draped tarp over nearly a thousand seats, lowering the capacity to 67,164. This begins the “post-tarp era” which hasn’t ended, despite two playoff seasons and only 3 losing seasons (one game away from .500 in two of those) during Del Rio’s reign.
If the Jaguars find success again I’m sure the fans will show up (they did in each of the Jaguars the playoff seasons) but if the team doesn’t stay great (as no team does) who’s to say they won’t just stop buying tickets all over again? To correct this issue, the fanbase needs to be educated. They have to learn that no team becomes great overnight and few stay great for a long time. Not every franchise can be the Patriots, Colts, and Steelers.
One upsetting side-effect of this fan-base is how it has influenced the front office’s decisions over the years. For most of the last decade the Jaguars were in a constant state of flux, making drastic moves every year in attempts to get good quickly, never really allowing a true team to gel (as evidenced by the Leftwich/Garrard debacle). Furthermore, the management began making fan pleasing moves to sell tickets which rarely payed off, such as drafting Florida safety Reggie Nelson back in 2007, who proved to be a fairly ineffective defender and tackler in his 3 seasons with Jacksonville. The future is looking brighter, however, as this trend is beginning to change and those in charge of the Jags are showing signs they have been learning (for instance they did not sign Tim Tebow to please the Gator fan-base in Jacksonville).
This type of fan-base isn’t exclusive to the Jaguars, or even to football (the best example would be the Florida Marlins, who make multiple changes every year and hope they can catch lightning in a bottle again after pulling it off twice), but it is the most detrimental to the still young Jacksonville franchise. If the fans aren’t careful they may lose their team. They need to learn how to appreciate the time it takes to build a successful NFL team and support it as they do so, not just when they have a chance at the playoffs. If they can grow as fans, then the team can continue to grow in north Florida. If not, well, Los Angeles may have just found it’s new team*.
*Or Las Vegas. I’m sure the NFL (like me) would love to see a Super Bowl held in Vegas, but the rules state that the hosting city and stadium must have a current NFL franchise tied to them. I wouldn’t be surprised to see a team move there at all.