By Mark Blumenthal
JACKSONVILLE — Calais Campbell couldn’t contain his huge smile in the locker room after the final Jacksonville Jaguars season came to an end.
For the first time since 2011, the Jaguars ended the regular season on a high note as the put up their highest-scoring total of the season in a 38-20 romp over the Indianapolis Colts on Sunday to end the season at 6-10, while ruining the Colts’ chances of a possible playoff position.
“I told the guys this is something that we can build off of,” Campbell said after scoring a touchdown on a fumble recovery in the fourth quarter. “There is a lot of character being built this season and if we can arness that in the offseason, then I know this team can be something special.”
For that to happen, a lot of components have to be right — and one big component is the return of Yannick Ngakoue, one of the top defensive ends in the league. It was Ngakoue, who is a free agent going into next season, who caused the fumble by quarterback Jacoby Brissett that led to Campbell hunching down his 6-foot-8, 300-pound frame and returning the fumble eight yards for a touchdown that gave the Jaguars a 31-20 lead with 9:28 left in the game.
“You can’t let that guy leave. Guys like that don’t grow on trees,” Campbell said of his defensive line teammate. “He plays with so much passion and he’s just scratching the surface. He plays with much tenacity and he can change the game. I mean when he stripped the ball away and caused the fumble, it gave me the opportunity to pick up the ball and score a touchdown for the team. I know it’s going to cost a lot to keep him, but I would not let him go.”
Another possible free agent is Donald Payne, a linebacker who stepped in to Myles Jack’s middle linebacker position after Jack got hurt, and helped to dictate play from that position.
“It was kind of a whirlwind (season) to be on the couch early this year and then starting every snap for the last five defensive games,” Payne said. “It’s a big jump for me, so we’ll see what happens going into next year. Hopefully I’ll be here. I think we have a good core group of guys and I’m glad that we got to finish (this) season off strong.”
That, the Jaguars did. But many fans and even media members were wondering aloud, “Where was this team all year?” The Jaguars went for 353 yards in their first game of over 30 points this year, the previous best point total being 29 in a 29-15 home win against the New York Jets on Oct. 27. After that win against the Jets, the Jaguars went free-falling, losing their next five games before finishing the year with two wins in the last three games.
But it was also a somewhat-contentious weekend, too. ESPN reported that owner Shad Khan had already made the decision to fire coach Doug Marrone after Sunday’s game, then Khan put out a statement refuting that report. Marrone said in his press conference he didn’t want his coaching situation dictate the afternoon.
“We all made sure we understood to all take accountability for the season,” Marrone said. “But what we tried to focus on all week long with the players was let’s not let the past stuff dwell during the week. Let us have an opportunity to know what it feels like to play at home, to win a game in front of the fans, and not play for coaches or family or anything else, but to play for each other in that room. That’s what I really talked about to the players. At least from now until whenever we start, the guys can feel good about something.”
Quarterback Gardner Minshew II, who won more games as a rookie quarterback than anyone in the league with six, threw for 295 yards on 27-of-39 passing with three touchdowns and one interception.
For the season, Minshew finished with 3,271 yards passing and 21 touchdowns against six interceptions.
“It was awesome, a dream come true,” Minshew said of his rookie season in the NFL. “Had to go through a lot of trials and tribulations and take the long way to get there. But I was so fortunate for that it prepared me for it. There’s a lot to be proud of, a lot we can work on and a lot to look forward to.”
Minshew threw three touchdowns in the victory, one to Keelan Cole of 14 yards, one to backup running back Ryquell Armstead of three yards and the other of 18 yards to Dede Westbrook with 4:42 left to ice the victory.
Though the season ended in the Jaguars’ first win on the final day of the regular season since beating the same Colts, 19-13, on Jan. 1, 2012 in the final game for original team owners Wayne and Delores Weaver, Khan made nothing official about whether Marrone or team general manager Dave Caldwell stay with the team. Khan fired Tom Coughlin as the team’s vice-president of football operations on Dec. 18.
“I have a lot of respect for coach Marrone,” Campbell said. “He kept us together through all the thick and thin, ups and downs this season and kept us focused. Obviously, we didn’t play as good as we wanted to this whole season, but being able to finish all that we have and stay together is really a testament to his coaching ability. i think we can win a super Bowl with him as our head coach.”
Marrone took over as head coach when Khan fired former coach Gus Bradley on Dec. 18, 2016 after Bradley went 14-48 in his nearly four seasons with the team. Marrone, who was the assistant head coach, took over and went 1-1 to finish out the year and was given the job on a regular basis by Khan, Caldwell and Coughlin.
Asked what it would take to get the Jaguars back to where they were two years ago when they were within one quarter of going to Super Bowl LII, losing in the AFC Championship to the New England Patriots, Marrone said, “I don’t know what the team is going to look like. From year to year, for me in this profession, there’ve been years we made big runs and years we haven’t. In New Orleans, we went to the NFC Championship (in 2006) my first year, went along the next two years, then I left for Syracuse and that year, they popped with the Super Bowl (triumph over the Colts in Super Bowl XIVL in 2010). So I think it’s very hard to predict, but make no mistake about it — Shad and Tony (Khan, his son and senior vice-president of football administration and technology) want to win. So whatever we have to do to win is going to be about that.”
While still receiving congratulations for his touchdown, the second of his career, the 33-year-old Campbell was asked about what he saw for the offseason.
“I just want another chance,” he said excited about the end of this season.
The smile was still there.