In Jacksonville, All Eyes Will Be on Leftwich
By Mark Maske
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 18, 2004; 11:16 AM
Tennessee Titans Coach Jeff Fisher said at the annual league meeting that the Jacksonville Jaguars might be the NFL's most improved team. That might be a stretch, for the Jaguars will go only as far as young quarterback Byron Leftwich takes them. But they are, at least, a team on the rise again after four straight losing seasons. Those seasons were particularly disappointing because they came on the heels of the team's second appearance in the AFC title game under former coach Tom Coughlin, in the 1999 season.
The Jaguars surprised some in the league when they hired Jack Del Rio as head coach in January 2003. Del Rio was three months shy of his 40th birthday and had been an NFL coordinator for only one season, serving as the Carolina Panthers' defensive boss in 2002 under Coach John Fox. But the former Pro Bowl linebacker learned from some of the best, serving as the Baltimore Ravens' linebackers coach under defensive coordinator Marvin Lewis and Coach Brian Billick before working for Fox, and he did not appear overmatched as a head coach last season even though the Jaguars went 5-11.
Del Rio made a significant change to his coaching staff this offseason when he fired his friend and former Dallas Cowboys teammate, Bill Bates, as his special-teams coordinator and hired Pete Rodriguez. Rodriguez doesn't come cheap, with a salary of about $500,000 per season, and he was dismissed by the Seattle Seahawks because of differences with Coach Mike Holmgren. But he is one of the league's top special-teams coaches, and he likely will make a difference for the Jaguars.
Jacksonville attempted to upgrade its defense in free agency by adding a pair of Del Rio's former Carolina players, safety Deon Grant and linebacker Greg Favors. But the Jaguars lost cornerback Fernando Bryant as an unrestricted free agent, and must find a new starter to go with Rashean Mathis. The candidates include holdover Kiwaukee Thomas and free-agent additions Juran Bolden, Dewayne Washington and Lewis Sanders.
Safety Donovin Darius has rejoined the club's offseason program after being told by Del Rio to stay away temporarily when he sulked about being kept off the free agent market by being named the team's franchise player. The Jaguars could use a return to form by defensive end Hugh Douglas, who had only 3 1/2 sacks last season after signing with the Jaguars as a celebrated free agent. He had 51 1/2 sacks the previous five seasons with the Philadelphia Eagles. But his play for Jacksonville was listless. He turns 33 in August, and some in the league believe he could be a salary-cap cut in June. That appears unlikely because the Jaguars didn't draft a potential successor, but another subpar season could prompt Douglas's exit. The team released veteran defensive end Tony Brackens, but still could re-sign him.
The show on offense now belongs to Leftwich, who enters his second pro season as the unquestioned starter after the Jaguars traded veteran quarterback Mark Brunell to the Washington Redskins in March. Leftwich appears to be the real deal but the Jaguars will have to live with some mistakes, and the talent around him on offense is not overwhelming.
The Jaguars seemed intent on using the ninth overall pick in the draft on a wide receiver, and had to settle for Washington's Reggie Williams because the top two receivers in the draft -- Pittsburgh's Larry Fitzgerald and Texas's Roy Williams -- were off the board and USC's Mike Williams was made ineligible by an appeals court ruling in the Maurice Clarett case. Most executives around the league viewed Reggie Williams as worthy of a mid-first-round choice rather than a top-10 selection, but Jacksonville's two second-round picks -- Georgia Tech linebacker Daryl Smith and Florida State tailback Greg Jones -- could end up being well worth it.
Del Rio seems like a coach capable of returning the Jaguars to AFC prominence, but the club's followers probably will have to be patient for at least another year while the team endures Leftwich's growing pains.
Around the League
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Bowlen Understands Sharpe's Decision
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Next: Kansas City Chiefs
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