The Jacksonville Jaguars have been projected to win eight games in 2019 by most Vegas sportsbooks. After a 10-6 regular season in 2017 that led to an AFC Championship appearance, the Jaguars fell back to Earth last season finishing 5-11. No one seems to be quite sure of how the 2019 season will shake out, as it seems the scale could easily tip either way.
This article will go over some key analytics that could forecast the fate of the 2019 Jaguars (for a subjective review, simply search “Nick Foles Super Bowl highlights” on YouTube).
Note: for a guide of how sports betting/odds work, Vegas.com provides a good explanation (scroll down to football). For the purposes of this article, all you need to know is that for -125 odds, that means you’d have to bet $125 in order to win $100. For +2000 odds, you’d have to bet $100 to win $2000. All listed odds below are via Bovada as of August 28th (after Andrew Luck’s retirement).
Jacksonville Vegas Win Total (8.0)
Over (-115) / Under (-115)
There are a few key statistics that are typically used as indicators for how a team will perform in succeeding seasons. Turnovers and sacks, close game record, injuries, the strength of schedule, and Early Down Success Rate are some of the most common indicators that we’ll review.
Teams that win the turnover battle win 78% of games (per Jimmy Boyd) and 84% of sacks result in a drive being killed (per Derrik Klassen). Turnovers and sacks have a huge impact on the result of games, and the Jaguars are the perfect example.
From 2017 to 2018, Jacksonville’s turnover margin dropped from +10 to -12 and their sack margin dropped from +31 to -16. (We won’t discuss penalties in-depth, but their penalty margin also dropped from +0 to -29, which certainly didn’t help). Those are some extreme differences – in fact, their sack margin swing was the largest year-to-year difference for any NFL team in the last 30 years. These massive swings occurred due to worse play by the offensive and defensive lines.
Four of Jacksonville’s five starting offensive linemen were on injured reserve by the end of last year, which resulted in quarterbacks Blake Bortles and Cody Kessler yielding even more sacks and turnovers than usual. Jacksonville’s Adjusted Sack Rate (per Football Outsiders) fell to 27th last season after ranking 13th in 2017.
The Jaguars defensive line remained intact but simply didn’t perform as well as they had in 2017. According to football analyst Warren Sharp of Sharp Football Stats, Jacksonville ranked second in sacks and pass rush efficiency in 2017. They dropped to 27th in sacks and 15th in pass rush efficiency last season. As a result, Jacksonville ranked 24th in defensive takeaways after ranking 2nd in 2017.
Fortunately, both lines should perform better in 2019. Jacksonville’s starting offensive linemen are all expected to be healthy for week 1, with reinforcements from 2019 second rounder Jawaan Taylor and 2018 fourth-rounder Will Richardson. It also helps that offseason signee Nick Foles is now starting at quarterback, whose career 2.1% interception rate and 5.3% sack rate are much better than Bortles’ 2.8% interception rate and a 6.9% sack rate.
Jacksonville selected Kentucky edge Josh Allen with the seventh overall pick in 2018, and now boast arguably the deepest and most talented pass-rushing unit in the league. The trio of Josh Allen, Calais Campbell, and Yannick Ngakoue should create constant pressure that could result in a number of sacks and takeaways closer to Jacksonville’s 2017 mark.
Football Outsiders ranked Jacksonville 27th in Adjusted Games Lost due to injury last season, and 31st in offensive AGL. They ranked sixth in AGL in 2017. Their shift in injury luck from 2017 to 2018 was the worst in the league. As previously mentioned, four of Jacksonville’s five offensive linemen were on injured reserve by the end of the season.
There are several Jaguars with present injury concerns – namely Marquis Lee, Josh Oliver, and Cam Robinson to name few – but Dr. Chao (a former NFL team doctor who is known for his informational injury tweets) gave Jacksonville a B grade in overall health heading into the season. The Jaguars should expect to have better injury luck in 2019.
STRENGTH OF SCHEDULE
One of the largest factors in Jacksonville’s decline from a 10-win team in 2017 to a 5-win team in 2018 was their strength of schedule. According to Sharp, the Jaguars faced the easiest schedule based on overall team efficiency in 2017 before facing the 12th toughest schedule in 2018.
Sharp predicts the Jaguars to face the fourth toughest overall schedule in 2019, as they’ll play the ninth easiest schedule of opposing defenses albeit the fifth toughest schedule of opposing offenses.
