JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - Walking by player after player as they stretched, Mike Mularkey stopped and chatted with just about everyone. He had some stern words for one receiver whose helmet was out of line.
It was misplaced by a few inches, enough to draw Mularkey's attention.
It might seem trivial to outsiders, but those kind of details matter to the new Jacksonville Jaguars coach. Although X's and O's are the most important aspect of his job, Mularkey is equally concerned with how players carry themselves on and off the field, where they sit in meeting rooms and whether or not they take notes.
"If guys are detailed in everything they do - and really what's important to me is what they do when nobody is watching - they are going to be successful in this league," Mularkey said.
The little things just might make a big difference in Jacksonville this season.
The Jaguars (No. 31 in the AP Pro32) were slack in certain areas under former coach Jack Del Rio, a former player who was about as consistent as replacement officials.
When Mularkey and his assistants took over in January, players noticed a difference immediately.
"There's only one way to respond to it," receiver Mike Thomas said. "You either respond to it or you go in the tank. Everybody knows what happens when you go in the tank in this league."
The Jaguars know all about that, having missed the playoffs four consecutive seasons and 10 of the last 12 years.
Last year was one of the worst in franchise history. Starting quarterback David Garrard was cut five days before the opener, Del Rio was fired after a 3-8 start and owner Wayne Weaver sold the team to billionaire Shad Khan the same day.
Jacksonville finished 5-11, mostly because they had the league's worst offense.
Mularkey was hired to turn things around.
Although his first season in Jacksonville got off to a shaky start - star running back Maurice Jones-Drew skipped offseason workouts and training camp, and first-round draft pick Justin Blackmon was arrested on a DUI charge - Mularkey believes all the pieces are in place to compete in the AFC South.
It starts with quarterback Blaine Gabbert.
Gabbert started 14 games as a rookie and was downright awful at times. He looked scared in the pocket and misfired more often than he connected. He had the worst QB rating in the league while throwing for 2,214 yards, with 12 touchdowns and 11 interceptions. He also was sacked 40 times.
Mularkey, offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski and quarterbacks coach Greg Olson spent the offseason breaking down every aspect of Gabbert's game, tweaking his footwork, honing his mechanics and getting him more confident with the pass rush.
"We're seeing quite a bit of improvement on a day-to-day basis with Blaine," Bratkowski said. "Blaine is the most improved player that I see out here on offense."
It helps that he has more talent around him.
The Jaguars signed Laurent Robinson to a five-year, $32.5 million contract in March and then selected fellow receiver Justin Blackmon with the fifth overall pick in April's NFL draft.
The team also is counting on tight end Marcedes Lewis, who signed a $35 million contract after a breakout season in 2010, to return to form. Lewis had 39 receptions for 460 yards and no touchdowns last year, admittedly distracted by his child-custody case going on across the country in Los Angeles.
The offense probably would be even better if and when Jones-Drew returns.
Jones-Drew led the NFL in rushing with 1,606 yards last season, but has stayed away from the team while seeking a new contract. The Jaguars insist they're not going to renegotiate with a player who has two years remaining on a lucrative contract. The 27-year-old back already collected nearly $22 million in the first three years of his deal.
With Jones-Drew holding out, Rashad Jennings has looked every bit like a capable starter.
"From what I've seen on tape before I got here and what I've seen in person, I'd say we'll be OK," Mularkey said.
Jacksonville should be OK on defense, too.
The Jags return 10 of 11 starters on a unit that ranked sixth in the league in total defense. Second-round pick Andre Branch is expected to bolster a pass rush that tallied just 31 sacks in 2011, and former New York Giants cornerback Aaron Ross should play a pivotal role in the secondary.
Mularkey will keep a watchful eye on all of them, as well as those seemingly minute details that could pay dividends.
"We want to look like a team that would like to win a championship," Mularkey said. "And the way you do that is you do little things. Whether it's stretch, line up your helmets right, doing jumping jacks together as a team, everything's got to be (perfect).
"There's 11 guys on that row. Why one helmet out of whack? You can't have one out of sync anytime when you have 11 guys together."
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