JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – The videoboard is large and dazzling. The new practice facility is coming together. The amphitheater attached to the stadium is holding big-name concerts. And of course the poolside cabanas are a gameday draw for bros and bikinis.
To walk around Everbank Field these days is to wonder: Imagine how things would be for the Jacksonville Jaguars franchise if it actually won games?
In an extended sit-down interview with owner Shad Khan in August, the owner was asked what he has learned in the first five years of his tenure at the helm of what has been the NFL’s forgotten franchise.
“Winning is hard,” he said with a sheepish grin.
“When I came in, we needed to work on business and we needed to work on football,” Khan continued. “We have talent and now we have to win on the field. That is the missing piece.”
Sunday’s upset win in Houston, a 29-7 blowout against the emotionally-charged Texans, was finally a glimmer that the worst may be over for the Jags. First-round pick Leonard Fournette ran for 100 yards and a touchdown, and left-for-dead quarterback Blake Bortles threw zero interceptions. Can this be sustained for more than one game? And what effect might that have for a city that Khan wants to turn into a global destination.
“We got everything here to win now,” Khan said. And by “win” he means on the field and in the region.
Khan became a billionaire in part because of his optimism and big thinking, turning a bumpers startup into a major player in the auto industry. He took the same approach to the Jags, looking at a football scrap heap and seeing a gleaming Mustang.
“Our approach was we want to value the fans we have here,” he said. “We want to earn their trust and earn their support.”
That has not been easy. The Jaguars have lost 11 or more games in each season since 2007 except two: in 2009 and 2010, when they lost nine and eight games. Put another way: the last time the Jags were any good, their leading rusher was Fred Taylor. His son has since been drafted.
But Khan had a plan and it involved more than football.
Jacksonville has cool neighborhoods and gorgeous beaches but no iconic center. It’s very spread out and connected downtown by bridges, which makes it more challenging to offer a central destination. This is part of why visitors were frustrated with its Super Bowl turn in 2005. Khan wanted to do three things: improve the game day experience, diversify the stadium scene and eventually develop the waterfront. He’s two-thirds of the way there, and the biggest step is last.
“We have a great opportunity to reshape downtown and the St. Johns River,” says Jacksonville Chamber of Commerce CEO Daniel Davis. “I think over next five years it will be transformational for downtown. The Jags are very intent on seeing high-quality, world-class development on the river and the shipyards. Without a great downtown it’s hard to have a great city.”
It sounds like ad copy but it’s earnest and Khan believes it, too. He’s invested a lot of his own money, including $45 million to split the cost of the amphitheater with the city.
“We get one shot at this, as Shad would say, and we want it done right,” Davis said.
It has been done right so far, but it’s hard to argue the same for the team. The Gus Bradley experiment failed, and that setback was doubled by a string of poor drafts. For years there has been no present and no apparent future. It looked especially bleak last month, as Bortles seemed to be on the brink of being cut and Chad Henne couldn’t win his starting job.
But on defense, the influx of talent might be close to pivoting into results. Myles Jack had 14 tackles on Sunday in Houston, Dante Fowler returned a fumble for a score, and free-agent pickup Calais Campbell had four sacks. New coach Doug Marrone and executive vice president Tom Coughlin won’t be flashy, but mistakes might be reduced significantly.
“I think we’re there, frankly,” Khan said of the roster. “Talent-wise we have a competitive squad. The next thing is football leadership.”
Over the span of Khan’s term as owner, the team really hasn’t had a superstar or much of a football tale to tell. If that changes, there could be dividends on two continents. The London series – which starts Sept. 24 when the Jaguars face the Baltimore Ravens, a contest that will be streamed live on Yahoo Sports – has worked financially but it hasn’t been must-see sport yet. And the Jags have been more entertaining as an overall day-at-the-stadium in Duval County but not as a football attraction. Winning could theoretically bring in an entirely new generation of fans in both cities.
It’s a big if, but an if with a big payoff: If Khan successfully changes a city center and a football culture, it would be a feat that would set him apart even in the rare air of billionaires.
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