Hope has returned to the First Coast

Saturday was not about wins or losses for Jacksonville and the Jaguars’ fans.

Don’t get me wrong, the win over the Tennessee Titans felt great and I’m not sure I would have followed through on my internal vow to write about the day had Rayshawn Jenkins not put on his Superman cape to deliver the 20-16 victory. But the entire week had a build up that felt different than even the run to the AFC Championship in 2017. I was in Elementary School during the other two deep playoff runs for the Jaguars, so I can’t really speak to the excitement around town (the vibes were all Jaguars on the kickball fields though!).

Saturday was a celebration of the return of hope for those of us that love the Jaguars and rarely have felt loved back. In what was supposed to be another lost season in the city that is not supposed to have an NFL team, we somehow found ourselves preparing for a Week 18 game against a bitter rival with a division championship on the line. That in and of itself was enough after the last few seasons.

Momentum has escaped the Jaguars franchise since the late ’90s. Which coincides with its search for a franchise quarterback. It hasn’t all been bad since the Titans defeated the Jaguars three times in the ’99 season, but the bad has certainly outweighed the good. Jacksonville has not made consecutive playoff appearances after making the postseason four straight seasons from ’96-’99.

There was some hope in the mid 2000s with Wildcard berths in 2005 and 2007, including a win over the Pittsburgh Steelers in the snow in ’07 playoffs. Yet that team never found its footing again and the team moved on from David Garrard to drafting Blaine Gabbert. Which sums up the team’s issues under center.

Then came Blake Bortles, who flashed just enough to keep Jaguars’ fans hopes up. In the end though, he was more Florida Man than franchise savior. He had his moments during 2017 season, winning the AFC South division championship and reaching the AFC Championship Game, but that team and the hopes for a better future disbanded quicker than a Texas A&M recruiting class.

Ahead of the 2019 season the Jaguars grasped at straws to regain that feeling with the signing of Nick Foles, who was outplayed by the fictional savior Gardner Minshew. The amount of Minshew II jerseys you still see on a gameday at Everbank Field should tell you all you need to know about how badly Jacksonville fans just want a quarterback to make them feel something, let alone win some games.

It all seemed worth it though as the legend Frank Gore led the New York Jets to a Week 15 win that secured the No. 1 overall pick for Jacksonville in the 2021 draft. The Tank for Trevor was complete, and the Jaguars had finally failed their way into a potential franchise-changing quarterback. Trevor Lawrence was actually going to be a Jaguar. This is Jacksonville though, nothing is a sure thing and there is no point in doing things the easy way, so Shad Khan made the inexplicable decision to hire Urban Meyer.

Local media hyped up the move in hopes the man who led Florida to two national titles would be able to deliver for North Florida once again. But the move overlooked the shambles he left the UF program in, as well as the way he left Ohio State eight years later. Still, Jaguars fans held out hope that Meyer would at least do what he did at UF and Ohio State before bouncing — win. We know how it turned out. Urban spent more time grinding off the field than he did on the gameplan and he didn’t even last a full season in another kick to the fan base.

Lawrence was lost and so was his rookie season. Jaguars fans ended the year by celebrating the front office circus with Clown Out to hope Khan would change his mind and fire the front office in the same way he dismissed Meyer. To his credit, Khan was steadfast that general manger Trent Baalke was not the issue and he would be staying. It reportedly cost the Jaguars’ their first choice for new head coach in Tampa Bay offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich, another failed first-round quarterback as a player for the Jaguars.

Once again though, the Jaguars failed up as Doug Pederson became the hire 49 days after Meyer was fired. It seemed like a too good to be true hire to me, but that may have just been some leftover remorse from the Foles’ signing. The two do share a statue outside the Philadelphia Eagles’ stadium to celebrate their Super Bowl LII victory over New England.

The season started out strong, but as the team fell to 3-7 with five straight losses in October, all by eight points or less, you couldn’t help but feel your hope fading. I actually began to wonder, ‘Are the Jaguars so cursed that even they can mess up a can’t-miss prospect like Trevor Lawrence?’ Then something funny happened, Pederson and the Jaguars got on a roll. The Titans did too, just in the opposite direction.

A 28-27 win over the Baltimore Ravens felt like a real turning point. Lawrence led a 10-play, 75-yeard touchdown drive with 14 seconds left in the game, including a two-point conversion to Zay Jones to go ahead by one. It was the best feeling I’ve had inside the stadium since the playoff win over the Bills in ’17. I hugged strangers, and as my wife and I walked back to out car you couldn’t help but feel like Lawrence had arrived.

Of course this is Jacksonville, so that was followed up the next week by a 34-point loss to the freaking Detroit Lions, the original hopeless big cats. Lawrence and Pederson were unfazed though. They bounced back with a 36-22 win in Nashville over the Titans, erased a 17-point deficit in the second half to beat Dallas 40-34 in overtime and then dominated the Jets (19-3) and Houston (31-3) to set up Saturday night’s showdown.

All week long, the game was all anyone wanted to talk about. Those shared looks among Jaguars’ fan in the grocery store went from feeling like ‘What are you going to do?’ to ‘They better not let us crash the party.’

An 8:15 p.m. kickoff just built up the anticipation even more. Win and the Jaguars were the AFC South Division Champions and would host just the fifth home playoff game in franchise history. As I took my daughter to her 9 a.m. soccer class, I was greeted by plenty of ‘Go Jags!’ At lunch a Tampa Bay fan assured me our defense would take care of business later that night. Even leaving four hours before kickoff I saw traffic I’d never seen before downtown, even for the Bills game five years ago.

I went to the game with Mom. We tailgated with a friend I’ve known since the sixth grade. As well as his parents, and his seven-year-old son sporting a crisp new Lawrence jersey he netted during his Pokemon-themed birthday party last week. Life comes at you fast. The kids at the tailgate were delighted that they could just yell “Duuuval!” at any time and someone, somewhere in the lot would respond accordingly. We were just happy for our team to be relevant in Week 18.

We sat with my Mom’s fellow Rotary Club members for the game. They blindly pick one game per year to attend together before the season starts, and man did they nail it this year. In true Jacksonville fashion, my college roommates’ sister and dad were in the row behind us. The smallest big city in the world. Again, we couldn’t believe this season had led to a night like Saturday.

The crowd was electric from start to finish. I don’t think I’ve ever seen the home crowd more into it. Even as the offense sputtered in the second half and my just-happy-to-be-here attitude was pushed to the limit, the party never stopped because for once the future looks very bright for the franchise. That’s because of Lawrence and Pederson.

Saturday was sent into pandemonium because of Jenkins and the defense. When the officials announced that his forced fumble on Dobbs’ that Josh Allen returned 37 yards for the game-winning score was confirmed, the stadium levitated. Did that just happen? They didn’t call him down? They didn’t rule it a forward pass?

Once again I was hugging strangers. But also, my Mom.

Saturday wasn’t about a win. It was about hope being restored to a fan base that puts up with more than just about any other in the league, while finding solidarity that we are a fierce group not be trifled with. Saturday was about a city that is often criticized for what it isn’t, rather than celebrated for what it is.

And most of all, it was about the Jaguars. It was always the Jags.

See ya next week.

(Photo: Getty Images)

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