Jacksonville Jaguars

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Weaver’s Moves

You can’t really go by whatever anybody says in professional sports anymore. Everybody’s got an agenda. They’re saying one thing to influence another, playing both sides against the middle. That goes for players, coaches scouts and owners. Even though they constantly criticize the media as negative and meddling, they’re all trying to use the media to get their particular point across.

That’s why I wouldn’t put too much stock in what Jaguars Owner Wayne Weaver says, or has said about the lease with the city and the prospect of moving the team.

His actions have always lead to the truth about what’s going on with the team, not necessarily his words. Which is fine. He’s got a business to run, and he’s going to do it the way he sees fit. Weaver’s letter to the city was very specific in outlining how the team had lost money in two of the last three years. All along Weaver knew that the math was tough for a town the size of Jacksonville. The population base is small compared to most other NFL markets, making ticket sales an issue.

When the team is winning, it’s not as much of a problem, and of course, the team really hasn’t won in four years. The language he used in the letter to the city relates directly to the lease specifications that might, and I emphasize might, allow the Jaguars to break the lease with the city and move out of town. The letter itself is under dispute, neither side agreeing on who even asked to have a letter in the first place.

It’s not surprising that Weaver wants a better deal than the city is offering. The biggest mistake anybody can make is to forget that Weaver is first and foremost, a businessman. He’s tough, and some have even called him ruthless. He is pleasant, and is a nice guy, but when there’s money at stake, he’s all business, right out of “The Art of War.” So capturing the high ground is important to him, allowing him to maximize his profits. And he’s entitled to that, so long as he’s putting the best team on the field that he possibly can.

I don’t consider Weaver’s letter a threat, but merely another step in the negotiating process. But don’t think the team will ever leave either. Even though the lease between the Jaguars and the city is pretty airtight, a buyout of $100 million or so doesn’t seem so bad for a product that’s valued over a half –billion dollars. That would seem like a small price to pay for a city like Los Angeles to get an NFL team back to Southern California.

One thing Weaver has failed to do is create a community feel for his team. Their business dealings in the first six or seven years of the franchise turned a lot of local business leaders off. They’re negotiating style was “We’re the Jaguars and ‘you’re not,” leaving even the winners of the negotiations to become partners with the team leaving the bargaining table feeling like they had blood on their hands. Same thing with their relationship with fans over the first six or seven years. Long term contracts, high priced tickets and overpriced concessions had fans leaving the stadium feeling like they’d had been to a business venture rather than a football game.

Things have gotten better, but three things need to happen: First, they need to win. The team was competitive last year, but fell apart in a couple of crucial situations, leaving them short of the playoffs. Second, they need to stop the public talk about the lease and get serious in the negotiations. Stop using the media trying to sway public opinion one way or another. I agree with Weaver when he says he’s not going to get into the “What if?” game. And third, Weaver himself needs to be part of the team’s promotional package. The fans like him and can put a face on the team that Byron Leftwich, Fred Taylor and Jack Del Rio can’t.

And finally consider this. Weaver paid about $120 million cash for the team. He didn’t share in the television revenue as a full partner for the first three years so you could say his price was higher, but the cash outlay for Weaver and his investment group was around $120 million. The Jaguars are now valued at over $550 million, with a line of purchasers standing at the gate with their checkbooks ready. That’s a pretty good return on your investment in just 12 years, if you’re a businessman.

And don’t forget, Wayne’s all about business.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Idle Threats

There was a chuckle and a bit of exasperation on the other end of the phone line from Jaguars Owner Wayne Weaver. “I never said that,” he answered when I asked him what that “moving the team stuff” was all about. “I’m not going anywhere,” he added, unsolicited. There had been a big uproar in recent weeks about the Jaguars disagreement with the city regarding revenue generated from advertising inside the stadium. It was reported that Weaver threatened to move the team if he didn’t get his way. Although the reports even said he admitted to saying that out of frustration with the negotiations, Weaver says he never made any threats. “I’m committed here, and we’re trying to work though this right now.”

Making his millions originally in the shoe business, Wayne Weaver has a sense of style, is passionate about whatever he’s doing, but first and foremost, he’s a businessman. He knows how to make money and understands the competitive aspect of business. He’s not afraid to be tough; some might even say rough around the edges when it comes to getting his way. From the outside he doesn’t seem to be ruthless, but I’ve been in a few deals with him and privy to others enough to know you don’t want to tangle with him unless you’ve got your facts straight and you’re right.

Weaver disagrees with the city’s and the Gator Bowl’s interpretation of the rights granted to the Jaguars for ownership of the signs inside the stadium. Who knows who’s contract is enforceable, but one thing’s for sure, Weaver believes he’s right and when he believes he’s right, he usually is.

In his quest for an NFL team in the early 90’s, he showed all sides of his personality. He organized a business plan that would meet the league’s specifications. He put together a group of people who could execute the plan. He schmoozed with the owners. He smiled for reporters. He had pen in hand ready to sign over millions to the league, and they turned their nose up and said, “give us a month.”

That’s when Wayne got hot.

Fiery hot.

The day after granting a team to Charlotte and telling the Jacksonville organization to cool their heels for a while, I was standing with Weaver outside of the NFL’s temporary offices in Chicago while he was waiting to meet with NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue.

“What are you going to tell him,” I asked.

“That I came here to get a football team not to get jerked around,” Weaver responded with a clenched jaw and a squinty stare.

“We’re getting a football team,” Wayne’s brother Ron once told me during the whole process. “How do you know?” I asked, shaking my head. “Because my brother wants one, and when he figures out what he wants, he goes and gets it. Always has,” Ron said without it being a brag or a threat.

So somewhere in the meeting rooms between the Jaguars, the city and the Gator Bowl there have been some hotly contested negotiations about money. Having signed on to run the ACC Championship game, the Gator Bowl is looking for new revenue. Weaver’s trying to maximize his money and the city is trying to make everybody happy.

Did Weaver threaten to move? It wouldn’t surprise me if he blurted that out at some time. But did he mean it even if he said it? I don’t think so. Covering up around 10,000 seats in the stadium isn’t the move of a man who’s thinking about taking his toy elsewhere. The Jaguars could do a much better job of connecting with the fans and potential fans here in the city, but a move? No. At least not yet.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Hugh Douglas, Sign Of The Times

I had a private chuckle when the Jaguars released Hugh Douglas as they got their roster down to 65 players. Douglas tried to make a big splash when he arrived in Jacksonville last year, and failing that, left with a hardly a whimper. In the locker room on the day of his arrival, Douglas was trumpeted as the player the Jaguars needed to change directions on the defensive line. He was one of Jack Del Rio’s first coups, a veteran, name defensive player willing to commit to Del Rio’s new team.

Douglas was brash, and defiant in his first interview, chastising the media for asking about his knee (which was hurt) and his motivation (which turned out to be lacking.) But it was obvious Hugh Douglas was a big personality, and he wanted to be just that. He was “Big City” and he was going to bring that to this town. But if you’re going to be big city, you can’t play like little village, and Douglas barely qualified for a spot on the map based on his performance.

He was in a funk, not because he wasn’t playing well, (and he wasn’t) but because nobody was making a big deal about him. He complained that nobody knew him on the street and in the clubs here, that the lifestyle wasn’t what suited him. How that translates into poor performance on the field, I guess only Douglas knows, but the extra 20 lbs or so he was carrying around certainly didn’t help. So with the spare tire on his waist and the chip on his shoulder, Douglas took millions of dollars from the Jaguars and complained about it. He did produce 3 ½ sacks for his effort (or lack thereof).

I’m not sure where guys like Hugh Douglas get their personality from. He’s not going to the Hall of Fame. He was a very good player among some very good defensive players in Philadelphia. As media outlets discover parts of the country heretofore unknown to them (i.e. anything not NY, LA, Chicago, Miami or Dallas) players find it acceptable to go to those places, figuring they’ll drag the poor unwashed masses into the 21st century when it comes to “the high life.” But what happened to Douglas here is a good example of how things have changed.

The celebrity aspect of athletes is waning. Despite desperate efforts by MTV, the NBA and the NFL networks, people don’t really care what the players are doing outside of the field of play. We don’t care where they’re partying, what their “cribs” look like, what kind of car they drive or what clothes they’re wearing. Sure, players can have an impact in their communities by getting involved, setting good examples and doing charity work. But just hanging around showing off their “bling-bling” doesn’t cut it any more.

Douglas used to try and run the press conferences he was involved in, telling the media to physically “back off” or that they could “kiss my a__!” Eventually as his play diminished, he stopped talking to the media and we stopped asking. At training camp this year, Douglas met with the media, holding his thumb and forefinger about a half inch apart saying he had a “little bit more respect for the media” after his stint with NFL network as a reporter. That’s OK, I had a “little bit more respect for Hugh Douglas” after he actually did some work in the off season. His comment how people here were “learning the game” was so arrogant and off-base it was laughable.

Douglas cut and run (or what he calls running these days) when his skills were questioned this year, just like most cowards do. It won’t surprise anybody if he doesn’t get much of a reception in Philadelphia either.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Solving Ticket Problems

They seem to have it all: A beautiful stadium, nice weather, natural grass, a solid fan base and an attractive product. So why can’t the Jaguars sell out the stadium? They’re not the only ones with this problem. Tampa, Atlanta, Miami and many other NFL towns aren’t selling out unless their team is a winner.

