Jacksonville finished dead-dog last in the NFL in scoring last season at 15.6 points per game, so it made sense that they went a different direction with their offensive coordinator. In addition, head coach Gus Bradley indicated that he and former OC Jedd Fisch had differing opinions on the development of Blake Bortles.
However, the Jaguars weren’t exactly working off the A-list of candidates, aside from former Broncos/current Bears OC Adam Gase, as they talked to Greg Roman (former 49ers/current Bills OC), Nathaniel Hackett (former Bills OC), Kirby Wilson (Vikings RBs), and Anthony Lynn (Jets RBs). And Bradley indicated that the hire would be less about past numbers and more about bringing in someone who could develop the Jaguars’ young talent—specifically Blake Bortles.
And that’s what led Jacksonville to bring back Greg Olson, who served as the team’s quarterbacks coach and assistant head coach in 2012 before moving on to call plays for the Oakland Raiders the past two seasons.
It’s a good thing numbers weren’t of concern to Bradley, as the Raiders ranked 32nd in total offense last season, down from 23rd in Olson’s first season calling plays there. On the bright side, Oakland ranked ahead of Jacksonville in points—by one spot and a whopping 0.2 points per game, 15.8 to 15.6.
Olson is the Jaguars’ fourth OC in the past five seasons, but as noted above he’s not unfamiliar to Jacksonville. In 2012 he managed to help Blaine Gabbert and Chad Henne deliver the Jaguars’ highest-ranked passing season since 2010: 3,419 passing yards and 20 touchdowns. Olson also famously coined the nickname “Blame Gabbert” on his way out of Jacksonville after the season.
Bradley and Olson have worked together before, in 2008 in Tampa where Olson was the quarterbacks coach and Bradley coached the Bucs’ linebackers. And Tampa was the site of another Olson mini-miracle; as their offensive coordinator from 2009 through 2011 Olson oversaw the 2010 season in which the Bucs—the NFL’s youngest team at the time—produced the top rookie receiver (fourth-round pick Mike Williams) and the top rookie rusher (undrafted free agent LeGarrette Blount) while setting franchise records for yards per play, average per rush, average per pass play, passer rating, and fewest interception while scoring the fourth-most points in Buccaneers history.
Olson also squeezed three productive seasons out of Josh Freeman, who averaged 3,702 yards and 22 touchdowns during Olson’s play-calling tenure.
That’s a familiar refrain from Olson’s four previous play-calling stops: not always a great deal of talent to work with, but usually finding a way to wring some productivity out of what he’s working with. Consider that in one of the few seasons the cupboard wasn’t bare—2006 in St. Louis—Olson’s offense produced a 4,000-yard passer (Marc Bulger), a 1,500-yard rusher (Steven Jackson) and two 1,000-yard receivers (Torry Holt and Isaac Bruce).
So Olson fits what Bradley and the Jaguars are looking for: less of an offensive schemer and more of a coach who can adapt his offense to the existing personnel—or what might be added via free agency and the draft.
“We watch our current personnel, the things they do well and the things they need to work on,” Bradley said at the press conference introducing Olson’s hire. “At the same time, we’re doing that with free agents. We’ve got to look at the free agents out there as well as scheme.”
“We’re identifying what their strengths are, what each individual’s strengths are,” Olson added at that same press conference. “At the same time, we’re evaluating where we can make some decisions in free agency and in the draft in terms of what our needs are. Right now, we’re still in the identification process.”
The primary order of business, of course, will be the development of Bortles.
“If everything we do is not with Blake Bortles’ development in mind, then we’re selling the franchise short,” Olson said at his introductory presser. “You’re going to build it around a quarterback first, because it’s a quarterback-driven league. If you look at who are the teams that are in the playoffs every year, it’s the teams that have good quarterback play for the most part.”
And while the Jaguars haven’t provided much in the way of specifics as to what their new offense will look like, you can make several inferences from Olson’s work in Oakland and some of the support staff added in Jacksonville.
During Olson’s first season in Oakland he used plenty of read-option and rollouts with Terrelle Pryor. Bortles isn’t quite the runner Pryor was, but he ran some of the same read-option and rollouts with success last season. While Bortles was sacked 55 times in 14 games, he also rushed for 419 yards at 7.5 yards per carry; only Russell Wilson, Colin Kaepernick, and Cam Newton rushed for more, and all of them had 100-plus attempts to Bortles’ 56. Viewed another way, Bortles ran approximately the same amount as Ryan Tannehill, but with 100 more yards.
While Olson isn’t going to run Bortles like he did Pryor, expect the read-option and rollout to remain in Jacksonville’s playbook—both to capitalize on Bortles’ underrated athleticism and to limit the field and the reads he needs to make in the passing game.
“When a play does break down protection wise and you have a guy that can go get yards, you don’t want to discourage it,” Olsen told the Jacksonville Times-Union. “There is a time to make something happen with your feet. For other quarterbacks, that’s not part of their makeup. That’s a strength of Blake’s and we want him to continue to utilize that.”
“As we get better working in conjunction as an offense there should be less of those opportunities. Then he can become more of a pocket passer. But we never want to discourage him using his ability.”
Under Olson, the Raiders kept things horizontal for Derek Carr as they tried to simplify the game for him during his rookie season. Jacksonville may start out similarly for Bortles, but don’t be surprised if the Jaguars start looking more vertical as the season progresses.
Jacksonville found multiple quality receivers in last year’s draft, plus they hope to get Justin Blackmon back from his season-long suspension. Look for the Jaguars to use the draft or free agency to find a pass-catching tight end as well; in Olson’s Raiders offense last season Mychal Rivera was the seventh-most targeted tight end in the league, and when Olson was guiding Josh Freeman to success in Tampa Bay Kellen Winslow averaged 106 targets per year over three seasons.
As you might expect from a defensive-minded coach like Bradley, the plan is for Jacksonville to establish their running game and build the passing game from there. To that end, the hiring of former Bills head coach Doug Marrone as assistant head coach/offensive line coach and former Bills offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett as quarterbacks coach give the Jags two more coaches with recent experience in a run-heavy offense.
Their addition also suggests the Jaguars will move away from the zone blocking system they’ve used the past few seasons; neither the Raiders under Olson nor the Bills under Marrone and Hackett were big on the ZBS, instead using more gap- and power-blocking schemes.
“We’re not going to run the Raiders, Bills or what we did last year,” Bradley said at Olson’s introductory presser. “We’re trying to figure out what best fits our personnel. We’re in the beginning stages of that.”
What might best suit the Jaguars is digging into either a solid free-agent group or deep draft class of running backs to find one or two to carry the load. Not that Denard Robinson won’t be part of the solution, but if you compare him to what the Raiders (Latavious Murray) or Bills (Fred Jackson) leaned on when they successfully ran the ball last season he seems to fit more of a complementary role.
Olson wasn’t a particularly sexy hire for the Jaguars, but his record as an adapter to understocked rosters, a developer of quarterbacks and a guy who can put young players in positions where they can succeed just might make him the guy who can help Jacksonville turn the corner from bottom-feeder to respectability.