JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – When Maurice Jones-Drew decided to sign a free-agent contract with Oakland, he took more than just 8,071 rushing yards and a Jaguars-record 81 touchdowns to the West Coast.
He took the Jaguars’ national identity.
Jones-Drew was the franchise’s most recognizable player. He was one of the few Jaguars players -- and possibly the only one -- who the average football fan in, say, Kenosha, Wisconsin, could pick out of a lineup, mainly because of fantasy football. When Jones-Drew said something interesting or controversial, it was national news.
He was the team’s unquestioned leader and the person whose name first came to mind when the Jaguars were mentioned.
He was the face of the franchise, and now he’s wearing silver and black.
The Jaguars are entering the second season of the Dave Caldwell/Gus Bradley era, and while the rebuild is focusing on improving the talent level on the roster, they also need to find Jones-Drew’s replacement as the public image of the franchise.
"I think that will just develop," Bradley, the head coach, said. "We don’t talk to our guys about that. Our hope is that they just continue to become the best that they can be, and then that might be a byproduct of it. That’s kind of how we look at it, and we think in due time those things will come."
Every NFL team needs a face, especially a small-market team like the Jaguars. In many cases it’s the quarterback -- think Tom Brady, Peyton Manning and Aaron Rodgers. But not always -- think J.J. Watt, Adrian Peterson and Larry Fitzgerald. It certainly helps from a marketing perspective to have one -- especially when it comes to jersey sales -- but it goes beyond that.
The face of a franchise gives the team an identity. He's the player who rallies the team when things go wrong. It goes hand in hand with leadership, but think of the face of the franchise as the alpha leader. Teams generally have several leaders, and a player can be a leader without being the face of the franchise, but a player can’t be the face without being a leader.
In almost every case, he's a good player -- usually among the league’s elite. That’s the Jaguars’ problem. While they do have some very good players, they don’t have any who would be considered elite. Tight end Marcedes Lewis and middle linebacker Paul Posluszny have been to the Pro Bowl, but neither carries the same national recognition and cachet that Jones-Drew did for the past five seasons. Posluszny even admits that.
"Maurice is a national figure, and playing the running back spot, Pro Bowl player, offensive guy, great personality -- so whether you can fill his role in that aspect, I don’t know," Posluszny said. "Maybe it’s going to be by committee. Marcedes Lewis is a huge name, and then you look at Chad Henne and how he’s going to be able to lead, so as far as the leadership aspect of it there are several guys that’ll definitely step up to fill that void.
"Who’s going to be the guy? I don’t know. Your guess is as good as mine."
The most logical pick would be quarterback Blake Bortles, the No. 3 overall selection in last month’s draft. He’s the most high-profile player on the roster right now. However, it’s hard to be the face of a franchise when you’re sitting on the bench, which is what general manager Caldwell and Bradley want Bortles to do in 2014.
Henne is well-liked in the locker room and has become more of a vocal leader now that he is assured of being the starting quarterback, but he doesn’t have the star power. Neither do receiver Cecil Shorts and running back Toby Gerhart.
The Jaguars’ most notable player may actually be wide receiver Justin Blackmon, who is serving an indefinite suspension for violating the league’s substance-abuse policy for the third time, but he wouldn’t be considered the face of the franchise.
Right now, the most visible and prominent Jaguar is owner Shad Khan, and not just because of his handlebar mustache. He has put $31 million of his own money into improvements at EverBank Field -- $11 million to renovate the locker room and weight room and $20 million to help finance the $63 million in stadium upgrades that include the world’s largest video boards and two pools in the north end zone.
The mustache helps, though. It is featured in advertising campaigns and on T-shirts, and you can spot fans sporting fake ones throughout the stadium on game days.
It’s clever and it’s funny, and it’s obvious that the fan base has completely embraced Khan, who purchased the team from the beloved Weaver family in late 2011. But how long will that last if the Jaguars continue to struggle on the field? And can an owner truly be the face of a sports franchise? It has happened with Jerry Jones, Mark Cuban and George Steinbrenner, but those three men share the same traits: huge egos and dominant, aggressive personalities. That’s not Khan.
It appears that Caldwell and Bradley have begun adding good players. They need one to become the franchise’s new face.