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With expectations low, Jags look to restore pride

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Alex Marvez

Alex Marvez is a Senior NFL Writer for FOXSports.com. He has covered the NFL for the past 18 seasons as a beat writer and is the former president of the Pro Football Writers of America. He also is a frequent host on Sirius XM NFL Radio.

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DANA POINT, Calif.

Jack Del Rio says some good can be salvaged from Jacksonville's miserable 2008 season. One positive: There will be no distractions from the media touting the Jaguars as legitimate Super Bowl contenders. "The most refreshing thing is I know we won't have any of that talk during the offseason," the Jags' head coach said earlier this week at the NFL owners meeting. Getting caught up in such hype — Del Rio describes it as players "spending time talking about something as opposed to working on the details" — was just one of the reasons these Jaguars lost their roar in 2008. Jacksonville was a mess on virtually every level, slumping from a second-round playoff team in 2007 to last place in the AFC South at 5-11. The fallout from such a decline is significant. The front office was restructured, with Del Rio now on the hot seat after being stripped of the personnel power he had acquired. The roster was expunged of players considered trouble in the locker room or off the field. And the bold approach toward free agency the Jaguars took last offseason was replaced by a build-through-the-draft philosophy espoused by new general manager Gene Smith. Even the Jaguars uniforms will be different as the franchise tries to rebound from what Del Rio admits was "a bad year." "Clearly, this train got off track," he said. "We need to get it back on." Jacksonville seemed poised for a championship run after a strong end to the 2007 season that included a playoff victory at Pittsburgh. But the Jaguar Express began getting derailed early in the ensuing offseason. Jacksonville signed wide receiver Jerry Porter and cornerback Drayton Florence to free-agent contracts that included roughly $20 million combined in guaranteed money. This was disastrous on several fronts. Porter and Florence never proved worth such big paydays because of injuries and mediocre play. The signings also created resentment among Jaguars veterans who thought they too should be financially rewarded. "When you don't pay a handful of guys whose contracts are expiring and you are paying a couple that come in and don't prove to be the right kind of guys, it disrupts things," Del Rio said.
"At this time last year, we had a lot of talk about, 'Boy, my contract's not getting done. I need this.' There was a lot of 'I, I, I' and not enough 'we, we, we.' We need to get back to that commitment to doing things for the good of the team and putting team first. That's going to be a point of emphasis." Such focus has become clear with the offseason release of Porter, Florence and wide receiver Matt Jones. Although Jones was their leading receiver in 2008, the Jags recently cut him after an alcohol-related probation violation stemming from his arrest last summer for cocaine possession. "We had been patient," Del Rio said. "His commitment to me was that he would not do anything to embarrass us or his teammates in any way. There was another occurrence. We just felt enough is enough and it was time to move on." Jacksonville also opted not to re-sign wide receiver Reggie Williams, another Jaguars first-round pick that didn't live up to such lofty draft status. Even though Williams was legally cleared after a DUI arrest in late February, Del Rio said the Jaguars "don't have any intention of bringing him back." "For the last four years, we've been working at really developing them hoping they would become the guys," Del Rio said of Williams and Jones. "That attempt is no longer part of what we're doing, so we can spend our energy now on acquiring guys who have a chance to develop. Hopefully, they'll develop a whole lot quicker." Jacksonville's lack of offensive firepower in the passing game was compounded by injuries that decimated a strong rushing attack. Starting guards Vince Manuwai and Maurice Williams were lost for the season during the opener against Tennessee and never adequately replaced. Defensively, Jacksonville struggled enough that respected coordinator Gregg Williams was ousted after just one season (ex-Cleveland coordinator Mel Tucker is his replacement). The biggest weakness was pass defense. An overmatched secondary was exposed with the lack of a strong pass rush that Derrick Harvey was supposed to provide. Like with the Porter and Florence signings, the Harvey acquisition was another idea that sounded good in theory