Jaguars' opener could be huge for franchise
Having grown up in Jacksonville and having played his entire NFL career in his hometown, Rashean Mathis has a solid grasp on the small-market franchise's recent struggles.
The veteran cornerback keeps track of everything going on in his city and in his locker room. So he knows, maybe better than most, the significance of Sunday's season opener against Denver.
''We can't be naive of the fact that this is one of the most important games in franchise history,'' Mathis said Wednesday. ''To understand that, it doesn't put any added pressure on you. It just makes you want to play well. The ticket sales and all the hype - Are we staying here or are we not staying here? - we know winning helps everything.''
Winning might be the only thing that keeps the team in Jacksonville.
The Jaguars have sold nearly every ticket for the opener, a good sign for a franchise that blacked out nine of 10 home games last season. But how much of the draw is for Broncos backup quarterback Tim Tebow, the iconic college star who is expected to make his NFL debut in his hometown?
Regardless, the Jaguars insist they are on the verge of turning things around. They hope to eliminate blackouts and build a fan base that makes the River City a viable NFL market for years to come.
''This place is ready to ignite,'' coach Jack Del Rio said. ''Jacksonville's fired up, and when we go out and play well and they see the type of young men we have battling their butts off, I think they're going to like it. I think this place has a chance to explode.''
Although Del Rio's plan sounds good, all the momentum built in Jacksonville this offseason could come to a halt with a poor start on the field. Losing to the underdog Broncos probably would pose a major hurdle for the rest of the season, especially with games following against three teams - San Diego, Philadelphia and Indianapolis - that made the playoffs in 2009.
''It's time for us to get out there and handle our end of the bargain,'' tight end Marcedes Lewis said.
Added running back Maurice Jones-Drew: ''We've got to win the crowd over with our play.''
Quarterback David Garrard wasn't quite as eager to put so much emphasis on one game.
''You definitely want to perform in this game,'' Garrard said. ''It's the home opener in front of your home crowd, it's the first game of the season. It's big, but still it's the first game of the season.
''If you go into it thinking it's a playoff game or the last game you'll ever play, then you'll beat yourself up trying to make so many plays and doing things you're not accustomed to doing. You've really got to go in with a level head and be smart about things, and not try to do too much.''
Jacksonville has done plenty to increase ticket sales.
The team froze ticket prices the third straight season, offered financing plans and created several incentive packages. A civic group called ''Touchdown Jacksonville'' stepped in and began a ticket-selling campaign to generate buzz and end speculation about potential relocation.
Majority owner Wayne Weaver even asked NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell to visit last month in hopes of making a final push. Goodell met with area business leaders, local politicians, team officials and players, then expressed support for the franchise. But he also hinted that fans need to do more to keep the team in town.
Jacksonville had seven of the league's 20 regular-season blackouts in 2009.
The Jaguars hope to have none in 2010 and avoid a third straight losing season. It starts against the Broncos.
''We're glad to see the city has responded to the national scrutiny over how ticket sales have gone the past couple of seasons,'' guard Uche Nwaneri said. ''We want to give them a better product in return. The coaching staff holds us to a higher standard and we're holding ourselves to a higher standard. It's not going out and hoping we win. It's going out and expecting to win.
''That's how we're looking at it right now and we're hoping the fans are right there with us.''