Ask Jags fans before this season what they thought of head coach Gus Bradley and most would probably appear to love him, or at least like him. The Gus Bus was a bandwagon a lot of fans were happy to embrace, especially after the one-year disaster hiring of coach Mike Mularkey (who went 2-14, the Jags cleaned house, and Mularkey is now the tight ends coach for the Titans).
Bradley has a reputation as an extremely likable guy. He’s a coach whose style is entirely about positivity. He radiates good vibes and is probably the most friendly, uplifting coach in the game. It’s hard to find a picture or video of the guy where he doesn’t flash his warm, inviting smile. He’s the father you always wanted. Watch the locker-room celebration after the Jaguars won in Week 2; it’s like the Jaguars have won the division or a playoff game.
That video was after the Jaguars’ only victory this season, in which they barely edged out the Miami Dolphins by a field goal. At the time it seemed like great news; the Dolphins were expected contenders so a win over them meant nothing but good things. Now the win feels significantly less impressive.
It’s weird to consider a Week 5 game against the lowly Tampa Bay Buccaneers a must-win game, but it was. The Jags had lost to Carolina and New England in Weeks 1 and 3, respectively, but both of those teams are currently undefeated. However, the Jags then snatched defeat from the jaws of victory in Week 4 against the Colts, who are not nearly the contender many expected them to be. The Colts game left a sour taste in the mouths of a lot of Jaguars fans because it was a divisional game they should have won against a hated rival.
So, to Tampa Bay the Jaguars go. The Buccaneers are one of the league’s worst teams. They were the worst team in the league last year. This was bottom rung, extremely flawed competition. If there was any game the Jaguars should have won to regain their confidence, it was this one.
The Jaguars lost 38-31. It was Tampa Bay’s best performance of the season. Hell, it might be the Jaguars’ best offensive performance of the season, too. It’s the kind of loss that is inexcusable.
Some might say the Buccaneers were in a similar spot. Lovie Smith seems like a dead man walking in many ways. The Bucs, however, are in the middle of a rebuild, and most rebuilds are given at least a one-year grace period. The Jaguars under Bradley have reached the end of that grace period, or are extremely close to doing so. The Gus Bradley honeymoon is over. This is his third season as head coach, and things do not appear to be improving in any meaningful way. While it would likely be unnecessarily risky to dump him right now, he should be let go by season’s end if the Jaguars cannot manage six wins or above.
Getting five wins with 11 weeks to go might seem daunting for this Jags team, and that’s the problem. Very few head coaches turn a team fully around within a year, or even two. Dan Quinn appears to have turned the Falcons around, but considering that Quinn came from the exact spot that Bradley did (Seahawks defensive coordinator), it makes Bradley look even worse. It takes some time to get your coach installed, players fitting into the right spots, and for everyone to buy in. By year three, these things should be in place, and you reach the point where the only thing you have to do now is win. The Jaguars are not winning.
There is a lot of good Gus Bradley has done. He unified the locker room and brought an identity to the Jaguars. He helped nurture the hopeful future of the franchise in Blake Bortles, and the QB looks better this year. There are also a lot of things you can’t really blame Gus for. It’s not Bradley’s fault that their third overall pick Dante Fowler Jr. tore his ACL mere days after being drafted. But injuries are not unique to the Jaguars. The Giants were the most injured team in the NFL two years straight and still managed six and seven win seasons.
At some point, what Gus Bradley is trying to build has to translate into wins. The Jags won four games in 2013 (first-year grace period in effect). They won three games in 2014 (not encouraging, but rookie QB forgiveness and still rebuilding in effect). This was the year to show marked improvement, and they haven’t. Gus Bradley being such a swell guy means nothing if it won’t translate into wins. You can’t sit at the bottom of the NFL (in a division as weak as the AFC South, no less) for three years straight with no noticeable improvement and expect to hold your job. Bradley has the rest of this season to be better than 5-11. If he can’t do it, it’s time to move on.