JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - Jacksonville Jaguars owner Shad Khan emerged from a jubilant locker room with a giant smile on his face, a football in his right hand and a hat in the other.
With the celebration still going on following a 20-16 victory over the Tennessee Titans Saturday night, Khan stepped up to the small group of media assembled in the hallway and held out the ball for photos.
Written on the white panel: Game ball presented to Shad Khan 2022 AFC South Division Champions.
"I'm speechless," he said.
Understandable, considering his franchise was in disarray in January 2022. The Jaguars had fired coach Urban Meyer 13 games into his first season. They had an embattled general manager in Trent Baalke, who the fan base urged Kahn to fire and a supposed franchise quarterback that at times looked lost.
A year later, the Jaguars are division champions for the fourth time since the franchise's inception in 1995, have one of the best young quarterbacks in the league in Trevor Lawrence and appear ready to be an annual contender in the AFC.
"This whole journey from where we were to where we are now, to earn this opportunity to go play in the playoffs, it's special," Lawrence said. "...I'm just proud of the team, of the staff, just everybody, all the work that's been put in to be here.
"It's taken a lot of work, and it's going to take more to keep going, and we're excited for that and ready for it."
The Jaguars' journey from the worst team in the NFL to the playoffs started more than a year ago with the departure of Meyer, the hiring of Peterson, many moves made in the offseason and a roller coaster of a season.
KHAN FIRED MEYER during a dysfunctional 2021 season that multiple people inside the organization said was unquestionably worse than 2020, when the Jaguars went 1-15.
Meyer's tenure as Jaguars coach quickly got off to a rocky start and never recovered. Here's a list of his transgressions:
- Meyer hired and then fired Chris Doyle as director of sports performance. Doyle had been accused of making racial remarks and belittling and bullying players before he was fired at the University of Iowa.
- Meyer violated NFL contact rules during organized team activities in the spring.
- Meyer allegedly berated assistant coaches.
- Meyer was involved in an interaction with a woman who was not his wife in a Columbus, Ohio, bar/restaurant after not returning with the team from a Thursday night game in Cincinnati.
- Finally, Meyer was accused of kicking kicker Josh Lambo during warmups before a preseason game.
The players didn't like that Meyer treated them the way he did his college players by using motivational tactics such as bringing in guest speakers, announcing winners and losers in practice drills and having multiple long meetings in the same day. The players also didn't appreciate the inconsistency in Meyer's behavior and demeanor.
On the field, the Jaguars were 2-11, including a 20-0 loss at the Titans (the fourth shutout loss in franchise history) before Khan made the decision to move on.
"I wouldn't [have] believed you if you told me this is how this year was going to go," Lawrence said the day Meyer was fired. "But like I said, I've learned a lot and I still feel that way. ... Let's go turn this thing around, go become a winner. I have full faith in that still. Obviously, there's a lot of steps to be made in the future to go in that direction, but I still believe that, and I plan on being here for a long time, hopefully my whole career."
Under interim head coach Darrell Bevell, the Jaguars went 1-3, beating the Indianapolis Colts in Week 18 to keep them from clinching a playoff spot.
And then started another rebuild.
THE FIRST AND most important step last offseason was finding a head coach.
Khan selected former Philadelphia Eagles coach Doug Pederson out of a pool of 10 candidates that included former NFL head coaches Jim Caldwell, Todd Bowles and Bill O'Brien. Pederson had won a Super Bowl with the Eagles in 2017, but was fired after the 2020 season and spent the 2021 season out of football.
"We have someone who's been there, a head coach, developer of quarterbacks, a man who creates a culture for players and coaches alike, a culture they'll thrive in and a leader who commands respect and inspires those around him," Khan said at Pederson's introductory news conference. "And a man who wins."
In order to start winning, though, Pederson said he needed to build up trust with the players. They also needed to heal -- that was his first priority.
"I think trust was broken with this team when I took the job, so I had to regain their trust as a coach," he said. "I think they saw right away that they can trust in me, I can trust in them. You know, one of the things I'm always going to do is shoot them straight and be honest with them. The transparency is key. The communication is key. I think we just built over time that trust factor, and it began to show throughout the course of the year."
For receiver Marvin Jones Jr., Pederson being open, honest and genuine with the players -- and following through on things he said -- was the most important thing he did to build that trust.
"Just by being himself -- it's not super complicated," Jones said. "Being the same guy every day and having an understanding and seeing everything through the same lens. Once that's established it's easy to trust somebody because he's the same guy every day. You know what he expects and he says what he expects from you."
UPON JOINING THE team, one thing was clear to Pederson pretty quickly: The offense needed a major upgrade. That meant going hard in free agency.
The Jaguars spent $263.5 million in total contract money and $158.3 million in guaranteed money on eight players: receivers Christian Kirk and Zay Jones; tight end Evan Engram; right guard Brandon Scherff; linebacker Foye Oluokun; cornerback Darious Williams; defensive tackle Foley Fatukasi; and defensive end/linebacker Arden Key.
