As the crowd of nearly 2,000 fans made their way to the practice fields for the final Organized Team Activity (OTA) of the week, the opinions were flying.
“I don’t like how Bort-less throws the ball,” one fan lamented.
“There’s no pads in this thing, so it won’t be much,” another said.
“Henne can’t play and Bortles should already be in there,” a third told their morning compatriot.
Yet despite their worries and skepticism, on a Thursday morning in June in 90 degree heat, they were on their way to sit in the stands and watch the 6th OTA of the year. No hitting, no scoring. Nothing but drills and some offensive sets.
So why has this happened? More fans have been to the three open practices than saw all of training camp last year. Add the two days the mini-camp will be open, and it’s hard to not think that the franchise has turned some kind of corner in the relationship with the fans.
Early on it was considered a civic duty to own Jaguars tickets. As their success waned and Tom Coughlin seemed more and more distant, attendance dwindled. Jack Del Rio provided a little spark, but the team seemed to be treading water. And Del Rio was not a particularly popular guy in town. Coughlin on the other hand was very popular and has only gotten more popular during his time and success with the Giants. He remains the second most philanthropic force associated with the Jaguars (the Weavers are first) and maintains a home in Atlantic Beach.
So somewhere in the last year and a half, the fans have grabbed onto something with the team that has brought them back. You could attribute it to several factors, but I think the main thing is Gus Bradley. The Jaguars Head Coach is a popular guy. He speaks at banquets, he eats in local restaurants, he signs autographs and is genuine in his dealings with the public. His message also resonates with fans in Jacksonville. We’re always being told that we’re not this or we’re not that and Bradley is telling Jacksonville the exact opposite. Instead of Why? Gus is asking, why not? It’s what fans want to hear.
While it’s Shad Khan who set the tone for what the Jaguars vision of how they fit into the city of Jacksonville and the NFL in general, it’s Bradley, GM Dave Caldwell and the staffs who are out there executing the team’s day-to-day connection with the fans.
“Another great showing by our fans,” Bradley said to the assembled media after practice. “I know it’s unconventional to open OTA’s but we want to be unconventional and keep that connection going.”
Quarterback Chad Henne continues to “string a bunch of good practices together,” according to Bradley and agreed that the fans help ramp up the excitement. “It gets your blood going,” Henne said to the same media group after practice. “You can feel their excitement and you feed off of it.”
Blake Bortles agreed. “You want to take every rep with the same intensity but with the fans here it does ramp it up.”
Bortles was singled out by Bradley for how he bounced back from a self-proclaimed “bad” practice on Monday. “I thought he took a huge step forward today,” Bradley noted. “I talked to him on the field, in the huddle. No bad body language. Maybe he had some incompletions but he really handled himself well today. Huge step.”
“He’s coming in early, going over the OTA plan and getting himself ready,” Henne commented when asked about Bortles. “Its hard because it’s a whole new offense but he’s getting more and more familiar with it and it shows.”
Bortles said he “just wasn’t sharp” on Monday and while he appreciated Bradley’s words, he said he had plenty of work to do. “You try to take every rep like it’s a game rep,” Bortles said in the locker room. “I’m just trying to get better with every snap.”
Seven different receivers sat out the final OTA of the week with small tweaks although Marqise Lee had a boot on his lower right leg. The rest seemed to be nursing nagging muscle soreness, leaving only four players at the two wide receiver positions. “I liked how the young guys stepped up. Next man up in this league,” Bradley commented.
Former Jaguar Kyle Brady was as practice today. Brady is not only a Certified Financial Planner but also a lawyer, graduating from Florida Coastal School of Law and passing the bar in Florida.
The players will be back for three OTA’s next week, Monday, Tuesday and Thursday. There’s a full Mini-camp the following week with Tuesday the 17th and Wednesday the 18th open to fans. To attend you must register at jaguars.com/register.