The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Jaguars fans hope Trevor Lawrence is their savior. He seems unfazed by the pressure.

Jaguars quarterback Trevor Lawrence lost two games across his three-year college career at Clemson. His new team lost 36 during that same span. (Phelan M. Ebenhack/AP)
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JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — DJ Chark sprinted across the field and looked back across his left shoulder, hoping for a pass before he ran out of room. It was a simulated third down in the red zone — the kind of play that hasn’t worked consistently for the Jacksonville Jaguars’ offense in a long time.

Chark streaked toward the white painted border of the end zone and then the ball finally came his way, zipping through the dragonfly-filled August air and right to his fingertips. He caught it, tapped his feet inbounds, then ran straight into the practice field fence. He let out a triumphant scream.

The quarterback, rookie Trevor Lawrence, did not scream. He merely jogged to the sideline. Lawrence has been making these sorts of throws for years; it’s just what he does.

It’s just not what most people around here are used to seeing.

Lawrence, 21, was the No. 1 pick in the 2021 NFL draft. He brings the anticipation of a true franchise quarterback, with the type of elite potential not possessed by Jaguars passers of the past. Lawrence didn’t arrive from Clemson with a lot of adjectives attached to his personality; there’s no “swashbuckling” or “flashy” or “gunslinging” to go with his game. He’s just a 6-foot-6, wildly talented thrower, whether standing still or on the run.

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And that’s kind of a big deal in a winning-starved town that has had some stout defenses but few offensive players who end up on fantasy rosters or bedroom posters. Lawrence will have some help — an offensive savant in new coach Urban Meyer, plus a young group of pass-catchers and running backs that includes college teammate Travis Etienne, a fellow first-round pick.

But Lawrence, who lost two games across three seasons at Clemson, also will be tasked with leading a team that has lost 36 games across the same span. It is the type of pressure that would seem intimidating to many but for which Lawrence seems to be uniquely equipped to handle.

“Being inside out, continuing to be me, taking everything I’ve learned and who I am, and taking it here,” Lawrence said at his introductory news conference. “Not changing anything, really, just because I’m in a new place. Think that’s why I’m here, that’s why all these guys put some trust in me, just to be who I am.”

With the NFL season less than a month away, the question of how a pair of all-time college winners will adapt to Jacksonville — and how one of the league’s more intriguing offenses will take shape — remains. But so far, the hope is as thick as the humid Florida air.

“I promise,” wide receiver Laviska Shenault Jr. said, “it’ll be electrifying.”

‘We’ve always been third fiddle’

After practice, Chark recalled his childhood as a football fan growing up in Louisiana. He laughed about the then-woeful Saints and the New Orleans fans “with bags on their heads.” He’s asked when that changed.

“When they signed Drew Brees,” he said.

The possible parallel is enticing. Brees and Coach Sean Payton changed a franchise and the vibe of an entire city. It wasn’t just that their offense made games more exciting; it was that it turned the Superdome into a lion’s den. Saints games became events, almost like boxing matches. Brees retired this offseason, but not before making “New Orleans” mean “Saints” in a proudly new way.

“Now you can’t tell Saints fans nothing!” Chark said.

What can you tell Jaguars fans? Well, pretty much anything. Meyer recently told a group of local backers that they can’t let visiting fans flood the stadium on Sundays and make a home game feel like a road game. “That s--- has got to stop,” he spat. This has been a sore point for a while. Team owner Shad Khan revitalized TIAA Bank Field, even adding swimming pools overlooking the gridiron. But those pools became vacation spots for Packers, Steelers and Bills fans, who flew down to scream for the road team from the cabanas.

It’s not that the Jaguars were always terrible — the team nearly went to the Super Bowl in the 2017 season behind a group of sterling defenders. But it was as fleeting as it was fun; the plodding offense never cashed the checks the stout defense wrote, and the team spiraled.

“It’s been hard to watch,” said John M. Phillips, a local attorney who loves the Jaguars so much he bought a city magazine and assigned himself to travel to Green Bay to cover a game last season. He has been a season ticket holder for more than 15 years and even bought a ramshackle house near the stadium. “It wasn’t a crackhouse,” he quips, “but it wasn’t not a crackhouse.”

