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Jags to riches: How Doug Pederson and Trevor Lawrence revitalized Jacksonville in one season

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- One second after kicker Riley Patterson nailed the 36-yard field goal that clinched the biggest comeback victory in Jacksonville Jaguars franchise history, quarterback Trevor Lawrence leaped out of his anxious squat on the sideline in jubilation. He was the first player to excitedly run on the field and a parade of Jaguars followed him.

A historic 31-30 win over the Los Angeles Chargers came despite a first half where Lawrence threw four interceptions that buried the Jags in an early 27-0 hole. It was Lawrence's cool, steady resolve that led them out of it. Yet in the immediate moments after the kick, Lawrence let himself soak it all in. He pumped his fist running in circles around the grass in the sort of frenzied euphoria you see when a kid opens his most-wanted gift on Christmas.

The first teammate Lawrence encountered was left guard Tyler Shatley, one of his closest friends, surprising him with a bear hug from behind. Then he smoothly transitioned between respectful handshakes with dejected Chargers players and joyous bro hugs with teammates. Finally, Lawrence found head coach Doug Pederson near midfield, sharing a lengthy embrace and a few words.

Not only did those two men give Jacksonville a night that will live on forever in city lore, but Pederson and Lawrence revived the franchise within one year. They gave Jaguars fans a reason to believe again.

"We love having Trevor as our quarterback," Pederson said. "He never flinches."

Sixty-three minutes after Patterson's game-winning kick went through the uprights, Lawrence held off his hunger to give me a few minutes in the hallway to discuss the emotions, messages and mentality that came during the wildest win in his young career. And in his final comment, Lawrence beamed about his coach.

"I give all the credit to Coach Pederson," Lawrence said. "The mindset and belief that he brought to this team. It all starts with him and trickles down to everyone else."

Then Lawrence was off to the Jacksonville Beach Waffle House, arriving just after 1 a.m. for a celebratory dinner with more than a dozen friends and teammates, including guard Brandon Scherff and quarterback E.J. Perry, who said they'd never been to the restaurant before. Lawrence's wife, Marissa, called ahead to reserve a section for the large group of victors.

"May be the first reservation at Waffle House," Lawrence said Tuesday. "That night, I got the Texas bacon cheesesteak, hashbrowns with cheese and a pecan waffle. Sometimes I'll get the All-Star (Special), just depends on how I'm feeling."

Lawrence is the type of guy who feels at home celebrating at Waffle House. He treats winning his NFL playoff debut like he's back at Cartersville High in Northwest Georgia beating his biggest rival or at Clemson knocking off Florida State. But Jacksonville has adopted him as one of their own. He does the "Duuuuuuuuvaaaaallllll" chants that the city loves after home wins. His postgame attire was a custom "It was Always the Jags" T-shirt, the phrase first belted out by Jaguars safety Andrew Wingard last month that has become a Jacksonville rallying cry.

Several Jaguars players shared just how dramatic a turnaround this has been from what receiver Marvin Jones Jr. described as "surviving the pain" of the 2021 Urban Meyer experience to Wingard proclaiming "I would die for Doug Pederson" after a win early this season.

As the Jaguars head to Kansas City to face another monumental challenge -- going against Patrick Mahomes' Chiefs in Saturday's Divisional Round (4:30 p.m. ET on NBC) -- they have unwavering belief an upset is possible because Lawrence and Pederson are leading them.

Jaguars QBs coach Mike McCoy told me in late November that Lawrence knows he carries the weight of this franchise on his shoulders, and he embraces the challenge. But a key element of Lawrence's Year 2 growth has been trusting Pederson's QB-friendly system, taught alongside offensive coordinator Press Taylor and McCoy. They needed him to buy in to not having to play hero ball or win games by himself.

The Jaguars have gone from posting the worst record in football two years in a row to winning the AFC South and a playoff game. Pederson and Lawrence are leading this fun, young and confident train, and the Jaguars don't ever want the ride to stop.

"Look at how far we've come in a year," Lawrence told his receivers earlier this season. "Imagine where we'll be at this time next year."