The math is tough on the Jaguars from the start. When the stadium is sold out, 73,000 fans from a total population of about 1.1 million are at the game. That means one in about every fifteen people, men women and children, are inside the stadium. Ticket prices are an issue. The Jaguars ticket prices range in the upper end of prices throughout the league, while the median income of their local fan base is in the bottom end of the league.

Although the Jaguars have put some in the affordable range, a season ticket is still out of range for a lot of the working class in North Florida and South Georgia. Remember, nobody is buying one season ticket. It’s a couple or three or four for family or friends and it can add up quickly.

Market size and stadium size don’t match. Forget Green Bay, Jacksonville is the smallest city to have an NFL team. The Packers have been around forever and they have Milwaukee close by. The 73,000 seats are too many for a modern day football stadium, as evidenced by every stadium built since the one in Jacksonville was completed. About 65,000 seats is a good size, so it’s no coincidence that Jaguars sellouts miss by about 8,000 on a regular basis. The size of the stadium was mandated by local politicians who wanted to ensure that the Florida/Georgia game was accommodated with 80,000 or so seats after the temporaries were put in. So with the facts laid out, it’s obvious a sellout is a hard sell to begin with.

But it has been done.

And with regularity.

The Jaguars were the ticket when they were winners and when they were new. That combination, starting in 1995 and going through 2000 gave the organization a false sense of security. Their first blackout didn’t occur until September of 2001.

“We were a little bit spoiled,” Owner Wayne Weaver admitted to me recently. Spoiled by success on the field and at the ticket window. Because of that success, and the continued explosion of interest in the NFL, Weaver saw his $120 million cash investment in 1993 grow to an estimated worth of $500 million in 2002. That’s a pretty good return. So by just about every measure, save for recent wins and losses, the Jaguars are a success.

But why can’t they sell enough tickets?

Part of it is the complacency Weaver alluded to. They had the doors open and people flocked through. Jaguars paraphernalia was everywhere, the hottest gift item. Players were as popular as rock stars, never having to pick up a check, anywhere. But that shine is gone. The newness has worn off, and the winning is in the past, and they hope, in the future. That’s where their connection with the city, and its population counts. And for some reason, they haven’t been able to make one.

Jaguars insiders agreed that in Tom Coughlin’s final season, the team had suffered a total disconnect from its casual fan. Coughlin’s abrupt manner kept people away and a losing record ensured they’d spend their money elsewhere. So changing the coach seemed to be the panacea the organization saw to fix their sagging fortunes, both on the field and at the box office.

Jack Del Rio, a vibrant, young, energetic former player replaced Coughlin and the team saw an immediate jump in season ticket sales. But that lagged as well, and the teams on-field success is realistically at least a couple of years away.

A connection with the fans depends on a history, both of winning and losing. Fans need to celebrate their victories together and have a common misery when it comes to losing. College stadiums in Gainesville, Athens and Tallahassee are sold out on weekends in the fall, regardless of the team’s record. It’s a part of people’s culture, how they’ve grown up and what they see of themselves. But the Jaguars haven’t tapped that.

Business partners say the Jaguars’ attitude toward them is “We’re the Jaguars and you’re not.” Many fans have said buying a ticket is much harder than it has to be. The game day experience in most NFL cities starts early and ends late, regardless of the team’s record or the time of the game. Even in Carolina, with the same amount of history as the Jaguars, fans have street parties and post-game gatherings to rival anything around the league. The Jaguars have parking lots with scattered tailgaters, but nothing that’s about to go into the books as legendary.

Their marketing this year began with a slogan touting “A New Era.” A new coaching era yes, but it’s not a new era just because you say it is. Television and radio ads have a deep voiced announcer promoting tickets so you can be involved in a “New Season of Historic Proportions.” How so?

The Jacksonville sports fan is smarter than that. In fact, they know this season is the first step in getting the team back to contending status. Most people who have given up their season tickets cite the game day experience as their number one reason.

“I had season tickets for the first five years,” one Jaguars fan told me, “and I never sat next to the same person twice. I didn’t know anybody in my section, so I felt pretty isolated.”

A marketing strategy that puts people in the seats with people they know is important for any professional sports team, especially one based in a small community like Jacksonville. Knowing how many studies and surveys the team has commissioned in the past, have they figured out why they haven’t ever been embraced by the community in a passionate way? Maybe it’s because the community doesn’t feel embraced by the Jaguars.

“They’re Wayne’s Jaguars, they’re the NFL’s Jaguars,” is how many fans describe the team. Weaver needs to figure out how to have people feel like they’re Jacksonville’s Jaguars. Fans need to think they have a proprietary interest in the team, even if they don’t. That’s where the Jaguars marketing strategy has failed from the beginning. And their biggest asset is right under their nose: Weaver himself.

The Jaguars owner made his millions marketing shoes to women, knowing what they were looking for in style and color. As a “Georgia Boy” (he’s from Macon), Weaver has an easy personal style that would connect with potential ticket buyers, the everyday Jacksonville fan. He needs to be out front, explaining his affinity for this town. The owner as pitchman for his product isn’t an unusual idea, it’s just different than what happens in other towns. Weaver had his chances to back efforts to take an NFL team elsewhere, most notably St. Louis, but he liked it here. His philanthropy is near legend in a town with limited “deep pockets” givers. Developing Weaver as a “hometown” owner, makes people feel like he’s a part of what they are, and in turn, his team is a part of what they are as well.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Boselli’s Retirement

A career that seemed destined to end at the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton now ends in an auditorium in Houston. Tony Boselli will announce his retirement this week from football at age 31. Rest, rehabilitation nor three surgeries have given Boselli relief from the shoulder problems that originally put him out of the Jaguars lineup in October of 2001.

Drafted to be the “cornerstone of the franchise” by then-coach Tom Coughlin, Boselli was plagued by injuries throughout his career. Not big injuries generally, but ones that nicked him enough to miss a game here or there, forcing the Jaguars to alter their game plan on the offensive line. When healthy, Boselli could take his place among the best left tackles in the history of the game.

Over the 1995-2001 run, he started 90 games for Jacksonville, and was credited with allowing 15 1/2 sacks in their period. Knowing he might be damaged goods, Coughlin and the Jaguars made a deal with Houston, allowing the expansion franchise to take Boselli off their roster, along with Seth Payne and Gary Walker, giving the Jaguars a chance to get out of cap jail. It was a risk by the Texans, but a calculated one, knowing they’d get Payne and Walker in the deal. In fact, those two started every game for Houston last year on their defensive front four. Boselli was checked out by the Texan’s medical staff, and was declared sound enough to continue rehab. He said he’d play in 2002. But in October of last year, the Texans put him on injured reserve. He didn’t play a down. His retirement this week will bring his career to a close, but not his cap space on Houston’s roster. He’ll count against the cap this year and next before they stop paying for their first pick in the expansion draft.

In an ironic twist, it looks like Zach Weigert will be the player to replace him on the Texan’s offensive line at left tackle. Because it’s happening to a celebrated player in Jaguars’ history, Boselli’s retirement seems tragic, but it’s a story told a hundred times a year, from high school, to college to professional football. Staying healthy is as big a part of the game as playing itself.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Del Rio’s First Draft

Jack Del Rio stepped to the podium on the day he was introduced as the Jaguars’ Head Coach, it didn’t take long to realize he was a presence. He commands attention and is a force in whatever he’s doing. He was that way as a player, as an assistant coach, and now as a Head Coach. His first foray into the selection process known as the college draft confirms Del Rio’s “in charge” status. He’s not pussy footing around, he’s making decisions, and following his ideas without worrying about politics, what people think or who’s toes he might step on. Mark Brunell might be an icon to some Jaguars fans, but Del Rio, and Personnel Director James Harris know he’s a football player with a certain amount of value and a limited shelf life for production on the field. They thought they needed a quarterback, so they got one, Byron Leftwich from Marshall in the first round. “Shack is a pretty good poker player,” Owner Wayne Weaver said after the selection. Harris passed on giving up an extra pick to the Vikings to ensure the Jaguars got Leftwich, instead banking on Minnesota and Baltimore not having time to get the deal together before the clock ran out. Harris was right, and the Jaguars rushed to the podium when they were on the clock, turning in their selection card with Leftwich’s name on it. “He’s the player we wanted all along,” Del Rio said while answering questions during the Jaguars fan fest on the field at the stadium. “Was he the top rated quarterback on your board, better than Palmer,” I asked from the cow pen set up for reporters. “I’d rather not get into that,” Del Rio said with a smile, “Yes he was,” he added somewhat sotto voce, to the delight of the crowd.

Do the Jaguars need a quarterback? It depends on what your definition of need is I suppose. I’ve said all along that they couldn’t go wrong in the first round, unless they took a quarterback with their first selection. But what they’ve done is put their own stamp on this team, given a new face to the Jaguars in just 24 hours, and that face is a smiling quarterback from Marshall. “He was just too good a player to pass up,” Harris said during his time in front of the fans. What they’ve told Mark Brunell is that he won’t finish his career in a Jaguars uniform, unless he decides to retire after the next season or so. “We expect Mark to be a mentor to Byron,” Weaver admitted, “We have our quarterback situation solved for the next ten years.” How much longer Brunell will play is anybody’s guess, but he won’t be on the Jaguars roster past next year, if that, because of his bonus and salary cap number.