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Phillips came to this corner of Florida from Alabama because “it had a river, it had an ocean, and it had an NFL franchise.” But he and the rest of the fan base have worried if one of those things would vanish. For years there were rumors that the Jaguars would move to Europe, where they already play an annual game (or two).

“Jacksonville has struggled as a town with a bit of an identity complex since before I got here,” he said. “We’ve always been third fiddle [to Miami and Tampa]. Always the team that’s going to be shipped to London.”

Whether the Jaguars can break that reputation will depend greatly on Lawrence, who has been unflappable for most of his football life. Unlike Meyer — who on this particular morning gathered the players and launched into a red-faced, curse-word-laden motivational speech befitting a coach who has been in charge of college students almost his entire career — Lawrence is not a rah-rah guy. He’s almost serene in his manner, as effortless with his grin as with his throws.

“Here’s a guy who pretty much knew in eighth or ninth grade that he was going to be the number one pick in the NFL draft,” said Jeff Scott, who coached wide receivers at Clemson and now is the head coach at South Florida.

That expectation never seemed to weigh on Lawrence. From the time he arrived on campus at Clemson, everything around him could be chaotic, but he wasn’t.

“Football is what he does,” Scott said, “but it’s not who he is.”

The Tigers had a very good starting quarterback back then named Kelly Bryant, who already had led the team to the College Football Playoff the season before. The coaches didn’t want to rock the boat or undermine the starter. They figured that when it was time for Lawrence to start, in Scott’s words, “Everyone in the stands would know it.”

It did not take long. Four games into Lawrence’s freshman season, with Bryant and Lawrence sharing time, coaches called a draw play for a running back. Lawrence scanned the defense, checked out of the play, pulled the handoff, rolled to his left and fired a bullet for a touchdown. It was an NFL-caliber play. In fact, it was a play that not every pro passer can make.

“The conversation on the headset,” Scott said, “it was like, ‘Okay, he’s the guy now.’ ”

‘He has been almost a little too relaxed’

There already has been a “he’s the guy” moment or two this month. In a scrimmage at the stadium, Lawrence rolled out to his right, stood up statue-straight and zinged a laser to the fingertips of a receiver 40 yards upfield. The Jaguars’ Twitter feed posted it with the simple caption: “As advertised.”

It hasn’t all been perfect. Lawrence has had times when he’s clearly thinking more than reacting, and he has been guilty of holding on to the ball for an extra beat — acceptable in college but lethal in the pros.

“It’s easy to write something down in a meeting,” Lawrence told reporters after one practice, “but actually changing habits, that’s something that just takes time — muscle memory, and that’s what I’m trying to work on.”

If he’s frustrated, it’s hardly apparent. There never has been much consternation about whether he’s emotionally capable of handling the pressure. If anything, the only sports radio fodder he generates is about an opposite question: Is Lawrence somehow too serene? The great quarterbacks seem to have some maniacal tripwire, breaking from an affable demeanor to unleash venom at times. Lawrence doesn’t show any of that, at least not publicly. He’s cool almost to a fault, even when he’s put in tense practice situations with the clock running.

“We want him to be poised but have some urgency,” passing game coordinator Brian Schottenheimer told reporters. “He has been almost a little too relaxed.”

And yet that vibe has its own genius. Scott said Lawrence’s perpetual patience tacitly reassures receivers that their longer routes will be rewarded with a catchable, on-time pass. Jaguars offensive lineman Brandon Linder said Lawrence’s “poise” to wait for the perfect moment and throw a strike helps linemen finish their blocks — knowing something good might be brewing.

“He’s making a lot of throws that some guys can’t make right now,” Shenault said. “And those kinds of throws take time.”

How much time will it take to turn this thing around? Well, first Lawrence must win the job. Third-year quarterback Gardner Minshew II has had a good camp, and Meyer won’t yet name a starter. But as at Clemson, Lawrence’s ascendance feels inevitable. And there’s a buzz about what might come next.

“I’m going on Year 8,” Linder said, “and I’ve never been more excited.”

Will it all be a mirage? Jaguars faithful are used to waiting around. But now they have a quarterback who’s used to waiting only as long as he has to.