'There's going to be better times'

Jones, an 11th-year NFL veteran, told me earlier this week that he knew Meyer was taking the team "down the wrong path" by the first-year head coach's second week on the job. So he took it upon himself to coach younger players through the 2021 season. Jones said it also took less than a month to see Pederson's "same guy every day" mentality and gain "an understanding that he could take us somewhere special this season."

Several players shared their disdain of the Meyer experience, which included the coach reportedly kicking a player and staying behind on a road trip where he was recorded dancing with a woman who wasn't his wife. He was fired after 13 games, finishing with a 2-11 record.

"I told the rookies and young guys last year: 'I've been in the NFL for a long time, and this isn't the NFL.' Urban is a college coach. He treated us like college kids," Jones said. "If there was a good thing from last year, it was the locker room getting close because we were all going through the same pain together. My consistent message was, There's going to be better times."

Then in early February 2022, the Jaguars hired Pederson -- a Super Bowl-winning head coach with the Philadelphia Eagles who also played quarterback for 12 NFL seasons.

"Everything changed when Doug got here. Finally, we had somebody that was honest and knew what he wanted," Jones said. "It's easy for them to understand now what a good NFL coach is with Doug, but it wasn't then."

The mindset and belief that he brought to this team. It all starts with him and trickles down to everyone else. Jaguars QB Trevor Lawrence on Doug Pederson

Several players told me this week there wasn't a powerful Day 1 speech or galvanizing training camp moment with Pederson, like you'd see in a movie scene. They just knew.

"You can feel his comfort and experience when he speaks -- as a player, as a coach, as a winner," Jaguars linebacker Josh Allen said. "He's never wavered. He's never panicked. If he's not, why should we?"

Sixth-year safety Rayshawn Jenkins added: "Professionalism is No. 1. You come into this building, it's completely different. It's all about work. No extra mind games or drama. No. 2, there's a lot of knowledge that this coaching staff brings to a young team. I'm one of the oldest guys on the defense, but I feel like I'm learning all the time."

The Jaguars have taken on the personality of their coach. Pederson is fearless in the face of adversity, shown partially by his willingness to go for it on fourth down and attempt two-point conversions in what would traditionally be considered unorthodox moments. Through it, he's become an analytics favorite.

Shatley -- the Jaguars' longest-tenured player, having joined the franchise as an undrafted free agent in 2014 -- has experienced four different Jacksonville head coaches establishing their individual cultures. Back in training camp, he told me Pederson's vibe felt so different.

"I see his pure joy. He'll be out here when it feels like 108 degrees with sweat going down his butt crack, and I know there's no place he'd rather be," Shatley told me in July. "I also see how he treats everyone -- I mean even the football operations are happy. That's how you know the culture is changed."

'It became his offense'

Following a five-game losing streak in October that dropped Jacksonville to 2-6, Lawrence sought out his receivers for a series of heart-to-heart conversations about the state of their offense. Lawrence took immense accountability for the losses, but his main trio of receivers (Christian Kirk, Zay Jones and Marvin Jones) and tight end Evan Engram also took the onus to stay after practice for more reps to help facilitate growth.

"We spent a lot of time building our relationship in the spring. So, when that hard midpoint of the season came, it was easy to be candid to say 'I need you to make that (throw)' or 'That's on me,' " Kirk said. "The most important thing is nobody is afraid to take accountability."

Taylor, the first-year offensive coordinator who just turned 35, said the first element he noticed about Lawrence in the spring was a high level of maturity and accountability for his "unique rookie season." Pederson and Taylor took a deep dive into Lawrence's 2021 tape and determined the first step to helping their new QB would be upgrading his receivers, so Lawrence didn't feel the need to "carry the offense."

With Marvin Jones already on the books for 2022, Taylor said they identified three important traits in free-agent targets: speed, versatility and variety. They called around the league to find the best on-field fits and did extensive character checks to make sure those players would jell with Lawrence.

The findings: Kirk on a four-year, $72 million contract; Zay Jones on a three-year, $24 million deal; and Engram for a year at $9 million.

Much of the initial reaction outside the building was about how the Jaguars overpaid. None of those receivers had a 1,000-yard season before signing with Jacksonville. Engram and Jones hadn't eclipsed 750 yards.

