When I playfully asked if the Jaguars could “keep this western theme going,” playing first the Bills then the Broncos, “couldn’t you trade next week’s Titans game for the Cowboys?” is how I mentioned it to Dan Edwards, the Jaguars VP of Communications, he had an interesting reply. “When’s the last time we beat the Bills and Broncos back-to-back?” he said with a sly smile. “Ninety-six,” was my quick, albeit easy answer.
It was the most magical year for the Jaguars in their infancy. Just one year away from an expansion franchise, the young upstarts beat big, bad Buffalo and dominated Denver in successive weeks on the road in the playoffs. The Denver win is still considered one of the two biggest upsets in NFL history. (Jets over Colts in Super Bowl III being the biggest.) While this team is very different than the one that went to the AFC Title game that season, there is one similarity: they act like they like to play football.
That team had a young Mark Brunell, a playful Natrone Means and an eager Jimmy Smith on offense. This one has similar characters on defense with Marcus Stroud, Rashean Mathis and Mike Peterson, just to pick three names. Stroud is in a contract year and is playing his best ever. “I’m enjoying playing football,” he said in the locker room after the Denver win. Mathis is developing into a blanket corner and Peterson has just enough years in the league to help point the enthusiasm in the right direction.
“We’re building this big, pretty house one block at a time,” Peterson explained after Denver could only manage two field goals. “And it’s all the guys in this locker room that have to come to work and build it day after day.”
The defense hasn’t so much dominated Buffalo and Denver as they have smothered and stifled them. The Broncos had 340 yards of offense after three quarters, but only six points to show for it. That’s a lot of 3rd and 1’s that aren’t being converted. Peterson wouldn’t go so far as to describe his defense as “elite” but admitted, “we’re getting there.” But certainly after looking at what players they acquired in the off-season and how they jelled in training camp, the players and coaches knew this part of the team could be very good.
“We want to be a team that you have trouble moving the ball against,” Head Coach Jack Del Rio said in his post game comments. “I wouldn’t call it a masterpiece, but we’re good on defense, we’re good on special teams and we will be good on offense.” Mathis had an inkling they were working on something special when he started lining up with his teammates during camp. “We could see how those new guys fit right in and knew we had a chance to be good,” Mathis said. “But we still have a lot of work to do.” Del Rio added, “It’s not just because the coach says it is. We’ll continue to improve because the players continue to work, day after day.”
But for all of the superb play on defense, it took a gift from Broncos running back Quentin Griffin with time running out to seal the Jaguars victory. His fumble with just under forty seconds remaining kept Denver from attempting what would have been a game winning field goal. Del Rio revealed a little seen side of his personality when asked what he thought when that happened. “Honestly, I said a little prayer of thanks,” Jack admitted. Which was probably the exact right thing to do. NFL players just don’t fumble the ball away with the game on the line and without being hit. It just doesn’t happen at that level, but it did, so a prayer seemed perfectly appropriate.
Del Rio and just about everybody else with the Jaguars will readily admit that they need to improve on offense, but everybody from Del Rio down goes out of their way to say that quarterback Byron Leftwich is not the problem. “He’ll be better when everybody around him is better,” is how Del Rio explained Leftwich’s lack of production. I asked if he could pinpoint what’s happening on offense, assuming Leftwich is not the problem that is keeping them from being more effective. “You know I won’t call my guys out,” was Jack’s response, deflecting what he thought might be a troublesome question that upset his team’s mental balance. It’s hard to say if it’s one guy, or different guys on different plays that’s causing the offense to bog down. Could it be Fred Taylor’s lack of playing time in the preseason that has left him still in a buildup mode two weeks into the regular season? Del Rio doesn’t think so, instead saying that Fred will get more touches (he had 16 carries against Denver) when the whole offense gets better.
But the bottom line is that after two weeks, most predictions had the Jaguars at 0-2 instead of 2-0. With both games being conference victories, something very important when it comes to the tiebreakers. Be honest, if I told you the team would score one touchdown each in their first two games would you have thought they’d be 2-0?