but didn't turn out that way. The Jags could have sought a short-term fix at defensive end by trading for a veteran rusher like Jason Taylor. Instead, Jacksonville wanted a long-term solution. Three mid-round picks were bundled as part of a deal with Baltimore that allowed the selection of Harvey with the No. 8 overall pick. But Jacksonville then couldn't get Harvey signed until late in the preseason because of a contract dispute, effectively ruining his rookie campaign. While pleased with his overall development, Del Rio said Harvey was forced to use the first half of the regular season as his "training camp" to "get in shape, learn the system and get enough reps in practice." By the time Harvey permanently entered the starting lineup, Jacksonville was 4-5 and about to begin a four-game losing streak. "Holdouts hurt the player and the team," Del Rio said. "He didn't gain anything by it and really didn't become a guy that we felt (could make an immediate impact)." As the losses mounted, so did internal tension. Running back Fred Taylor — a Jags standout for 11 seasons — described team chemistry as "bad." Veteran linebacker Mike Peterson was heavily scapegoated. He was fined $10,000 and briefly dismissed from Jags headquarters following a heated verbal confrontation with Del Rio in early November. Peterson, a team captain, was among the players that Del Rio had called out during a team meeting. For the first time in six seasons as head coach, Del Rio was in danger of losing his squad. "That was a situation where a guy was putting selfish interest ahead of the team and then bucked up when challenged about it," Del Rio said. "It's been portrayed a certain way. That's OK because I'm not really concerned with it. I know and everybody that was a part of it understands that there's a way to do it that's right and wrong. There's going to be accountability in our building and organization."
The Jags have since parted ways with Peterson (Atlanta) and Taylor (New England), both of whom signed elsewhere. To replace Taylor, the Jags have elevated Maurice Jones-Drew into the starting lineup and plan to give fullback Greg Jones an expanded role carrying the football a la Baltimore's Le'Ron McClain. Jones-Drew led Jacksonville in rushing last season while scoring a career-high 12 touchdowns. "I think you'll see some of his leadership skills emerge with the void created," Del Rio said. "He never really wanted to step on Fred's toes. Now that Fred's not there, it's going to open the door for Maurice to be more assertive." Del Rio also remains steadfast in his support of David Garrard. Signed to an offseason contract extension last year that included $20 million guaranteed, Garrard didn't play like a franchise quarterback for most of 2008. Del Rio, though, said that was largely because Garrard didn't have a strong supporting cast. "I think David has done a heck of a job with what he's been dealing with," said Del Rio, who in 2006 made the then-controversial decision to start Garrard ahead of Byron Leftwich. "We've got to do a better job bringing in some weapons. He's really not had that guy outside who you get the ball in his hands and he gives you some (yards after catch) ... David's capable of doing some good things. He's the right kind of guy." Del Rio needs more of them, especially at wide receiver (veteran Torry Holt recently took a visit but didn't sign). Besides Garrard and Jones-Drew, Del Rio cited cornerback Rashean Mathis, linebacker Justin Durant, tight end Marcedes Lewis and defensive tackle John Henderson as blocks in the foundation Jacksonville is trying to build. Del Rio is trying to last through the reconstruction. James "Shack" Harris, who was hired along with Del Rio in 2003, resigned as Jacksonville's vice president of player personnel following last season. If the Jags don't show signs of improvement this year, Del Rio may also be out the door. "We're going to get back to the fundamentals," said Del Rio, who has made offseason conditioning a focus under new strength coach Luke Richardson. "I think you can get away from the little things that make the difference and the work that needs to be done ... I've taken very detailed notes on what occurred and look to be better going forward." Even if a Super Bowl berth seems much further away than at this time last year. Alex Marvez will be co-hosting from 2 to 6 p.m. Saturday and noon to 4 p.m. Sunday on Sirius NFL Radio, Channel 124.
Tagged: John Henderson, David Garrard, Fred Taylor, Justin Durant, Maurice Jones-Drew, Marcedes Lewis, Drayton Florence, Derrick Harvey, Jason Taylor, Matt Jones, Patriots, Falcons, Rashean Mathis, Bills, Greg Jones, Mike Peterson, Torry Holt, Vince Manuwai, Maurice Williams, Reggie Williams, Jaguars

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