Working in Jacksonville’s favor is the fact that Sharp’s model is based on efficiency ratings from 2018, without factoring in offseason changes (e.g. Andrew Luck’s retirement). While the Jaguars are projected to face the 3rd toughest schedule based on 2018 records, they are projected to face just the 12th toughest schedule based on 2019 Vegas win totals. Additionally, Football Outsiders has Jacksonville facing the 15th toughest schedule.
CLOSE GAME RECORD
In 2017, the Jaguars went 1-2 in field goal games (final score within three points) and 2-3 in one-score games. That’s a fair record- regardless of the talent or overall record of a team, a .500 record in close games is generally expected because there are so many uncontrollable factors like penalties, overtime coin flips, missed field goals, etc. that can easily swing close games.
In 2018, Jacksonville’s record in field goal games was 0-4, and their record in one-score games was 2-6. In four of those losses, the Jaguars had a chance to tie or win the game on their final possession, but all four drives ended with a turnover. In another, they blew a lead against the Steelers at home despite leading 16-6 with three minutes left in the game.
A close game record closer to .500 should be expected in 2019. The addition of Nick Foles certainly helps. Michael DiRocco of ESPN pointed out the vast difference in late-game performances of Foles and Bortles: In the fourth quarter the past two seasons, Foles has a 9-2 record, a 68.1% completion percentage, and an 85.2 quarterback rating; Bortles has a 15-16 record, a 55.1% completion percentage, and a 61.7 quarterback rating. No quarterback has thrown more fourth-quarter interceptions (including playoffs) than Bortles since he was drafted in 2014.
Another point that isn’t discussed enough is the atrocious play-calling of former offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett. Sharp pointed out Hackett’s predictable play-calling back in 2016 when the Jaguars lost five of their final seven games despite leading in the second half of all five losses. In those games, Jacksonville ran the ball 100% of the time with a 29% success rate when there were less than three receivers on the field.
In 2017, the Jaguars blew a 10-point lead to the Patriots in the AFC Championship. I hear you, Myles Jack was not down, but one of the more overlooked reasons Jacksonville lost that game was Hackett’s play calling.
“When leading, every single Jaguars first-down play was a run from shotgun,” Sharp said. “Those runs averaged 0.75 yards-per-carry. On every single second down, the Jaguars threw a long pass downfield with an average Air Yards of 23.0. On third and long with a stopped clock, every single play was a pass, and only one was complete. In their most important game of the season, Jacksonville’s predictability and poor play selection cost them.”
Hackett’s bad habits carried over into 2018. As previously mentioned, Jacksonville blew another 10-point lead last season, this time to the Steelers. Here’s Sharp’s analysis:
“On each of their four drives with a lead, every single first-down play call was a run in heavy personnel (one wide receiver) from under center into loaded boxes with the run direction going directly behind backup C Tyler Shatley. (Starting C Brandon Linder had just gone on injured reserve.) These runs averaged 1.25 yards-per-carry.
“Hackett’s four second-down play calls on these drives featured three runs, each from under center with the ball carrier running directly behind Shatley into loaded boxes. These predictable, repetitive, and unimaginative second-down rushing attempts averaged 0.0 YPC. In sum, the Jaguars unsuccessfully ran the ball on 7-of-8 early-down plays into loaded boxes behind a backup center. On their four third-down plays – all from third and long – the Jaguars went 100-percent pass from 11 personnel in shotgun and not once gained a first down.”
Granted, Hackett’s quarterback was Blake Bortles, and his running back was a first-round draft pick whom the front office obviously pushed for a large workload. It’ll be interesting to see how Hackett does as Green Bay’s new offensive coordinator this season with future Hall-of-Famer Aaron Rodgers and a stacked offensive roster. But Jacksonville should be optimistically hopeful that new offensive coordinator John DeFilippo – who was a part of the Eagles Super Bowl run with Foles in 2017 – will bring more creativity and success to the offense in 2019, especially when playing with a lead.
EARLY DOWN SUCCESS RATE
This was somewhat discussed in the previous section, but we’ll review it more in detail here. Sharp identified that Early Down Success Rate (how efficient offenses are on first and second down) is heavily correlated to wins. Last season, the Chiefs, Rams, and Saints uncoincidentally ranked top-three in regular-season wins, points scored, and EDSR.
