If you’re a fan of one of the three Florida NFL teams, playoff tickets should not figure in too much when planning your fall/winter budget. With all three franchises in various stages of rebuilding, the postseason doesn’t seem to be likely in 2012.
With that said, there has been a lot of spirited debate on which of the three teams will be the best (maybe the least worst) in 2012.
The simple and direct answer is the Jacksonville Jaguars.
If Bucs and Dolphins fans are still reading, allow me the opportunity to explain why. Although carrying the league’s worst offense into 2012, Jacksonville seems to have the fewest questions about their roster. The Jaguars return an improved version of the sixth-ranked defense in the NFL last season. Jacksonville added rookie defensive end Andre Branch to the unit, along with linebacker Brandon Marshall and cornerback Aaron Ross.
Offensively, we expect to see improvement because that’s simply the only direction the 32nd ranked offense in football can go. Blaine Gabbert has a full offseason of coaching, something he was missing in 2011. On the outside the team added wide receivers Laurent Robinson and Justin Blackmon. They return a healthy and focused Marcedes Lewis who is just one season removed from the Pro Bowl. Their backfield will be loaded upon the inevitable return of Maurice Jones-Drew with a dominant run-blocking offensive line.
Although there is no guarantee that Blaine Gabbert will be better in his sophomore campaign, it’s difficult to imagine with better coaching, more time and better weapons that he’ll be worse. If for some reason he is, the Jaguars snatched Miami’s starting quarterback from the last few seasons, Chad Henne as the backup.
The final reason why Jacksonville will win more games than Miami or Tampa Bay will be the schedule, mainly the competition inside the division. Jacksonville resides in a division with Houston who lost several key components, Tennessee who may be encountering a quarterback switch and two-win Indianapolis, who will be starting a rookie quarterback. Add in a third-place schedule which include winnable road games against Minnesota, Oakland and Buffalo and Jacksonville’s opponents hardly look like a “murderer’s row.”
Moving on to the other Sunshine State professional franchises, Tampa Bay may actually be the most talented team. They have the closest thing to a secure situation at quarterback with Josh Freeman and legitimate receiver talent with Vincent Jackson. The Bucs have the makings of a dominant offensive line with Carl Nicks and Davin Joseph and solid young players in the secondary (Mark Barron and Eric Wright).
Unfortunately if you’re a Bucs fan the fruits of what appears to be a very good draft will likely not be ripened in 2012. The team plays in one of the toughest divisions in football with two returning playoff teams and an ascending star in Cam Newton. There are major question marks that stem from a defense which finished 30th in the NFL a year ago which the only upgrades were cornerback Eric Wright and rookie safety Mark Barron. Although Josh Freeman is the best returning starting quarterback in the state, he’s far from a sure thing as he threw just 16 touchdowns and 22 interceptions in 2011.
With six difficult division games along with matchups against the NFC East and AFC West the Bucs will be challenged on a weekly basis.
On to Miami, there are numerous reasons why the Dolphins won’t be successful in 2012. So many in fact that the reasons why they would be successful escape me. Miami has no idea who their starting quarterback will be and ultimately it doesn’t matter because rookie Ryan Tannehill will be taking over at some point in the season. That will make it virtually impossible for either David Garrard or Matt Moore to succeed while constantly looking over their shoulders.
Whoever wins the quarterback job in Miami, either temporarily or permanently will have their work cut out for them. The Dolphins return one of the worst receiving corps in decades and they don’t have an every-downs running back to depend on. The offensive line has some shaky pieces and there is no longer Brandon Marshall to depend on in third-down situations.
The Dolphins defense has some solid parts with Cameron Wake and Karlos Dansby but the secondary is a major question mark. Add in six games against New England, Buffalo and the New York Jets, all which figure to be better than Miami and the schedule is a bear.
Again, there likely won’t be any playoff teams residing in the state of Florida in 2012. With the additions, lack of roster holes and schedule the Jacksonville Jaguars should have the most wins of any franchise in the state.
Charlie Bernstein is the NFL Insider for SportsTalkFlorida.com and ESPN 1080 and 1040 in Orlando/Tampa and Editor-in-Chief of Sports Media Interactive, covering the National Football League, NCAA, and National Basketball Association. Charlie covers the Jacksonville Jaguars for FoxSports and has been featured on the NFL Network and Sirius NFL Radio. Charlie is also a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. You can follow Charlie on Twitter @nflcharlie