Jaguars’ run-first philosophy worked last year, but it’s still a gamble

So how did the Jacksonville Jaguars go from 3-13 to the AFC title game in one year?

The conventional wisdom is that drafting Leonard Fournette as the triggerman of their run-first offense made the difference along with their tenacious defense.

Fournette rushed for 1,040 yards and added 302 pass receiving yards while playing in just 13 games, and he did it by running against eight men in the box 49 percent of the time — the most in the NFL.  And he was more elusive than his reputation, evading 74 tackles and gaining 420 yards on those plays

The Jaguars were so enamored of their run-first offense that they doubled down on it this year, making guard Andrew Norwell the centerpiece of their free-agent class to bolster the blocking up front.

They seem ready to try the same strategy again.

But there is another narrative put forth by several observers – notably on the Walter Sharp Football site — that they would have had the same record without Fournette.

In this narrative, the offense improved because Blake Bortles played better, even though he threw fewer passes than he did the previous year. They were 21st in the league in passes thrown.

I would have drafted Deshaun Watson over Fournette, because a franchise quarterback — if Watson turns out to be one — is more valuable in a passing era than a running back. And quarterbacks tend to play twice as long as running backs

There is also concern about whether Fournette has a chronic ankle problem. He had ankle problems in his final year at LSU in 2016 and last year for the Jaguars, when he injured it in the sixth game against the Los Angeles Rams. Maybe the injuries were flukes. Maybe not.

When he came back, he averaged 3.22 yards a carry in his last seven regular season games, compared to his 3.9 average for the season.

He says he’s lost weight this offseason and is ready for a big season.

One argument that could be made on his behalf is that it is possible that teams sold out to stop the run, and that may have opened up the passing game. Besides having eight men in the box 49 percent of the time, teams also used a five-man front against him almost 17 percent of the time.

Still, I thought it would be interesting to look at the narrative that they would have had the same record with Fournette than they would have had with him.

Here are the key points:

  • The Jaguars won the three games Fournette missed (he was suspended for one game) and rushed for over 100 yards in all three. They beat the Indianapolis Colts 27-0, the Cincinnati Bengals 23-7 and the Houston Texans 45-7 without him. So they were 3-0 without Fournette and 7-6 with him. And their rushers averaged 4.3 yards a carry in the three games he missed. It could be that if you lead the league in rushing attempts, you will pile up rushing yards regardless of who the runners are.
  • His 3.9 yard average ranked 29th among the 47 running backs who carried over 100 times. And that was padded by a 75-yard run in a loss to the Rams and a 90-yard run with less than two minutes left in the victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers when the game was decided.
  • Fournette was not a big factor in playoffs, averaging just 3.5 yards a carry. Against the Buffalo Bills, he gained 54 yards and averaged 2.7 yards a carry. Against the Steelers, he had an 18-yard touchdown run on the first play after a turnover. On their other five touchdown drives, he gained 77 of his 295 yards. He was not carrying the offense. And then came the New England game, when he was the victim of terrible play calling. They ran him on four first downs with the lead in the fourth quarter, and that led to four second-and-long plays. Tony Romo said the Patriots were playing the Bear (46) defense to stop the run and were going to make Bortles beat them. Somehow, the Jags played right in the Patriots’ hands, leaving them with bad down-and-distance situations on second down.
  • The rushing game was not a big difference in their 12 wins, including the playoffs. They averaged 4.3 yards to 4.2 yards rushing by their foes in those win. But their pass defense held teams to an average of 5.0 yards per pass, and the Jaguars averaged 7.5 yards. Their edge was passing and defending the pass

So did Fournette really have that big an impact on their season, or would they have had the same record without him? You can debate that either way.

There is no debate, though, that since the Jaguars did get to within one bad fourth quarter of the Super Bowl, they seem ready to go with the same strategy this year. The signing of Norwell showed how they are thinking.

And the Jaguars have a few big things going for them: The AFC has no dominant teams, and they get the Patriots and Steelers at home and the world-champion Philadelphia Eagles in London. And they figure to win AFC South again. The path to the Super Bowl is wide open.

But is the run-first philosophy with Fournette going to take them to the Super Bowl in a passing league?

For better or worse, they plan to find out.

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