There were no “reaches” in the Jaguars first four picks. Leftwich can play, and it’ll be only a matter of time before he’s a starter. Rashean Mathis will find a spot in the defensive backfield either next to Donovin Darius, or replacing him if the Jaguars move Darius through a trade. They picked up an offensive lineman, a tight end and a running back to fill immediate holes. They’re not dealing with sentimentality; they’re dealing with reality. “We’re not in the message business,” Del Rio has said more than once, “we’re in the business of putting together the best football team we can.”

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Jaguars Big Signing

“First off, move those microphones back some. I’d like to say first of all that the comment that was made earlier about being a little bit older and having a knee injury. I didn’t have knee injury. I had a bone bruise. I never had any knee surgeries, and I played the whole season. That happened the eighth game of the season; I played the whole season. As far as the age, I was 31 years old last year and I had 12-1/2 sacks, so I kind of beat the numbers as far as how 30 year old players are. So I’m not worried about that. I’m kind of like Merlot – I get better with age. I just wanted to put everybody’s mind at ease on that.”

That was our first introduction to Hugh Douglas, new defensive end for the Jaguars. Douglas had overheard Times-Union writer Gene Frenette’s question to Jaguars personell vice-president James Harris. “Does it concern you that you’ve spent a lot of money on a guy who is 31, soon to be 32 and hid a knee injury from the media?” was how the question was phrased. Douglas took exception to that, and let us know right away.

“I take stuff like that back to the laboratory and put it in the mix. I’ll use it as motivation to let you guys know you can kiss my ass.” Maybe he was mistreated somewhere else, but Douglas took control of the situation without excuse. Not to say he wasn’t smart, sometimes funny and very direct. He’s ready to play, and is anxious to get on the line with Marcus Stroud and John Henderson. “The two tackles,” was his response to the thing that sold him on Jacksonville. “Marcus Stroud and (John Henderson), I was just like ‘Man!’ Not to disrespect Cory Simon and Darwin Walker, but being in a situation where you can play with some big guys in the middle that can really push the pocket, that’s really exciting. That’s something I never had a chance to play with, and having Marco Coleman on the other side, it’s just a great situation to be in.”

Harris was very thoughtful in his explanation of Douglas’ signing. “We’re in the player business,” Harris told the assembled reporters. “Hugh is a guy that wanted to come here. He played for Ray Hamilton in New York. I was with Hugh with the Jets and he played very well there. I knew what kind of character he was, what kind of player he was. The key thing for a player that is over 30 is that he is the right kind of guy with his work ethic and how tough a competitor he is. He does all those things. He practices hard, he plays hard and knowing the makeup of the player, that increases the real interest in signing a guy that’s 31. Guys are playing longer in the league because they are taking care of themselves and knowing Hugh like we do, we felt that he was the right kind of guy.”

Head Coach Jack Del Rio concurred, saying Douglas’ signing makes the team better, and that’s his job. “We are in the player business and we are looking to upgrade the roster and to make this as competitive a situation as we can. This is a good fit for us and a good player. We are happy to have him.” For the first time since his formal introduction in January as the Jaguars head coach, Jack Del Rio was not the affable, easy-going guy he’s been in other media situations. I’m not sure what he was uptight about, but there was definitely a burr under his saddle during his time with the media. Either way, he said he’s committed to doing what it takes to make the team better. “It’ll be now, during the draft and in the post-draft free agency period. We’ll keep doing what ever it takes.” As for the draft, Del Rio said he was pretty happy with the eighth selection overall. “We’d listen to offers to move up or down, but we’re pretty happy with where we are.”

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Coughlins Demise

Despite his obvious affection for Tom Coughlin, Jaguars Owner Wayne Weaver knew it was time for a change. “There’s a point in this business where you have to say we need innovative new ideas, new fresh approaches and you have to move in different directions, and that’s really what it’s all about,” Weaver said during his announcement that Coughlin had been asked to “step down” as the Jaguars Head Coach.

The momentum for a change had been building for several weeks. Weaver could see that the team wasn’t going to make any great strides under Coughlin next year, and the fans weren’t enthused about another year of the Coughlin regime. So, he followed logic, and “his heart” and decided to do something else. It was a difficult decision for Weaver to make, considering his personal regard for Coughlin and the lack of any acrimony or animosity between the two men. “I’m made changes at the executive level before,” Weaver added, “but none as tough as this one.”

There was a feeling of inevitability at the press conference. No shock, no outcry of Why? Just an acceptance that Weaver was doing what just about everybody thought he had to do: make a change at the top. Coughlin’s removal clears the way for Weaver to take a hard look at what’s been going on in his organization. “What we have to do is re-energize our fan base and that starts with Wayne Weaver, our administrative staff and our ticketing operation. We have to do things differently than we’ve done before,” Weaver said in response to a question regarding the coach’s responsibility to sell tickets. And he’s right. The entire Jaguars operation has been so dominated by Coughlin that it will be somewhat of a culture shock to the employees who have done their job in the shadow of Coughlin’s gaze. How they react is up to Weaver. He has to set the tone and show the way.

Coughlin never was considered an embrace-able coach by any of the fans. Weaver’s attempt to push Coughlin into the community last year didn’t work. Coughlin’s reticence and his combative style didn’t connect. Weaver spent a lot of time talking to civic groups, preaching the Jaguars gospel, but it was the coach that people wanted to like. And he wouldn’t let them.

Coughlin is a funny, smart and engaging person, but his unwillingness to show that side of his personality was ultimately his downfall. He could have owned Jacksonville for as long as he liked. But like a character in a Greek tragedy, his accomplishments were overshadowed by his one flaw. And no matter who told him about it, what advice he was given, he couldn’t, or wouldn’t change. That might work in a variety of American businesses, but when you’re competing for the disposable entertainment dollar, it won’t fly.

I’ve been saying it for a while, but AP writer Eddie Pells concurred is his wrap-up of Coughlin’s tenure in Jacksonville. “A funny, articulate, compassionate man, Coughlin very rarely let his softer side show. He never connected personally with his players or Jacksonville’s fans, a reality that hurt him in the locker room and the community.”

Because of that, Coughlin’s legacy will be mixed when the Jaguars history is written. The autocratic architect of a franchise’s meteoric beginning, his unwillingness to compromise contributed to the team’s fall from grace and his own professional demise.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Weaver’s Call

I don’t know if Tom Coughlin will be back as the Jaguars Head Coach next season. I do believe that only Wayne Weaver has the answer to that question, and he might not know what the answer is yet. I also believe the decision to keep or not keep Coughlin will not be based on football. Weaver believes in Coughlin as a football coach. He believes “Tom Coughlin is the right man to return us to the Promised Land,” as he told me before the season. But Weaver is in business and in the business of making money. The Jaguars have between 23 and 26-thousand season ticket renewals due in March and according to one person inside the ticket office it would take a “bolt of lightning” to have a significant number of those people renew their tickets. Is that “bolt of lightning” firing the Head Coach? Perhaps. But that doesn’t solve all of the Jaguars problems with a snap of a finger.

This Jaguars team is similar, by Coughlin’s own admission, to the teams of 1995 and 1996. It’s young, with a few stars and has to play without mistakes and at its potential to win games. “Nobody knows this team as well as I do,” Coughlin said at his press conference on Wednesday. “And nobody knows what it takes to help this team win as well as I do. But I do know this; last year we were under .500, in Cleveland, out gained all over the field and won a game 12-10. Last Sunday, we were out gained again, and save for one play, we had the game won.”

There’s no question Coughlin knows football, and is most effective while coaching an under-talented team. He can make players over-achieve. When he had his most talented teams, particularly in 1999, he lamented his own inability to get the players “to play above the x’s and o’s.” He can do that with young players and guys scrapping to stay in the league. He hasn’t been able to do that with established stars and veterans.

So with the Jaguars rebuilding, and admitting that’s the stage they’re in, it would make sense that Coughlin would still be the right guy to coach this team. Except that they’ve heard his act this year and last and most have become numb to it. He hasn’t changed, and he doesn’t want to change. And it’s not that he has to change, but he has lost his effectiveness in getting players to “play above the x’s and o’s.” As I’ve written before, players don’t necessarily play for the coach but as one player told me after Sunday’s shocker against the Browns, “sometimes it feels like we’re playing against three teams out there. The opponent, the refs, and our own coaching staff. It ain’t easy.”

There is an avalanche of public sentiment going against Coughlin. On this website a wide majority of respondents to our front-page poll favor firing Coughlin as a solution to the Jaguars’ woes. Coughlin is aware of the way things are going, and knows he brought much of it on himself. He knows he hasn’t done a very good job of being embraceable by the fans. He has always thought that he should be judged by wins and losses and the rest will take care of itself. Perhaps that was the case twenty or thirty years ago, but there’s too much competition for the entertainment dollar these days. Fans want to win, and they want to feel good about it. Particularly in a town that has one major professional sports team.

If Weaver makes a move, it will be based on putting fans in the seats, not what the Jaguars record was this year or last. So changing from Coughlin to somebody else must mean putting a coach in that job that will lure fans back to the stadium, and potentially win games.

