By George Bremer
The Herald Bulletin
---- — INDIANAPOLIS — Gus Bradley watched Pete Carroll build a winner in Seattle by changing the culture of the franchise.
Coming off a highly successful nine-year run at Southern California, where he won two national championships, Carroll brought a collegiate enthusiasm to the Seahawks. He made everything a competition — including a special Wednesday session in which any player on the roster can challenge for any other's job — and stressed having fun with the game.
Now in his fourth season, the 62-year-old has Seattle playing as one of the top teams in the NFL.
And that's exactly the path Bradley wants to see Jacksonville follow. Hired in January as the team's third head coach in three years, the former Seahawks defensive coordinator is off to an 0-3 start.
He knows the NFL is not a patient league, but he believes a foundation is being laid that will help the Jaguars in the future.
"I believe that our environment is really, really good now," he said during a conference call at the Colts' training facility. "It's ideal for our players, for learning, for optimism, for attitude. We've got that accomplished, I believe. You can talk to our players to get a better sense of it. Our owner has been great and our GM. I think we understand where we're at. It's not something where we're saying let's build for the future. We feel like we've got the players now to help us be successful. We've just got to continue to grow with each other. I believe it will take place. We just have to be really strict and stay true to it."
Success couldn't begin at a better time for Jacksonville than Sunday. The Jaguars host Indianapolis in their first game against an AFC South opponent during Bradley's tenure.
The Colts (2-1) are tied with Houston and Tennessee for the division lead, but Jacksonville had a major impact on Indianapolis' title hopes in 2012.
Blaine Gabbert's 80-yard touchdown pass to Cecil Shorts III late in the fourth quarter of a Week 3 contest at Lucas Oil Stadium gave the Jaguars a 22-17 victory. It was one of just two wins for Jacksonville on the season and proved to be the difference between the Colts winning the AFC South and opening the playoffs as a wild-card team on the road.
Gabbert, who injured his thumb during the preseason and worsened it during the season opener against Kansas City, will make just his second start of the year on Sunday.
"We have had a slow start, but at the same time this is our first division game, and division games are the ones that count," Gabbert said. "They're the ones that really matter. We're playing a great football team, and we know we got to prepare better than we have before so we're able to execute on Sunday."
Shorts again is likely to be a big part of the game plan.
He had a breakout season in 2012 with 55 catches for 979 yards and seven scores. And he's built on that foundation through three games this year. Shorts is third in the AFC with 276 receiving yards and is averaging 14.5 yards per catch.
"He's been doing a great job, and you saw that coming with Cecil," Gabbert said. "He's worked his tail off all offseason, throughout the OTAs and minicamps, through training camp and the preseason, to put himself in that position. So he's been doing a wonderful job, and we just have to find ways to get him the football."
The game-winner was Shorts' only catch against the Colts in Week 3. But he was one of the few Jaguars who shined in the rematch six weeks later, won 27-10 by Indianapolis at EverBank Field. Shorts had six catches for 105 yards and Jacksonville's lone touchdown in that game, and he's coming off a strong performance with eight catches for 143 yards in last week's 45-17 loss to Seattle.
Shorts is one of the reasons Bradley feels so good about his team's future. And he's hoping Gabbert's return this week will provide a spark that helps bring things together for the present.
Jacksonville claimed a league-high seven players off the waiver wire when final cuts were made at the end of training camp, and the team still is trying to get everyone on the same page.
"We're seeing flashes of things doing well, but just not enough of them," Bradley said. "It's our consistency. We understand that it's going to take some time just offensively, defensively, special teams. We've had quite a new influx of players, especially at the end of the preseason. So it's getting them caught up and just how we call things, our scheme, the communication that takes place on the field. So we've seen it the last three weeks get better, but just not consistent enough with it."