As they approach the midway point of training camp and their first exhibition game, the Jaguars have the look of a team that's better than last year's squad but still full of question marks.
Second-year Head Coach Gus Bradley says he's getting what he wants out of this camp, and continues to redefine the word "victory" for his players.
"We're working on getting better every day," Bradley told me after practice on Wednesday. "Some are better than others. Some guys flash and then disappear. We're looking for consistency. Pile one good day on another and then another and another."
In what seemed to be an instant, Bradley, and General Manager Dave Caldwell transformed the locker room and the atmosphere around the team into a competitive, hard-working environment.
"It's a matter of trust" both TE Marcedes Lewis and WR Mike Brown said independent of each other after practice. "Not just trusting the coaches," Lewis added. "Trusting your teammates and yourself to get better and then take that onto the field."
"You have to trust the process," Brown noted in front of his locker. "We're getting better, you can see it. But more than that you can feel it. It's a lot of new faces with the kind of turnover there is at this level but you trust that the guys they're bringing in all want the same thing. And so far that's true."
Brown's played plenty of football and laughed when I said that perhaps most people don't realize that all teams are not like this one. "Not at all," he said with a chuckle. "Guys have their own thing, but not here. This team is a tight group. Guys helping each other, we're going in the right direction, no question."
Bradley and Caldwell spend exhaustive amounts of time interviewing potential draft picks and free agents looking for the right kind of player to fit into what they're looking for. "We want guys who are competitive first of all," Gus said explaining the process. "And we want guys who like to play football. Sounds simple but when you put those two things together, a player has a chance to get some things done."
Gus never talks about "wins" or "victory" or even a player being "good." Instead, he asks the players to do a self-check, every day, every play. Are they getting better? What are the things that can make them better?
"We want guys who have understand three things," he said getting deeper into his coaching ethos. "First, have humility. Play humble. Because that helps you do the second: Identify your weaknesses. If you don't have humility, you don't think you have any weaknesses! And third, work to make your weaknesses better! It's simple! And when you ask those questions of players, you can tell which guys are going to buy into that and which aren't."
When I asked him how he can tell if a prospect might not be the right fit, theoretically Bradley said, "If I ask a guy what his weaknesses are and he says, 'Gee Coach, I don't have any,' then I guess it would be hard for him to be humble and work on those!" as he burst out in laughter.
Observing the team through the first couple weeks of training camp you can see they're faster but at least at this point, they haven't gotten any answers to some of their main off-season questions. The revamped offensive line hasn't been tested and still has good competition at center and on the right side. The wide receivers have been sitting out with a variety of strains so outside of Marqis Lee, it's hard to say if the team has taken a step forward in that area. Establishing a running game will be a priority for Bradley and Offensive Coordinator Jed Fisch, but all of those pieces won't show themselves until the first week of the regular season. On defense, they spent their free-agent money (outside of Toby Gerhardt who won't play against the Bucs) and the hope is that Clemons, Bryant and Hood will shore up the line with Branch still improving. They'd like Dakota Watson to be one of the starting LB's but he is still on the PUP and they're not sure about his return.
"We're working on getting better every day," Bradley reiterated at the end of our conversation. "And the players will have a great opportunity to show how well they can compete in that environment on Friday night."
So along with Gus, we'll also know a little more after the game.