As my friend Vic always says when we leave the game together, “Winning is good, losing is bad. It’s that simple.”

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Fred Taylor

Sitting in the office preparing for “The End Zone” at Sneakers Sports Grill last night, one of the managers, Colleen, told me about a young boy who was already in the audience. “He’s here as the guest of the Jaguars Boosters. He’s from “Make-a-Wish and has a terminal illness. Apparently he was supposed to go to the game yesterday but something got screwed up. He actually wanted to just meet Fred Taylor, and by chance, Fred’s coming tonight. Could you ask Fred if he could just stop by and say hi to him?”

(As a guide, I don’t ask the players to do anything special on the Monday night show. I try to make it easy for them, and if they can sign autographs afterwards, that’s great, if not, no problem.) But I thought this was an exception, and asked Fred, Donovin Darius and Marlon McCree if they wouldn’t mind this one detour. Luckily, we had three guys on this week that didn’t even flinch and said they’d be happy to. I sent the players out about ten minutes before show time to meet with the teenager in the game room.

When I walked to the set, all three were chatting with him, and Fred was sitting in a chair next to him with his arm around him. When I introduced the players to the rather large audience, Fred lingered with his newfound friend for a few seconds, and then came out to thunderous applause. We went on with the show, and all three stuck around to sign autographs for about 20 minutes afterwards.

I was sitting with a few of my friends who came to the show, and saw Fred lingering in the back room, joking around with some people I couldn’t see. I went to investigate, and found Fred with the young man, joking, play punching each other, laughing and grabbing like a couple of old friends. I went back to my seat, but kept an eye on Fred, who continued the meeting for about 45 more minutes, sitting, standing, whatever guys do when they’re standing around being guys. When it was finally time to go, the two new friends clearly didn’t want it to end, they hugged, then hugged again, and again, and finally punched each other, the universal “get out of here” sign. I didn’t hear any of the conversation, but saw every minute of the meeting. That was enough to see Fred make a kid’s dream come true.

I’ve known Fred since he was in High School in Belle Glade, so I’ve seen him go through a lot of his adult personal life and his professional career. It’s not often that we have a chance to see “real life” in action, but last night was one of those times. So, thanks Fred.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Jaguars Toughness

After the first week of camp, the Jaguars have a distinctly different feel than in previous years. This team has a little less braggadocio and a little more chippiness than in the past. Without established stars at so many positions, some young players have developed their own personalities and that’s spilled over to the rest of the team.

Damon Gibson is a perfect example. The smallest player on the squad, he’s virtually assured of a roster position because of his punt returning abilities. But without Jimmy Smith in camp, and with Keenan McCardell gone, Gibson has a chance to get plenty of reps at wideout and he’s making the most of them. Gibson’s scuffle in the opening practice with the Saints underscored the team’s willingness to throw away the protocol that used to be enforced and subtly demand some respect, no matter where you are on the depth chart.

At first it was generally considered that the Jaguars needed to start hitting somebody else when a few scuffles broke out in camp. But it seems that it’s the new personality of the Jaguars; short on big talkers, long on doers. Wali Ranier has brought that same attitude to the linebacking corps. Although Rainer, Danny Clark and T.J. Slaughter are penciled in as the starters, it seems like a wide-open competition the way Rainer approaches every practice.

“When people play us,” the veteran said this week, “they’ll leave here saying the Jaguars are a tough team.”

Toughness has always been an issue with the Jaguars, having gotten an early reputation as a “finesse” team. Even though they seemed to have tough guys on the roster, it never manifested itself on the field instilling any kind of fear among other teams. Titans Coach Jeff Fisher has played on that, calling on his team to “take it to the Jaguars” and they’ve been successful at it.

Rainer brings that no-nonsense toughness to the middle, much like T.J. Slaughter and Donovin Darius have in the past. Add Marco Coleman’s professional approach (“I’m just here to play football”) and in the course of a year, the Jaguars have changed their personality.

It’s also good that the responsibility for the team’s personality is no longer dependant on a couple of high salaried players. I never wanted to meet Leon Searcy in a dark alley, unless he was on my side, but he was about the only guy who ever instilled fear in an opponent. The Jaguars have a few of those players now, with more following suit. If it follows through to the regular season, Rainer is right; When teams leave here, they’ll know they were in a game.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Post Mini Camp 2002

As expected, the mini-camp just completed was a get acquainted session for the players and coaches of the 2002 Jaguars. Just over half of the players were brand new, 46 of the 89 on the field had never been there before. A chance for the coaches to let the players know what’s expected, and a chance for the players to size up what it’s going to take to make the team and stick in the NFL.

Also as expected, the focus quickly was on three of the Jaguars draft picks: #1 John Henderson, wearing #98, was “impressive in the one-on-one pass rush drill,” according to Head Coach Tom Coughlin. Henderson is “high-cut” in the vernacular of NFL personnel directors, not a fireplug that you might expect of a defensive tackle. The guy is so big, fast and strong though he might re-define the position. At 6’7”, 307 lbs paired with Marcus Stroud in the middle, the Jaguars hope they’ve found just the tandem they want.

#2 Mike Pearson, wearing #72, “because I didn’t want to get involved in all that,” was Pearson’s response when I asked why he wasn’t wearing his college number, 71. “Boselli was a cornerstone type of player, I’m just trying to keep my mouth shut, listen and learn,” he added when I pushed him a little bit with a “but he’s in Texas,” comment.

Coughlin thought Pearson “learned some things he can use,” during the 5 practices over three days. He’ll be ready to play left tackle (not Brunell’s blind side) by the season opener. It’s the middle of the line that has to be sorted out. Zach Weigert, Brad Meester and John Wade will be fighting for two positions: left guard and center. Meester was a center in college and is a natural there and if he can transition to the middle, that’s where he’ll end up, with Weigert at left guard and Wade fighting for one of the backup jobs.

The #4 pick quarterback David Garrard found himself under the microscope from the outset. First, Brunell said, “he’s not the backup, he’s one of the backups,” when asked about Garrard on Friday. Mark made it very clear to the rookie who’s in charge; asking the rookie “you got a little excited with the microphone in front of your face didn’t you?” Brunell was referring to Garrard’s assertion after being picked by the Jaguars on the second day that he would push Mark for the starting job. “He apologized, he’s a great kid, he’ll learn,” is how the Jaguars starter finished up the discussion of one of the backups.

Coughlin gave Garrard more snaps as the camp went along and then declared he was pleased with his progress. “But nobody’s blitzed him yet,” added the Head Coach. Coughlin knows he’s stuck in a little bit of a Catch-22. He knows Garrard will only get better if he gets a lot of snaps, but the team would benefit with a veteran backup behind Brunell. So he gave the politically correct answer. “If there’s a player who can help our club and we can afford him, we’ll make a move,” is how Coughlin wiggled out of it. He’ll have a decision to make sometime near training camp. There will be some cap money available after they release Keenan McCardell and Hardy Nickerson. So does he want to be one play away from a rookie being the starting quarterback? “I’m glad we don’t have a game tomorrow,” the Jaguars Head Coach noted after five practices. It’s the right kind of team for Coughlin, young, eager and impressionable. Whether a team like that can win is another question.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Post Draft 2002

There’s been so much focus on who’s not on the Jaguars, now that the draft is over its time to look at who is on the team. The names are actually ones you know, but the question is whether they can play or not.

Todd Fordham, Brad Meester, John Wade, Maurice Williams, Zach Weigert, Chris Naoele and now Mike Pearson will compete for spots on the offensive line. They played last year without Tony Boselli and they weren’t happy with Jeff Smith at center, so if, as always, they stay healthy, they’ll be better up front.

Kyle Brady is back and if Pete Mitchell can still catch a pass, they’ll be more productive at tight end. Mark Brunell and Jimmy Smith are still among the best in the game, and Fred Taylor will at least start the season on the field, and with a little luck, will return to elite status.

Keenan’s spot is the big question mark on offense. They’ve signed replacements, but none have shown Keenan’s abilities.

There are a lot of questions on defense, starting right up front with the last two number one draft picks in the middle. John Henderson and Marcus Stroud will have to be real players or teams will run all over the Jaguars. There will be no more hiding in the shadows for the linebackers or defensive backs either. Guys like Danny Clark, Edward Thomas, Eric Westmoreland, Jason Craft and Kiwaukee Thomas have to show they’re bona fide NFL players or they’ll be special teamers at best for the rest of their careers.

Will we learn anything at this mini-cap this weekend? Not really, except what 307 lbs looks like on a 6’7” frame wearing shorts and a helmet. The mini-camp is closed to the public.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Weaver Fan Forum

I had a chance to spend a few minutes with Wayne Weaver yesterday. He wanted to talk about the upcoming Fan Forum at the stadium. An event where he and other Jaguars executives (I wonder if Tom Coughlin will be there) will meet with Jaguars fans at the Stadium to hear about what’s right and what’s wrong with the Jaguars game experience.

Weaver seems genuinely committed to listening to what the fans have to say, and implementing some of their ideas. He said he’d lower prices, freeze some seat prices, and offer “branded” food at the Stadium as well as other small things that need to be fixed.

“This is something new for you guys,” I commented to Weaver. “You’ve been cloistered at the Stadium for seven years and now you’re everywhere.”

