Tom Brady completed 92.9 percent of his passes (26 for 28) to set a single-game postseason record as the Patriots knocked off the Jacksonville Jaguars, 31-20, to improve to 17-0.
That was on Jan. 12, 2008. Jacksonville hasn’t sniffed the postseason since, finishing with a non-losing record just once (8-8 in 2010). The Jags have finished in third place or lower in the AFC South each year since 2011, including a 3-13 finish last season.
So why exactly are they in Foxboro this week for joint practice sessions with the Patriots in advance of Thursday night’s preseason opener for each team?
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Turns out, Bill Belichick has great respect for Doug Marrone, who’s set to begin his first full season as head coach in Jacksonville.
"I think that coach Marrone and the program they have down there will be good for us to work against," Belichick said in a press conference on Friday morning.
Marrone inherited the mess left behind by former Jaguars head coach Gus Bradley, who was fired with two games remaining last year with a 14-48 record since taking over in 2013. Bradley’s .226 winning percentage as a head coach is the worst of the Super Bowl era (1967-present).
Jacksonville, playing out the string, beat the Tennessee Titans in Marrone’s debut in Week 16 – throwing a huge wrench in Tennessee’s playoff aspirations in the process. The Jags lost to the Indianapolis Colts the following week.
Belichick said that he’s respected Marrone throughout his coaching career, a journey with NFL stops as the offensive coordinator of the New Orleans Saints from 2006-2008 and a brief stay in Buffalo as head coach of the Bills in 2013 and 2014. Marrone was also the head coach at Syracuse University, his alma mater, from 2009-2012.
Marrone guided Buffalo to a winning record in his final season, the 9-7 finish just the second time the Bills had posted a winning record this millennium. But when he took advantage of an opt-out clause in his contract just days after the conclusion of the 2014 season, he failed to land another head coaching gig right away.
He’s back now, with a chance to gain even more praise from Belichick should he turn Jacksonville around in a similar manner to the quick improvement in Buffalo which he never saw through.
"I have a lot of respect for what he did in Buffalo," Belichick said. The Bills were 1-3 vs. New England under Marrone, their lone win coming in a Week 17 contest for which the Patriots had already sewn up home field advantage throughout the playoffs. "They were a very tough team to compete against."
The Patriots will also be holding a joint practice session with the Houston Texans later this month, a team with deep New England ties. Texans head coach Bill O’Brien and assistant head coach Romeo Crenel worked with the Patriots under Belichick, while defensive coordinator Mike Vrabel and special teams coordinator Larry Izzo won three Super Bowls apiece in Foxboro. The teams also held joint practices together during training camp in 2015.
This is the first time New England is teaming up with Jacksonville for such an exercise, and beyond the respect factor, there are no such obvious connections between the Patriots and the Jaguars.
But Belichick said that it has been great working with Jacksonville to set up the practices, which will take place both today and tomorrow. He worked things out with Marrone over items such as what each team wants to accomplish, or what the points of emphasis will be.
"Then we red pencil it," Belichick explained. "How about we do it this way, or adjust it this way. That’s relatively easy. There are some things that a team does – we have a certain practice structure, a certain way of doing things – it’s not right or wrong, it’s just the way we do them. They’re playing the same game, but maybe they’re doing things just a little bit differently. I’d say as coaches, when those don’t coincide, we try to find what the common ground is. If we’re going to do it your way, or you’re going to do it our way, or maybe we’re going to split the difference.
"It’s usually better for everybody to do it the same way. There are certain periods of practice, at the beginning of practice, where both teams do their own thing separately and then when we come together, I’d say there’s a certain standard or conformity that we want there to be so that everybody is on the same page; it’s not one way for our defense, one way for their defense."
The Jaguars have some intriguing pieces on offense, including wide receiver Allen Robinson, who is just two years removed from an 80-catch, 1,400-yard, 14-touchdown performance in 2015. Running back Leonard Fournette, the No. 4 overall pick in this year’s draft, rushed for 843 yards in just seven games last season at LSU.
Given that no two players are alike, Belichick believes going up against competition from other teams in a practice setting can only help the Patriots.
"It’s always good to go against different players," he said. "Every player has their own unique skill set and all players in this league are good, so it’s always good to see different types of matchups."
Marrone was asked after practice this morning if he could think of a better exercise for his defense than going up against the New England offense this early in camp.
“No,” Marrone replied. “When you look at the history, I think everyone understands where they are and what they’ve done. Like I said before, we have a great deal of respect for their coaches and their players.”
The Jaguars defense was very good in terms of yards allowed in 2016, giving up the sixth-fewest in the league, but struggled to keep points off the board. Jacksonville had the 25th-ranked scoring defense in the NFL, at 25.0 points per game.
Patriots cornerback Malcolm Butler had an interception of Jaguars starting quarterback Blake Bortles during the 11-on-11 portion of today’s practice, the only turnover New England forced in the session. Butler said it’s different going up against someone other than your teammates in a practice setting, but the change from the norm was a welcomed one.
“You get tired of playing against each other, you want to see somebody else,” Butler said. “We’re tired of fighting each other, jamming and pushing each other, so it’s great to have another team in here. They let you know where you are as a player, also.”
The teams will practice again Tuesday at 9:30 a.m., with their week culminating in Thursday’s preseason opener at Gillette Stadium at 7:30 p.m.