Only two defenses in the past five seasons have made the kind of quantum leap in the NFL rankings that the 1999 Jacksonville Jaguars did.
The 1998 Raiders and the 1998 Dolphins also improved by more than 20 spots from the previous year, the Raiders going from 30th to fifth and the Dolphins from 26th to third.
Which, of course, reveals two things about the Jaguars' defense: It was pretty good this season, and it was lousy in '98. Last season, the Jaguars' defense finished 25th in the NFL (almost as bad against the run, 22nd, as the pass, 23rd). This season, it ranked fourth.
The rest of the AFC viewed Jacksonville's defensive struggles as a blessing because during the team's brief history, Coach Tom Coughlin has established it as an offensive power. From 1996 to '98, the Jaguars' offense ranked among the NFL's top 10.
This season, Jacksonville's defense actually outranked the offense, which finished seventh in the NFL overall. Not coincidentally, the Jaguars had the AFC's best record (14-2) and will be the home team in Sunday's AFC championship game against the Tennessee Titans, who handed them those two defeats.
"Statistically, without a doubt this is our best year defensively, and our players are proud of that and excited about it," Coughlin said recently.
There may be some skepticism about the Jaguars. Tennessee was their only opponent that finished the season with a winning record, and the Titans swept the teams' regular season series--including a 41-14 shellacking on Dec. 26. But Jacksonville looked awfully good while crushing the Miami Dolphins, 62-7, in an AFC semifinal last weekend. And the Jaguars badly want to avenge their losses to Tennessee.
"I feel good about having another shot," safety Carnell Lake said. "I think it will definitely give us great momentum going into the Super Bowl if we're able to overcome the Titans. And it will scratch a lot of questions that people have about this team."
Lake's decision to leave the Pittsburgh Steelers for Jacksonville via free agency is one of several factors that converged to take the Jaguars' defense to a new level.
"It's three major additions," said fourth-year cornerback Aaron Beasley, who set a team record with six interceptions this season. He said it was new defensive coordinator Dom "Capers with his scheme. Carnell Lake and his leadership. And Gary Walker [a defensive tackle signed as a free agent from the Titans] and his intensity."
Say what you will about Coughlin, but at least he had the savvy to bring aboard expansion rival Capers as his defensive coordinator after Capers was fired as the Carolina Panthers' head coach. Capers and his zone blitzes have been an excellent fit for a young defense that had played a much less aggressive style under Dick Jauron, who left after last season to become the Chicago Bears' head coach.
"The thing you like about this defense is you've got a lot of young guys who are working hard and taking pride and it's feeding through the whole team," said Walker, who had a career-high 10 sacks this season. "We've got a rookie, [cornerback] Fernando Bryant, he plays just like he's been in the league five or six years. He's just hungry and stingy. Every ball in the air he thinks is his and he's going for it.
"When you've got young guys playing like that, it puts a lot of pressure on the older guys to say, 'Hey, we've got to step up.' "
Capers, Lake, Walker and Bryant constitute the new faces on the Jaguars' defense. The signings of Walker and Lake were particularly important in that they accomplished a Coughlin strategy of not just trying to improve his team but also to hurt the Jaguars competitors in the AFC Central Division.
Coughlin does not allow his assistant coaches to speak to the media. Lake is as close as it gets to hearing from Capers. Lake, who made his fifth Pro Bowl this season, is in his 11th season and his eighth under Capers. They were together for seven years in Pittsburgh, when the Steelers terrorized opposing quarterbacks. Capers was a big reason Lake came to Jacksonville.
"I felt we could move up about 15 notches [in the defensive rankings] when I came down here," Lake said. "Just knowing Dom Capers and his scheme, I felt like that would put us up in the ranks. And then working with these guys in the offseason and mini-camp, I realized there was a lot of talent here."
Whether inspired by a new coordinator or new teammates, the players who had been here finally played up to their capabilities. In addition to Beasley, two other 1996 Jaguars draft choices emerged to become stars--linebacker Kevin Hardy and defensive end Tony Brackens. Each was named to start in the Pro Bowl along with Lake.
"It's just called dedication," Beasley said. "Tony and Kevin were healthy this year all year and just took it to another level."
The next step is for the entire team to take it to another level.
"We're as good as our ranking," Beasley said, "but the only way we can prove it is to take it to the Super Bowl."