“I’d be disingenuous if I didn’t tell you it was too easy early for us,” was Weaver’s answer. ” We saw a drop off in attendance a few years ago but that had to do with wins and losses. This drop off isn’t about wins, it’s about what it’s like to come to a Jaguars game.”

Weaver can certainly turn on the charm, but you wonder sometimes if his ideas actually trickle down through his organization and get implemented the way he wants them to. One thing’s for sure; Weaver has his hand on the controls right now. The team and the whole organization are on his radar screen. He’s a businessman who likes research and consultants and focus groups. They’ve told him what’s wrong, and he’s trying to figure out how to change things and not cost himself a fortune.

He’s not giving any guarantees about the football team, but does think they can be competitive. “I’m not waiting until 2003. We’ll have a good competitive team this year.”

When I asked him about the restructuring of Tony Brackens’ and Kyle Brady’s contracts, he said, “In the past we restructured everybody, now we’re selective. We’re restructuring guys who are long term players for this team.”

When I asked about other players Weaver demurred, “We have some tough decisions in front of us, but I can’t talk about them.” It’s pretty obvious Keenan McCardell and Hardy Nickerson will be released after June 1st in order to save cap money over the next two years. They’re obviously not long term players for the Jaguars. And Weaver reiterated that Mark Brunell and Fred Taylor are not available to other teams in a trade. “They’re not on the block,” is how the Jaguars owner put it.

What all this means is they’re putting on a show of effort to be responsive to the fans about their concerns. Whether they’ll do anything about it we’ll find out soon enough.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Expansion Draft

Imagine this conversation at the Jaguars offices:
Wayne Weaver: “Alright, who are we putting on the expansion draft list?”

Rick Reprish (Personnel Director): “It needs to be somebody who’s actually taken off our hands. Somebody who can play.”

Paul Vance (new capologist): “It needs to be somebody who clears a lot of cap room for us.”

Tom Coughlin: “Okay, I guess it’s Boselli!”

You hope it wasn’t that simple, but the decision itself screams simplemindedness.

Actually, there are two scenarios that could be playing themselves out. The first is what Jaguars fans originally thought: The team put Boselli on the expansion draft list as one of several high priced players knowing Boselli wouldn’t be picked. After the Texans take one of the other inflated salaries off their hands, i.e. Tony Brackens, the Jaguars recall Boselli from the list. That way they have him back and they were able to protect another player on the roster from the expansion.

But as more information is leaking out, it’s clear the scenario where the team is willing to risk losing Boselli as a cap casualty seems to be closer to reality. He’ll save them $6 million or so next year, moving them a long way toward getting out of the salary cap jail they’ve put themselves in.

From the team’s standpoint, Boselli is a number and left-tackles don’t win Super Bowls. He missed almost all of last year, hasn’t shown the ability to stay healthy for about three seasons and his future effectiveness could be in question. But he is the team leader; one of the best locker room guys, a real tough performer, their first ever draft pick and the player Tom Coughlin called the “cornerstone” of the franchise. So if you remove the cornerstone, doesn’t the entire thing it’s built on collapse?

It already seems to be crumbling as Quarterback Mark Brunell said putting Boselli on the list was “ridiculous.” Coughlin wouldn’t comment when reached at the Senior Bowl in Mobile (the league has asked clubs to refrain from comment or making the list public until 1pm Friday), although Boselli’s agent said he thought the Jaguars Head Coach wasn’t happy about the move and it was “eating him up.”

So does that mean it wasn’t Coughlin’s call? There have been many rumblings about Weaver wanting a bigger hand in personnel. He reportedly also wants a General Manager to take over some of Coughlin’s duties off the field. Is this the pre-cursor to that? Certainly there are other ways they can get out from under their cap problems. Perhaps not as fast, but with some grace and panache, something the team has had a shortage of in the past as well.

Brunell agreed to less money in his new contract just last year, saying he wanted to stay a Jaguar, and playing with Boselli, his best friend seemed to be a factor. With Boselli potentially gone, it seems to signal that Brunell could be next. Several teams, most notably the Detroit Lions were interested in Brunell last year, with the Lions restating their interest in recent months. Steve Spurrier is familiar with Brunell and would no doubt love him as the Redskins quarterback. And what about Houston? If Boselli ends up there, could the Texans put together a parcel of draft picks that would entice the Jaguars to trade Brunell to Houston? Dom Capers is a long time admirer of Brunell, and the feeling is mutual.

Two other things come to mind.

First, isn’t this all a year too late? Couldn’t they have made some of these cuts (including Brunell) before this year and already be on the road to recovery? By delaying the pain for a season, the self-inflicted wounds will be much deeper.

Could the Jaguars make two more fan un-friendly decisions than to not pursue Spurrier and then attempt to get rid of arguably their best and most beloved player?

Second, would Capers want to help the Jaguars out of their cap hole, knowing he has to play them twice a year as a division opponent? Capers will have to weigh the Jaguars potential future success against his own team’s benefit from Tony Boselli and possibly Mark Brunell on the roster.

Accepting that the Jaguars were going to be a different team next year was already part of any Jaguars fans reality. A reality without some of the established veteran stars is something fans understand. But a reality without Boselli seems to break the trust the fans have in the management of the team. Internet chat rooms and sports talk radio can be full of the complaints about Weaver, Coughlin and everything else. The real opinions will be heard when attendance figures are announced next season.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Hire Spurrier

Usually the Monday following the final weekend of the NFL regular season is pretty cut and dried. Certain coaches know they’re going to be fired, the playoffs are set and everybody is looking toward the playoffs. None of that’s true today as not even the playoff picture is set. If the Ravens win tonight they’re in, if the Vikings win, Seattle goes to the post-season. So many coaching jobs seem to be unfolding before our eyes, with Steve Spurrier as the prime candidate for all of them.

Minnesota and San Diego have jobs open; Carolina, Washington, Atlanta and even playoff-bound Tampa Bay are supposed to be looking for coaches. But for some reason, Jacksonville’s Wayne Weaver is staying on the sidelines in the Spurrier sweepstakes, saying he’s giving Tom Coughlin an extension.

If you’re primary objective is to win, then Coughlin and numerous other coaches can make that happen. But if your combined objective is to win and sell tickets, then hiring Spurrier is a slam-dunk. And what if Coughlin doesn’t like the terms of the extension and balks at a General Manager being brought in, which seems to be in the not-so-distant future? Then you’ve lost on the chance at Spurrier and alienated a big part of your fan base. Weaver might have just painted himself into a corner, or maybe he really believes Coughlin can win and sell tickets. He will win, but nobody’s buying a ticket because Tom Coughlin is the Head Coach.

Bob Stoops seems ready to take the Florida job, but not until Spurrier has his day in Gainesville, Steve appears at a press conference this afternoon.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Jaguar Outlook

In the middle of the locker room, Jaguars Linebacker Kevin Hardy stood, with the help of crutches, surveying the landscape. As he looked around, the sight was different than anything he’d seen in the past, and is different than anything the locker room will look like in the future. There are remnants of the Jaguars past, Mark Brunell, Seth Payne and Jimmy Smith, and there are glimmers of the Jaguars future in Marlon McCree, Danny Clark and others. Hardy is a free-agent, and after a 7 week rehab on his knee, he’ll be fielding offers from other teams. The Jaguars won’t be in that market.

“It would be tough,” is how Head Coach Tom Coughlin characterized the Jaguars chances to re-sign Hardy.

Getting many veterans back is going to be very tough for the Jaguars from top to bottom. Some estimates have the Jaguars being able to keep fifteen players off the 2001 team and the rest will have to be minimum salary contributors (rookie and first year players). So who are these fifteen?

On offense, Mark Brunell, Jimmy Smith and Fred Taylor have cap friendly salaries that will have them on the roster next year. Keenan McCardell’s cap number is about $4 million, and will only return if the Jaguars agree to a long-term restructuring of his contract with some guaranteed money. Sean Dawkins isn’t affordable, Kyle Brady won’t be back because of his cost and Zach Weigert’s a question mark because of his salary.

Stacey Mack is a free-agent who should attract some attention after his late season performance. Elvis Joseph is a coaches’ favorite and comes at the right price. Maurice Williams returns, so does Brad Meester. The Jaguars will weigh Todd Fordham, Jeff Smith and Patrick Washington’s production against their cost.

As for Tony Boselli, his status could be a very hard decision for the Jaguars. His cap number is around $7 million and in recent years hasn’t shown an ability to stay healthy. His work ethic is unquestioned, his ability unmatched, and his leadership a key factor in success for the Jaguars. But can he stay on the field? He’s a Coughlin type of player, in fact he’s the Coughlin type of player and no doubt he’ll be on the roster next year. But at least once this off-season, the Jaguars will look at Boselli as a number, instead of a player, for the first time in his career

On defense, Tony Brackens is back, as is Marcus Stroud. Paul Spicer won’t cost too much. Renaldo Wynn is a free-agent and the Jaguars will have to decide between Seth Payne and Gary Walker. They can’t keep both, and might have a tough time fitting either under the cap.