But they nailed all three signings -- Pederson and Taylor helped Kirk, Engram and Jones all hit career-highs in receiving yards in their first season in Jacksonville. Taylor raved about their improvement, diverse impact on offense and availability, estimating that the trio has missed a total of two practices this season. They are one of four NFL teams with four players (Kirk, Engram, and both Joneses) who had at least one 100-yard receiving game. They are also one of three teams with three receivers (Kirk, Engram, Zay Jones) totaling at least 750 receiving yards on the season.

"Anybody can have their day in this offense. Doug, Press and the rest of the coaches do a great job of making it a pick-your-poison offense, and that's hard to defend," Engram said. "What a fun system it is to play in."

The next step, Taylor said, was to get the 2021 No. 1 overall pick with a rare skill set, moxie and knack for winning to trust that, if he functions within the QB-friendly system in most situations, he will thrive. It took time, but Lawrence did see the vision Pederson and Taylor implemented.

"It felt like halfway through the year -- Week 8, 9 or 10 -- the light came on," Taylor said. "He never explained it as a lack of trust. But when it clicked, he took over. And it became his offense."

The biggest difference coaches have seen from Lawrence in second half of season: increased comfort within the offense, which has translated into quicker decision-making and a faster time-to-throw rate, significantly aiding an improved Jaguars offensive line. Lawrence has been sacked just eight times total over the last seven games. Since Week 9, he ranks second in NFL in completion percentage.

'Our money or house money, we're here'

Pederson's message to his team before their season-defining playoff win over Chargers was simple: Be proud of what you've accomplished, but we didn't come this far to only come this far. Let's not rest on what we've done. Let's keep riding.

Expect the message to be similar on Saturday.

Chiefs head coach Andy Reid respects a Pederson-led team on a personal level. Pederson was Reid's starting QB for his first game as a head coach with the Philadelphia Eagles, and he served as an assistant coach under Reid for seven seasons, most recently as Chiefs offensive coordinator from 2013 through '15. Reid proclaimed on Sports Radio 810 WHB this week that Pederson should be Coach of the Year after how "he's resurrected the program."

Yet the Jaguars are clear underdogs vs. the Chiefs, a team that has the NFL's top offense and presumptive MVP -- and one that beat Jacksonville 27-17 in Kansas City back in Week 10.

"Whether it's our money or house money, we're here," Pederson said Tuesday. "We're one of four AFC teams still playing and that says a lot."

Despite imposing odds on Saturday, recent Jaguars history would tell you not to write Jacksonville's obituary yet.

Going back to the beginning of November, the Jags have won five straight home games in which they trailed by multiple possessions, most recently Saturday's incredible victory over the Chargers, when Jacksonville became the first team in NFL history to win a playoff game with a -5 turnover margin, per NFL Research. This Saturday's game will take place at hostile Arrowhead Stadium, but the Jags are surging with confidence.

"When we played this team early in the year, we weren't ready. We weren't all there. But now we are," Allen said. "It's normal for [the Chiefs]. They've been here year after year. But we're hungry. Everybody is doubting us. This is an opportunity. We're relishing it. And we can't wait to show it Saturday."

Mahomes, for one, doesn't doubt that the Chiefs will have to come prepared against a team that has gone 7-1 since its November loss at Arrowhead: "They've been playing playoff games for a month. We have to match their intensity."

There's a special buzz right now in Jacksonville, one that feels more sustainable than the franchise's last upstart moment back in 2017, when the Jaguars made it all the way to the AFC Championship Game. The first-year coach plays a huge role in setting this inspiring new tone in Duval -- as does the second-year quarterback.

"Trevor is extremely unflappable. He plays with emotion, which I appreciate. He's the leader you want in every situation," Taylor said. "Everybody in this organization is so happy and thankful to have Trevor as our quarterback."

A former NFL quarterback-turned-head coach and a Georgia-raised QB who loves to celebrate at Waffle House have joined forces to revive the Jacksonville Jaguars within a year. And they aren't quite ready to get off this season's ride yet.

"We're never out of the fight," Lawrence said. "It doesn't matter who we're playing, where we're playing, when we're playing, how the game is going … We always got a shot."

Follow Cameron Wolfe on Twitter.

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