As the Jacksonville Jaguars walked up the tunnel and toward their locker room at PSINet Stadium Sunday, wide receiver Keenan McCardell and tackle Tony Boselli both bellowed out messages that reverberated off the concrete walls.
"That's what champions are made of, right there," McCardell yelled, followed a few seconds later by Boselli, screaming: "That's what it's all about, baby. Oh yeah, that was sweet."
There has not been much sour for the joyful Jaguars this season, not after winning 10 of their 11 games, including a spirited comeback Sunday against the Ravens that included overcoming deficits of 10-0 early and 16-7 late by scoring a team-record 23 points in the fourth quarter of a 30-23 triumph.
The Jaguars have the NFL's best record, the top-ranked defense and an offense that's starting to show signs of life despite the frequent absences of running back Fred Taylor, who has been slowed by hamstring problems that may finally be healing enough to allow him to play down the stretch.
The Jaguars face a short work week as they prepare to play the visiting Pittsburgh Steelers Thursday night. And despite their gaudy record, they are also facing questions from around the league about how good they really are, mostly because of the soft nature of their schedule.
Only one of their opponents in the first 11 games, the Tennessee Titans, has a winning record. And the Jaguars lost to the Titans in Jacksonville Sept. 26, 20-19. The combined record of their other nine vanquished opponents is 28-70. Of their final five foes, four are currently below .500. They face the 9-2 Titans again in Nashville Dec. 26.
The Jaguars don't want to hear any criticism of their schedule. They say they didn't pick their opponents, and all they can do is beat the teams placed in front of them. Furthermore, they say just getting to the playoffs was never their goal. Winning a Super Bowl will be the measure of this team, and they firmly insist they have the talent, as well as the will, to accomplish that goal.
Michael Huyghue, the team's senior vice president and director of football operations, said the Jaguars are better than the 1996 team that made it to the AFC title game in its second year.
"I could feel it building back in March," he said. "Most guys stayed around for our offseason program. You could see it in the way they pal around with each other, the way they depend on each other. They're committed to winning the Super Bowl. Not in a cocky way. But we had a great offseason. For the first time, we had no issues with players, no problems, no unrest. People say it all the time, but you can feel the way these guys have come together. The way we came back and beat Baltimore was a great test of their character. And this team has a lot of that, too."
The head coach, Tom Coughlin, is a Bill Parcells disciple whose players say pays more attention to detail than any coach for whom they've played. His practices are precise and demanding, and mistakes simply are not tolerated. He also expects discipline off the field, one reason the Jaguars may be the only team in football that demands its players wear coats and ties on trips to and from away games. Like Parcells, he does not allow his assistant coaches to be interviewed. He wants one voice speaking, a team official says--Tom Coughlin's voice.
Earlier this year, when the Jaguars were struggling on offense, there were reports Coughlin and quarterback Mark Brunell were not getting along. Both men denied it, even if some players said Brunell was chafing under Coughlin's behind-the-scenes criticism in practice and meetings. The absence of Chris Palmer--the offensive coordinator last year and now head coach of the Cleveland Browns--had eliminated the buffer between the two. But Coughlin and his quarterback now seem to be on the same page.
Coughlin was effusive in his praise of Brunell after the Ravens game, saying "he was in total control of the situation. He played superbly when he had to. . . . I can't say enough about what Mark did."
Brunell had a rib injury earlier in the season that prevented him from throwing the ball much during practice and clearly limited his scrambling ability. In recent weeks, he's starting to resemble the Brunell of '96, evoking comparisons of the man whose No. 8 he wears--San Francisco's Steve Young.
Against the Ravens, he was brilliant during the fourth quarter, despite taking some wicked hits earlier in the game after getting rid of the ball.
"People on the outside doubted him earlier in the season, but look what he's doing now," said wide receiver Jimmy Smith, who had 10 catches against the Ravens. "None of us doubted him, and he really showed what he's made of in the fourth quarter. In the huddle, he was poised and confident. In our last scoring drive, he really took some shots, but he got up and he got it done. He's everything you could ask for in a quarterback."
Smith and McCardell also are everything anyone could ask for in a receiver tandem. Since 1996, Smith is third in the NFL with receptions with 318, and McCardell, once cut by the Redskins, is fifth with 286. Smith is on course for a 1,000-yard plus receiving year; McCardell is heading toward the 80-catch plateau.
"And if you think this offense is good now, wait until Fred Taylor gets back," said Smith. "We've got a lot of weapons here, guys who can block and guys who can catch the ball."
They've also got a defense that has allowed a league-low 125 points. The Jaguars have held opponents to 10 or fewer points in seven of 11 games and are threatening the record of 187 points allowed by the 1986 Chicago Bears, considered by many to be the greatest defensive team in league history.
The Jaguars solidified that unit this year with the addition of two key free agents--former Tennessee defensive tackle Gary Walker and Pittsburgh free safety Carnell Lake, a perennial Pro Bowl selection who has provided the Jaguars secondary with savvy veteran leadership and stability.
"We've got a lot of talent across the board, and every week different guys are making big plays," Lake said. "We're basically using the same scheme we had in Pittsburgh. We're as good as any defense I played on with the Steelers, and probably better."
The architect of the current defense is Dom Capers, who refined it as a defensive coordinator with the Steelers before becoming head coach of the Carolina Panthers in 1995. Capers was fired last year in Carolina, and Coughlin snatched him right up to replace Dick Jauron, last's year's coordinator who took the head job with the Chicago Bears this season.
"Dom is a great coach, and he'll be a head coach again," Lake said. "But right now, we're fortunate to have him. Some of these younger guys have been together for three, four years now, and they've really matured into fine players."
Linebacker Kevin Hardy has been a terror all season for the Jaguars, selected along with two other defensive starters--defensive end Tony Brackens and cornerback Aaron Beasly--in the 1996 draft. Brackens leads the team with nine sacks, a team record, and Hardy has 8 1/2 on a defense that leads the NFL with 44.
"We've got a lot of guys who have been in the league for a few years, and we know what it takes," Hardy said. "It's the best defense I've played on, and we're just going to keep getting better."