T.J. Slaughter and Danny Clark will be two of the starting linebackers but who’s the middle linebacker? Marlon McCree and Donovin Darius will be in the defensive backfield. Have Kiwaukee Thomas and Jason Craft played well enough to allow the Jaguars to cut loose Aaron Beasley and Fernando Bryant? Bryant’s production is down, and Beasley’s cap number is too high. (Beasley should market himself as a free-safety at this point in his career. He has the size to stop the run and the cover skills to play on third down against a third wide receiver.)

So there you have it. Next year’s Jaguars team will have a few remaining veterans and a lot of young players. Some, like Joseph, Thomas and Craft, have gotten plenty of playing time. Others, names unknown as draft picks and rookie free-agents have yet to see the field in the NFL. Coughlin, his coaches and personnel department will be tested this year. They’ll have to do a better job of gathering players who can make their team and contribute right away.

Chris Hanson is the best find of the year, but the Jaguars spent a 5th round pick on a punter who didn’t make the team. Could that pick have been used better at another position?

The Jaguars lost 6th round pick Chad Ward to the 49ers this week off their practice squad. Another draft pick currently not on Jaguars roster. Add Anthony Denman to that list, and the trend of the team’s draft picks is not what they were hoping for. From Cordell Taylor, a second round cornerback bust, to R.Jay Soward, a first round washout, the Jaguars haven’t been able to stock their team sufficiently from their own draft classes whether it’s with special teamers or starters on offense or defense. They won’t be able to hide the 2002 class. How well the Jaguars do on the field will be a direct result of how they do in the war room in April.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Groundhog Day

It took me a while, but I finally have figured it out: it’s Groundhog Day. You know, the movie where Bill Murray wakes up every day and it’s the same day over and over. He knows it, but nobody else does. The Jaguars version involves the other team though.

The Jaguars might be the team going through the same thing over and over, but it’s the other team that seems to know what the outcome is going to be. They don’t panic, they don’t even flinch, knowing that no matter what lead there is or how much time is left, somehow, the Jaguars will give them the opportunity to win the game. You can almost hear the opposing coach’s halftime speech. “Don’t worry that we’re down, they’ll give it to us eventually.”

Of the eight losses this year, six of them have happened with a lead in the second half. Last night was no exception. Up 21-7 and with momentum, the Jaguars gave up long plays to Brett Favre, turned the ball over, had a few key penalties and gave the Packers just enough field position to let Green Bay tie the score and eventually win it with under two minutes to play.

Regrettably, the team has forgotten how to win. “That’s the plan,” Head Coach Tom Coughlin said after the game. “Get into position in the fourth quarter and find a way to win. Instead, we find a way to lose.” That’s a huge statement by the Head Coach, admitting that his team can’t find their way through the darkness. They don’t have a margin of error. The Jaguars have to play a nearly perfect game to win, and they don’t have enough talent through the roster to do that. A missed block here, a blown defensive assignment there and all of the sudden it’s the fourth quarter, the other team has the ball, and eventually the lead.

In the movie, when Bill Murray realized what was going on, he tried to take advantage of it. But until he became a better person, the end result was always the same. The Jaguars are in the same situation, they just have to play better or the end result will always be the same.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Coughlin’s Challenge

This is a critical time for the Jaguars as a franchise, for the players on the 2001 team, for this year’s record, and for Head Coach Tom Coughlin. Not just the matter of playing games against Buffalo, Baltimore and Tennessee, but the franchise’s psyche hangs in the balance.

The absence of Tony Boselli from the lineup demands a new leader emerge. Someone the other players can rally around, someone who will provide the will and the fortitude to help carry his teammates through difficult times. Without that leadership, the team will wander from game to game, looking for success from series to series. If they find it, they’ll build on it, if they don’t, they’ll unravel fast.

From the franchise’s inception, leadership has come from the top. Tom Coughlin has set the tone, provided the environment and demanded performance from his players. From year to year, he has modified his message depending on the make up of that season’s team. He hired Bob Petrino as Offensive Coordinator after realizing his team needed a Head Coach in the true sense of the position: a coach who watches over the whole operation, a coach who can evaluate the morale of the team, a coach who can provide leadership.

At this time though, perhaps Coughlin’s leadership isn’t the thing that can carry the team through the season to success. Even though he modifies his message, it doesn’t mean he’s “gone soft.” Coughlin admits he yells at the players when he thinks it is necessary, not just yelling for yelling’s sake. With the same group of core veterans at the top of the roster for the past 5 years, the team stands on the precipice of falling into mediocrity that only the emergence of young players who have an impact can stave off. And those young players have to buy into Coughlin’s values, his style and his beliefs. If they don’t have confidence in his way, the team will flounder. His dressing down of Stacy Mack on the sidelines in Seattle and refusal to put Mack back into the game, even though it was apparent Mack would give them a better chance to win, has many players privately wondering about Coughlin and his message.

Leadership for this team is going to have to come from within, not from any coach. While Coughlin’s style might have some players wondering, he is smart and knows what’s going on. He has the confidence of the owner, Wayne Weaver, and operates without fear of losing his job. In his first six years as Head Coach, Coughlin has figured out all kinds of ways to win, and he can do it again.

Weaver is concerned about ticket sales and potential blackouts, and he has to know that Coughlin currently doesn’t sell any tickets to Jaguars games. He’s disconnected with the fans that evaluate him only on wins and losses. Any entertainment industry, dependant on the public’s disposable income, has to have a total package to continue to attract interest. The NFL’s parity mission has most teams hovering around .500, meaning it has to be fun to go to games, win or lose. The coach has to attract fans to the stadium with his personality, his style of play, and the fans belief that he’s giving them the best chance to win. To this point, Coughlin and Weaver have been willing to be evaluated on wins and losses. To keep the stadium full, they might have to go at least one-step further.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Brunell Signs

“The days of free-spending free-agency are over. The salary cap is beginning to work.” With those words, Jaguars owner Wayne Weaver echoed the sentiments of his fellow NFL owners; the lottery is over. Weaver and quarterback Mark Brunell agreed at the “11th hour and 57th minute” on a four year, $30 million deal with an $8 million signing bonus.

“It’s fair to both sides,” Brunell said by phone from a weekend camping trip in Clay County with his children. “We both achieved our goals. They kept their quarterback and I’m staying in Jacksonville. I wanted to remain a Jaguar.”

After presenting initial ideas ranging to over $100 million and $20 million in a signing bonus, Brunell and his agent Leigh Steinberg realized Weaver was not going to go for those numbers. Both Bret Favre and Drew Bledsoe received announced contracts for more than $100 million.

“Those are phony numbers,” according to Weaver. “They’ll never see that kind of money.”

Both sides had agreed early on that $30 million over 4 years was the fair market value for Brunell. Taking less than what his fellow quarterbacks announced they received is something Brunell had to get over, and eventually did, with the potential of a trade to Kansas City, Seattle or Detroit helping convince him.

“Jacksonville is my home and I wanted to stay here. My parents live here, my church is here, I wanted to stay,” Brunell added.

Weaver seemed genuinely surprised at the number of assembled media for the 4 pm announcement. “I don’t know why you’re all here. We’re doing what I said all along, we’ve signed Mark Brunell to a new contract,” is how the Jaguars owner opened the press conference.

Neither side is completely happy, and neither side thinks they lost. In other words, it’s exactly what is supposed to happen in a negotiation. Brunell doesn’t think this is his last contract either. “I hope to have the chance to go through this again,” he said.

Both Brunell and Weaver expect his teammates t understand the business nature of this deal, and the strain it put on the franchise during the early weeks of free agency. What is still in question is how the fans will react to Brunell when he takes the field this fall. Fan sentiment ran strongly against Brunell, with the perception being that his delay in signing a deal cost the team a chance to keep players like Leon Searcy and Mike Logan.

Brunell said, “in situations like this, some people understand, some don’t. You just have to move on.”

“I think the fans want Mark Brunell as their quarterback,” Weaver added. “If we get to the Super Bowl, Mark Brunell is the quarterback who will take us there.”

Putting a competitive team on the field right away is the first concern for the Jaguars administration. Weaver mentioned Jeff Smith and Todd Forham, both free agents, several times, and said the team will attempt to offer them deals so they’ll return. Both can be solid linemen, know the system, played together last year, and will be key to any success the Jaguars might have.

Although he wouldn’t say how much the Jaguars now had under the cap, Weaver did note, “it’ll be enough to sign the minimum of 51 players.” The team immediately moved on one player, signing Jamie Martin to a one-year deal to backup Brunell. Martin is an insurance policy in case Jonathan Quinn doesn’t perform well in NFL Europe.

Weaver is right when he says the salary cap is working. Over 100 veteran players were cut by the deadline last month, and only a few have signed deals near their previous market value. “Teams know they can’t sign these long-term, big-money deals and defer their problems. We’re the poster child for that,” the Jaguars owner added.

He also said he was against the idea of a “Larry Bird” exemption in the NFL where teams could keep some veteran players on the roster and have them not count against the cap. Weaver said, “I think that’s a bad rule. All teams are learning to deal with the salary cap the way it is.”

In the end, the Jaguars owner was able to keep the “$100 million” label away from any of his players, holding the line against that number with his biggest star. In that vein, he won in this round of negotiations. Only time will tell if signing Brunell, and not trading him translates into more actual on field wins in the future.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

The Cap

For all of the talk about “getting it done” last week and how everybody chipped in, things are not all rosy at Jaguars headquarters. Owner Wayne Weaver said all the right things, quarterback Mark Brunell and his agent Leigh Steinberg were both quoted about how they were glad they could help the Jaguars get under the cap, but it all rang hollow.

