JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Less than 24 hours after the Jaguars' season ended with a 24-20 loss to the Patriots in the AFC championship game, Doug Marrone was still dealing with the sting of falling a game short of the Super Bowl as he was asked about what the Jaguars had accomplished in a season that saw the team improve from 3-13 in 2016 to coming within minutes of earning the team's first Super Bowl berth.
"It just felt like everybody was in sync about what we wanted to accomplish," Marrone said. "When you come so close and it's right there...it's tough. I personally feel like I've let people down. I know that I became a better coach. I became a better person."
Marrone admitted that the shock likely would not wear off until the team starts looking at free agency and the draft, but the Jaguars certainly established themselves as a team that will be expected to contend for a division title in 2018 and will be one of the teams in the conversation to win the AFC.
Winning on the field in 2017 started with establishing a new environment around the franchise that helped change the perception--and the truth--about the kind of football the Jaguars became. Veteran players pointed to the decision to bring in Tom Coughlin as executive vice president for football operations as the start of the turnaround for the franchise.
"I think it was bringing the leadership in here with coach Marrone and coach Coughlin," defensive tackle Malik Jackson said. "He and Mr. (Dave) Caldwell (Jaguars general manager) getting together and everybody working together to get this locker room together and letting everybody know that the old Jags from previous years are gone. This is a new team, under new management and we acted like it, we played like it and we have to continue to do it."
Jackson joined the team before the 2016 season. At the time, there wasn't much more than hope to indicate that the Jaguars would be contenders. Calais Campbell, one of the three big free agent signings this past off-season had little more to hang his hat on when he made the decision to come to Jacksonville, spurning a big offer from the Denver Broncos. Now, players who join the Jaguars this off-season, either via the draft, where the Jaguars will draft 29th in the first round, or free agency, will enter a much more established locker room.
"As long as they're ready to put their head in the pile and put work in, it's going to be fun," Campbell said. "At the end of the day, The front office has done a great job the last couple of years, and I expect them to do a great job of bringing the guys who will add value to the locker room."
The way the Jaguars are perceived by prospective free agents has changed as well. Winning will do that. Perhaps the player with the biggest decision facing him in the off-season is cornerback Aaron Colvin. He was a standout at nickleback for the Jaguars, but could be lured to another team with an opportunity to play a starting cornerback role.
"I'm a spiritual person, so I move as God moves. He has led me this far," Colvin said. "I've been through some things that people don't even know about. I tell everybody I would love to play with my brothers (the Jaguars current defensive backfield) until I die. But the reality is it is a business. At the end of the day, I have to be able to help people. Not just my family, not just my circle, I have to be able to help a lot of people. I want to be able to give back to communities and do my part. All I can promise you is that next year, I'll be more dominant that I was this year."
In addition to Colvin, the Jaguars will have to decide whether to resign linebacker Paul Posluszny. The veteran is highly respected by teammates and coaches for the way he prepares and conducts himself.
"A.C., Pos, those two guys,we have to bring back," linebacker Telvin Smith said. "We are not the same defense without those two guys."
The other decision that will be highly examined is the future of Blake Bortles. The Jaguars quarterback is set to make $19 million in 2018 as part of his fifth-year option. After leading the Jaguars to the doorstep of the Super Bowl, it's a good bet that Bortles will be the team's starter in 2018, but the Jaguars may opt to sign him to a contract extension, which could provide the team with additional salary cap space.
"I've enjoyed my four years in Jacksonville and I would like to play here as long as they'll let me," Bortles said. "What they do and all of the decisions that they make is really outside of my control. I would be thrilled to stay here and play here. Hopefully that can happen."