Oluokun led the NFL in tackles for the second year in a row, Key had 4.5 sacks and Williams played well once the team moved him to the outside last month.
But it was the offensive signings that powered the turnaround.
Kirk, Jones and Engram all set career highs in receptions and receiving yards, and Engram posted the best season by a tight end in franchise history (73 catches, 766 yards, four TDs).
The Jaguars had a 1,000-yard rusher and 1,000-yard receiver in the same season for just the second time since 2004 in Kirk (1,108 yards receiving) and running back Travis Etienne Jr. (1,125 yards rushing).
Lawrence was one of nine quarterbacks to surpass 4,000 yards passing and the Jaguars' offense finished the regular season 10th in the NFL in scoring (23.8 points per game) and yards per game (357.4).
The Jaguars also selected two players in the first round of the 2022 draft, No. 1 overall pick Travon Walker -- who had 3.5 sacks this season -- and No. 27 overall pick, linebacker Devin Lloyd, whom the Jaguars traded back into the first round to select. The team's best rookie has been center Luke Fortner, a third-round pick who has started every game.
The infusion of talent played a large role in the Jaguars' success in 2022.
THE 2022 SEASON started out well.
The Jaguars snapped an 18-game road losing streak with a win at the Chargers in Week 3 and were 2-1 atop the AFC South.
Then October began.
They lost five consecutive games, the last of which came against the Denver Broncos at Wembley Stadium in London. Lawrence didn't play well in that game, either, throwing for only 133 yards (the third-lowest total of his career) with two interceptions. The QB later stated that London was a turning point in the season for him -- he didn't want to play like that again.
That's when Pederson had a prediction for the future.
Heading into their bye week, Pederson -- according to multiple players -- said he had a crystal ball and that they'd have a chance to win the division in Week 18 if they stuck together and fixed the issues they had throughout the first part of the season.
It was a bold thing to say, but the players bought it.
"We all jumped on board," Lawrence said.
If there was a moment when their playoff hopes could have fallen apart, it was then. The defense gave up 437 yards and the offense managed just 266 yards. Defensive end/linebacker Josh Allen and right tackle Jawaan Taylor both said after the game the team didn't have any energy.
However, Jones said there was no finger-pointing.
"I have been a part of instances where I've seen it [finger-pointing] for sure and it can become very toxic to a locker room," Jones said. "It's very hard to rebound from because once you start creating a narrative internally, and you start believing that, and rightfully assuming that it's negative about the people that you come to work with every day, it can fester and it can really suffocate good work ethic and things of that sort.
"I'm very proud of this team [for sticking together]."
The Jaguars' turnaround coincides with Lawrence finally playing like a franchise quarterback. The No. 1 pick out of Clemson in the 2020 draft, Lawrence is second in the NFL in completion percentage and passer rating and eighth in Total QBR since losing to the Broncos at the end of October.
In addition to rallying the Jaguars against the Raiders, he threw a game-winning TD pass and 2-point conversion with 14 seconds to beat the Ravens and led the Jaguars to a game-tying field goal as time expired against the Dallas Cowboys. The Jaguars eventually won that game on safety Rayshawn Jenkins' 52-yard interception return in overtime.
Turns out Pederson's crystal ball was correct.
The Jaguars went 6-2 in Weeks 9 through 17, while the Titans kept losing and Week 18 was indeed winner-take-all for the AFC South.
SATURDAY'S WILD-CARD game will feature two of the league's best young quarterbacks making their postseason debuts in Justin Herbert and Lawrence. It's only the third time since 1950 that two quarterbacks under 25 years old will both make their first career playoff start against each other.
This season, Herbert and Lawrence both threw for more than 4,000 yards -- Herbert fell only 261 yards shy of 5,000 -- and 25 touchdowns.
At 23 years old, Lawrence is the youngest quarterback in the playoffs and could join Michael Vick as the only No. 1 overall pick to win a playoff game before turning 24.
"They're very similar," Pederson said of the two QBs. "Both athletic guys, both can run, extend plays, [have] good vision.
"It should be a fun game to watch both of these guys play."
Herbert will be the best quarterback the Jaguars have faced in a month. The defense has allowed only one touchdown and five field goals the past three games, but it's a pretty pedestrian list of QBs that they've beaten: Zach Wilson/Chris Streveler (Jets), Davis Mills/Jeff Driskel (Texans) and Joshua Dobbs (Titans).
The Jaguars are 3-1 in the playoffs at home, which includes a 10-3 victory over the Buffalo Bills after the 2017 season.
Lawrence would consider them 4-1, however.
"For us, that was a playoff game last week," Lawrence said. "You look at how everything ended up playing out, if we didn't win that game, we're not sitting here today, everybody's packing up and going home."