Weaver didn’t like how the negotiations went and Brunell is sticking to the business side of the football relationship, trying to get as much money as possible, even apparently, at the cost of winning. It all depends on your perspective as to where to place the blame, if there is any. Brunell stuck it to the team by not agreeing to a new deal, but on the other hand, he didn’t put them in their salary cap “circumstance.” Kevin Hardy didn’t agree to an extension, further causing the Jaguars to trim their roster of contributing players.

Weaver, Head Coach Tom Coughlin and capoligist Michael Huyghue were all willing to go, as they say, “outside of the model” for high-priced talent, trying to get to the Super Bowl. “The Super Bowl is a powerful intoxicant,” is how Weaver put it, “but we won’t make those same mistakes again.” When asked this week if the Jaguars would have a different salary cap situation in the future, Weaver uttered a terse, “you bet.”

Since the inception of the salary cap in the early ‘90’s, some teams have fallen into the cap quagmire quicker than others. The 49ers and the Cowboys were loaded with salaries and kept paying, knowing it would cost them in the future. They won championships and now are every day teams, trying to figure out how to get out of their own way.

The cap helps sprinkle talent around the league, and that’s it. Players like John Randle, Marcus Robertson and Leon Searcy are now free-agents, released by teams desperate to get under the salary cap. They’re still productive players, still stars in fact, but the cap makes teams decide which stars they’ll keep and which ones they’ll cut.

Searcy said last week, “I’m important too,” when asked what the Jaguars might do. He’s right. The Jaguars had to decide between an All-Pro type lineman who is a great “locker room guy” and their Pro Bowl quarterback. The quarterback won out in the short term, holding the team hostage with his demands for more money.

When the 49ers recently signed defensive lineman Bryant Young to a long term deal, Bill Walsh said, “this will cost us untold numbers of productive players in the future.” If that’s the attitude around the league, why keep the cap? Certainly the NFL could come up with another way to restrict the movement of some players and give others the freedom to seek their own deals. The NBA created the “Larry Bird rule” allowing teams to keep the stars on their rosters while paying them accordingly, and have enough money left under their cap to put a good team around them.

The NFL, with its higher incidence of injury, needs to look over the cap. If a player is eating up a big percentage of a team’s cap and gets hurt, their season is over. They can’t sign somebody else, they don’t have the money.

Tweak it, massage it, figure out a way players can stay in towns and with teams for their entire careers if they want to. Doesn’t it seem funny with all the different dates and rules that the league created the salary cap, and they immediately started to look for ways to get around it?

John Unitas, Tom Matte, Art Donovan, they’re all Colts. Terry Bradshaw and Franco Harris are Steelers.

Dan Marino is a Dolphin.

Will there be any career long Jaguars? Under the current cap structure, I wouldn’t load up on Brunell jerseys in the near future.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Capology 101

If the dream has always been to have a league that’s competitive, or with “parity” then the salary cap is the warm milk NFL administrators have taken in order to drift off to sleep at night. The salary cap has brought mighty teams down, making them pay for what was once thought to be a virtue: a desire to win.

The cap is supposed to give each team an equal opportunity to compete, year in and year out. Many teams have found ways around it, the 49ers did with Carmen Policy and Dwight Clark in charge. They go caught, and have paid hefty fines. As many who break the rules say, their only crime was they got caught. Maneuvering around the salary cap is rampant in the league, the Niners are just the first to be exposed.

The Jacksonville Jaguars have taken advantage of their advantage as an expansion team. Starting out, their balance was zero. They paid no money to players not on their roster. Nobody counted against the cap that wasn’t in uniform. Using that advantage, they signed players to lucrative contracts, attracted free agents, and became instantly respectable. Now, they’ll fall in line with the rest of the league.

Although Head Coach Tom Coughlin says he doesn’t sense a “rebuilding” year ahead, he has used the phrases “magic wand” and “a challenge” when describing salary cap issues in the upcoming off season. If there is one thing the league needs inside the salary cap rules, it’s a provision for injury. Setting a team in the off-season takes plenty if imagination and ingenuity. The balance created between the stars and the backups on any roster is very tenuous. One injury, and that balance is forfeited. If you lose a star player, you can’t go try and replace him, but his salary counts against your cap.

Inside the Jacksonville Jaguars locker room, the talk is about a .500 record, the Giants and playing for pride, at least publicly. Outside of the locker room, the talk is of the salary cap, and that’s it. Estimates range as high as $40 million as the number the Jaguars will be over the cap next year. Michael Huyghue, the Jaguars Vice President of Football Operations, their capologist, says the number is not quite that high but they will have some cutting to do. He lists, Mark Brunell, Leon Searcy and Kevin Hardy as the team’s top priority in restructuring contracts for next year.

No mention of Keenan McCardell, whose cap number is just over $4 million. If the team cuts him, he’ll still count $1.8 against the cap next year, so for not much more, they can keep him. If you go through the offense, there are no more than 5 players who will definitely be back in the teal and black next year.

Brunell says ‘no question” he’ll be back next year. His cap number will need to be around $7 million. Jimmy Smith is the best bargain in the NFL, Tony Boselli and Fred Taylor are under contract. After that, it’s wide open. Kyle Brady has been valuable, but are they willing to pay $3 million for a Tight End? Jeff Smith and Todd Fordham are both free-agents who have made themselves some money in the last 6 weeks. Brad Meester will only be in his second year. Daimon Shelton and Brendan Stai seem to be returning players, if their salaries are at the right level.

Huyghue’s comment about Searcy was the most puzzling. Leon is in the driver’s seat. They owe him money if they cut him or if they keep him. The Jaguars didn’t allow Searcy to show the rest of the league he can still play when they put him on injured reserve at the end of the season. He didn’t like that, but didn’t make a stink about it either. As Tom Coughlin said, he’d like to wave a “magic wand” to keep Searcy on the team, but it will be very difficult.

Defensively, the question centers around Carnell Lake and Hardy Nickerson. The Jaguars have admitted they went out of their model for success in signing both players, but Tom Coughlin says they did that because they were productive players who had never been hurt. Both have been injured. Bringing them back seems unlikely, except Nickerson already counts over $2 million against the cap next year so he might return.

They have to make a decision on Tony Brackens and the second half of his bonus. Gary Walker is a Pro Bowl caliber player, but do they want to spend that money on a defensive tackle? Joel Smengee wants to return and says he’ll be reasonable with the Jaguars because, frankly, he doesn’t want to move and play somewhere else. If he returns, it will be with an entirely new contract.

Huyghue admits the team will have what he calls a “catch up” year, in order to pay for being very competitive for the last five seasons. Every other team in the league has had to “catch up” and it looks like the Jauguars turn.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Phobos

I’ve been off for a couple days over the last two weeks. First to entertain friends in town and then to play in a golf tournament. I’ve also been out of town visiting for a day, so I’ve been outside of my normal route between work, home and the gym. Everywhere I went, I was asked the same question a couple of hundred times, “What’s wrong with the Jaguars?”

I’ve heard about Brunell’s problems, the offensive line, the defensive line, Fred Taylor, the crowd, Coughlin, just about everything.

After hearing most everything, I’ve settled on a theory of my own about what’s the matter with the Jaguars. It’s the same thing that can cause good teams to go south in every sport: fear. Not fear of hitting somebody or cowardice in anyway but fear defined by the classic Greek word phobos.

In Steven Pressfield’s book Gates of Fire, he describes the Spartan warriors as the ultimate fighting force. A full unit, confident in their comrades and their equipment, reverential of their leaders and trained to perfection. The phobos that infects their opponents doesn’t make them run away, but rather lose their discipline, react wildly and break down any semblance a coordinated defense or attack. That phobos has infected the Jaguars, making them afraid to react as football players, rather than mechanical robots carrying out an assignment. It infects baseball teams when they stop hitting. You’ve heard the expression “hitting is contagious,” and the opposite is true. An entire team can go in a collective slump, leaving the manager and the players bewildered at the cause. They’re all trying to win the game with one swing, instead of just going to the plate and hitting the ball hard, somewhere.

Rick Ankiel was a successful pitcher for the St. Louis Cardinals during the regular season. In the post-season, Ankiel set records for wild pitches in an inning that might never be touched. Did he all of the sudden forget how to pitch? Kind of. Instead of a discipline of mechanics and athletic control, Ankiel was trying anything to throw a strike. It almost becomes a physical affliction.

Ever see somebody with the yips? Why wouldn’t somebody who’s able to smash a golf ball 300 yards off the tee barely be able to take the putter back and through with any kind of consistency? The fear, the phobos.

How can one basketball team go six minutes at the end of the game and not score a single point?

When the Raven’s kicker popped up the kickoff in the Sunday night game against the Jaguars, you could see the Jaguar players run to their positions on the field, doing their jobs as told. Some saw the football, others didn’t, but none reacted as football players, pouncing on the football and making a play. Instead they were bound up by the phobos that comes from playing tight, playing more afraid to make a mistake rather than just playing the game.