From an analytical perspective, teams should try to score as many points as possible to win. In order to do that, they need to continually get first downs. In order to do that, they must put themselves in a position to be able to convert on second, third, and fourth-and-manageable rather than second, third, and fourth-and-long. Passing on early downs is typically smart because defenses are often prepared to defend the run with base personnel and passing is more efficient than running in general.
Unfortunately, Nathaniel Hackett did not follow this approach.
Sharp said, “With Fournette on the field, the 2018 Jaguars made 103 first-down play calls in first halves of games. They ran on an astonishing 67%; the league average was 49%.
“The lone game in which the Jaguars consistently called first down pass plays in the first half was in that Week 2 upset of the Patriots, although they shifted pass heavier after Fournette left early in Weeks 1 and 4. All told, Jacksonville went 3-0 in those games.”
(It also didn’t help that when Hackett called run plays, he called it straight up the gut. Jacksonville ran directly behind center at the second-highest rate in the league last season (54%) behind only the historically awful Cardinals offense, and despite starting center Brandon Linder being placed on injured reserve halfway through the season.)
In 2017, the Jaguars won the EDSR battle in 10 games and won 10 games. In 2018, they won the EDSR battle in five games and won five games. Jacksonville ranked 11th in EDSR in 2017 and 31st in 2018.
Enter John DeFilippo. Last season as the Vikings offensive coordinator, DeFilippo called the NFL’s third-highest rate of passes on first down and the fifth-highest rate of passes on first down in the first half. Minnesota ranked 15th in EDSR.
DeFilippo was fired after a week 14 loss in Seattle, with many speculating that it was a result of conflicting philosophies. DeFilippo saw how well a pass-first offense worked during his time in Philadelphia and wanted to bring the same strategy to Minnesota with Kirk Cousins, Adam Thielen, and Stefon Diggs as the beneficiaries. But head coach Mike Zimmer is a stubborn believer in the old-school approach of playing good defense and pounding the rock. Due to Zimmer’s approach DeFilippo didn’t last a full season with the Vikings.
Unfortunately, the Jaguars brass seems to think similarly to Zimmer, focusing mainly on their defense and lead running back. It remains to be seen if Jacksonville head coach Doug Marrone will limit DeFilippo’s urge to pass as Zimmer did, but the preseason did offer a glimpse of hope.
In week 3 against the Dolphins, the Jaguars played their offensive starters for four drives. On eight first down plays, Foles passed four times (four completions, 6.8 yards-per-play) and Fournette ran four times (3.5 yards-per-carry). The Jaguars passed on 50% of first downs, which is an upgrade from their first-down pass rate of 44% in 2018 and the league’s 2018 rate of 48%.
Of course, it is a very small sample size and it’s just preseason. But Foles and DeFilippo don’t have to be Patrick Mahomes and Andy Reid in order for this football team to succeed. As long as Foles plays well enough for defenses to respect him and take some pressure off Fournette, and DeFilippo calls plays that are more creative and less predictable than Hackett (especially on early downs and with the lead), the Jaguars offense should have no problem exceeding their low expectations in 2019.
(It’s also worth mentioning that Jacksonville ranked first and third in defensive EDSR the past two seasons- their success on the other side of the ball will certainly help them win EDSR battles, which should result in more wins in general.)
Looking back on last season, it’s a bit of a surprise that Jacksonville was even able to win five games. They heavily regressed defensively, had terrible injury luck, faced a difficult schedule, had a poor close game record, and didn’t get any favors from Bortles or Hackett.
Vegas knows that the Jaguars are likely to rebound, especially with such a talented defense and new additions to the offense. But Foles and DeFilippo may have an even bigger impact than most anticipate, and with enough regression back to the mean, Jacksonville’s 2019 season should be more similar to 2017 than 2018. I’m taking the over of 8.0 games at -115 odds.
Related bets: Jacksonville has +115 odds to make the playoffs, +260 odds to win the AFC South, and +2500 odds to win the Super Bowl.
Best of luck to all you fellow degenerates this season. For more information on Warren Sharp and his football analytics, I recommend following him on Twitter @SharpFootball and purchasing his 2019 Football Preview.
Unless otherwise noted, all statistics are via Pro Football Reference.
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