People have theories and I’ve heard dozens, some that make sense, others that came right out of Joe Theisman’s mouth. Theisman really harped on the Mark-Brunell-is-the-loneliest-guy-in-the-world theory during the Sunday night broadcast. Brunell and Coughlin don’t have the chummiest relationship, certainly not Walsh/Montana or Holmgren/Favre but Brunell does have people to go to. Bob Petrino is the quarterbacks coach and he’s on the sidelines during the game. Petrino also works on the offensive game plan during the week so he hears input from the players constantly. Do the Jaguars need an offensive coordinator? Actually they already have one in Petrino, but giving him the title might empower the players a bit and bring them out from under Coughlin’s thumb.

The Jaguars defense shed themselves of that fear last week, playing instinctively, and limiting the Ravens to just 193 total yards. Dom Capers deserves some of the credit for that, taking the cuffs off his defense and just letting them go play. The players lobbied for that move, and got it. The rest of the team needs to grab that feeling, starting with Coughlin, through Brunell and the wins will follow.

As I’ve said all along, four wins by the break after the Dallas game gives the Jaguars a chance at the playoffs. Less than that, and they’ll be making holiday plans off the field.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

The Bandwagon

Let’s see. The offensive line can’t play, the defensive line are bums, Mark Brunell is finished, Tom Coughlin forgot how to coach, Dom Capers isn’t using people right, Fred Taylor is soft, Jimmy Smith is playing for a contract and Keenan McCardell’s career is already over. Those are some of the things I heard this week from fans explaining why the Jaguars won’t win another game this year.

Earlier people were explaining how bad the Redskins were, Deion Sanders was finished, Bruce Smith should retire, Norv Turner was an idiot and should be run out of town, Michael Westbrook is a wuss, Steven Davis is fat and happy with his new contract and Daniel Snyder is just a short multimillionaire who doesn’t know what he’s doing with his new toy.

This week Turner is a genius, Sanders and Smith will have their numbers retired as Redskins, Davis is going to the Hall of Fame and Snyder made all the right moves in the off season.

It’s the bandwagon.

Even Deion referred to it after the game, “There’s room for y’all on our band wagon,” Sanders said after the Redskins won a riveting game against the Buccaneers.

This is one of the great things about sports. The bandwagon. What does it actually mean anyway? When was the last time you saw a band on a wagon?

Fans jump on and off all the time. That’s their job. Wailing at their team’s ineptitude, applauding their success. “The tires are going flat on that bandwagon so many people are jumping on,” is a favorite derisive remark by other teams’ fans.

The bandwagon is what fuels a team’s fan base. When they’re winning, everybody wants to jump on, everybody wants to buy their t-shirts, and some even want to take credit. Those are some of my favorites. The bandwagon jumpers who say “I knew it all the time.” They were also the first one’s off yelling, “We stink!”

Sports is just about the only thing you can feel passionately about, one way or another, within the span of a few days, hours or even minutes, express your feelings as loud as you want, and in the end, it really doesn’t matter. Whether your team wins or loses isn’t going to make you live longer, make you more money or all of the sudden become handsome. But we scream and holler, paint our faces one week and want to burn our season tickets the next.

Some people talk about “true” fans, and what they’re expected to act like. Baloney. Act anyway you want. Love your team or hate them. Tell them they’re the greatest, or the worst. Immerse yourself in it. Jump on that bandwagon, and enjoy the ride.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Coughlin The Crusader

It’s all part of the plan. The sunglasses, the calling off the fitness run, the ending practice a few minutes early. It wouldn’t surprise me if Tom Coughlin had all of these changes written down somewhere in a master plan he put together in 1994 when he took the Jaguars head coaching job: if not before. Tom Coughlin is the most organized person I’ve ever known. (Actually Dom Capers could be the most organized person I’ve ever met, but Coughlin won’t let me speak to him so I can ask him.)

He has his day mapped out, his week mapped out; his year mapped out, and expects the schedule to be followed. People who interfere with the schedule, who aren’t part of achieving the objective are usually given one chance to get with the program, or they’re out. He’s this way with everybody, his players, his friends, his coaches, even sometimes with his family. He’s looking for people to separate themselves from the pack. Show him something different, something that shows more commitment. I guess everybody is a bit of an overstatement; he actually doesn’t afford the media any chance to separate themselves. He throws the media into one basket; the one marked “something I have to do that takes time away from the important stuff” and doesn’t allow us to separate from one another. I’ve mentioned that to him more than once, and he disagrees.

Don’t get me wrong. I like Tom Coughlin. A lot. I know him professionally and we have a nice personal relationship as well. His work in the community is exemplary and there’s not much I fault him with during his tenure as the Jaguars head coach. It doesn’t mean we haven’t disagreed on occasion over the last six years. So much so in fact, that two times we’ve been nose to nose (mostly Coughlin yelling and me listening).

He is a fairly complex individual. The national media, and those observing from afar have tried to paint his personality with a broad brush. Tough disciplinarian, typical college coach trying to force his way on professional athletes. It wouldn’t be too hard to come up with that image, Patton with a coach’s whistle if you were just mildly paying attention. Coughlin believes in character; character that was once defined as “an integration of habits of conduct superimposed on temperament, the will exercised on disposition, though, emotion and action.” He believes in personal discipline and it’s application in everyday life. There’s a bit of Spartan philosophy mixed in as well; each man working himself as a part of the unit, protective of each other, loyal beyond doubt. If you know that about the man, everything else falls into place. He doesn’t understand people not doing their best. Not displaying their character as it is developed through practice is foreign to him.

His wife Judy tells a hilarious story about the airlines losing his luggage on a short trip to the Caribbean. Coughlin didn’t want to leave the room until the airline delivered his luggage. He was adamant. That’s their job, so they should do it right! Judy finally convinced him to buy a bathing suit at the gift shop so as to not waste part of the trip.

His success’ cannot be overstated as a head coach in the National Football League. There’s only one hurdle left: win the Super Bowl. Can Coughlin put his team in the proper mental state to get to the big game and perform? Looking back over the history of the game, the teams that have won it, many times got there by rallying behind their coach. Ditka, Parcells, even Dick Vermeil. Can Coughlin foster that relationship with his players? He has kept them at arms length in the past, an old school player-coach relationship. He started bringing doughnuts to the Friday workouts a couple of years ago. It shocked some of the players at the time, but brought many of them into his camp.

Some people think he’s turned the discipline of the club over to the veterans. Not exactly. He’s challenged the veterans to handle the discipline. Big difference. It’s part of the plan. The question is; what part of the plan gets the team to the next step? The answer probably drives Coughlin crazy because he knows he doesn’t control it. The players do. Only the players as a group can create an atmosphere where nothing but ultimate success is acceptable. Coughlin has put them right where they should be, but he’s taken them as far as he can. They have to do the rest.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Not Tonight, I’ve Got The Blues

Jacksonville – Cry. Pout. Sulk. Cuss. Throw something.
It’s all right, because that’s how just about everybody else feels. And it’s normal.

I know you keep telling yourself, it was just a football game. And it’s silly to feel this way. But it’s not. Analyze it, go over it again, be mad with the players, coaches, refs, the media, whatever it takes to put it away and still accept the Jaguars are your team.

The Jaguars loss to the Titans Sunday could have been easier to swallow if they had just played sort of like they played during the regular season. Or even half as well as against Miami. To lose is one thing. To give it away is another. And that’s what makes it hurt all the worse.

Sometimes people who don’t count themselves as “sports fans” can’t understand what all the fuss is about. Now, living in Jacksonville, they must know. The money, time, and passion invested in the team came to an abrupt end Sunday, leaving an emptiness fans here have never experienced. But it’s OK. Communal pain is what brings the passion to a fever pitch the next time.

Now you know why Denver, their fans, players and media have such animosity for Jacksonville and the Jaguars. We did to them in ‘96 what Tennessee did to us. Only worse. The Jaguars were an expansion team! And a decided underdog. Just a formality on their way to the Super Bowl. You don’t think when the Jaguars visited Denver in the playoffs the next year, the way the Broncos dismantled Jacksonville, and kept on doing it was an accident do you? Cleveland’s passion for their Browns’ was steeled through years of getting close but never taking that last step. John Elway in the late ‘80’s, then Art Modell in the ‘90’s.

It seems like ancient history now, but when the Colts left Baltimore in ’84, they left behind 30 years of history. An entire generation of sports fans, abandoned, left alone to deal with the pain of being shut out in the NFL title game, being on the losing end of the greatest upset in NFL history, now with no team to cheer for, and not even anyone around to be mad at.

Tom Coughlin’s comments on Monday were right on the money. “Don’t ask me to evaluate now,” said the Head Coach, “Because today it’s ‘Fire everybody’.

Isn’t that how you felt?
Fire ‘em all, and start over.
That feeling is now subsiding.
Some guys can stay, and some have to go. But it’s your team to root for. Not just the players who wear the uniform now, but also the team as a whole.

It’s the people you tail gate with, the experience of sitting in the rain at the game, of complaining about warm beer and cold hot dogs. That’s what makes you a fan, and it gives you the right to sulk. To cuss. To cry if you want to.

Then sneak the sports section after declaring yourself done with them, and scan the agate type for who might be available. Then check the dates on free-agency. And the upcoming college draft. Then dream of summer camp, and the season opener, and your chance to be a fan again.