Tom Coughlin, the coach without a team, was scouting a college football game last Saturday night. Trying to, anyway. A wind-driven rain was smearing what Coughlin had scrawled in his notebook, was pelting his dictating machine and was dotting the lenses of his binoculars as he sat in the first row of the open-air press box at the University of Florida's stadium, watching the Gators swamp the Georgia Bulldogs 52-14. "Bet you wish you had a game to prepare for tomorrow instead of being here," someone suggested to Coughlin, who spent seven years as an NFL assistant before taking the top job at Boston College in 1991.
"Sure do," he said, chewing, as is his habit, on a stick of Juicy Fruit and looking at his watch. "I'd be just coming out of a team meeting right about now, thinking about the game tomorrow. The hardest thing about my job now is that Sunday is just another day. I didn't expect to feel the emotional tug the way I do, but I associate something very special with game day, and I miss it greatly."
For Coughlin, the coach of the expansion Jacksonville Jaguars, there will be no games until August 1995. But he and his eight-man staff are spending their fall weekends scouting as many as 21 college and pro games. Then on Monday mornings at 7:30, in a trailer adjacent to the Gator Bowl in Jacksonville, Coughlin and his aides meet to discuss the players they have seen and to break down tape from every NFL team.
The college games are to help prepare the Jaguar brain trust for April's draft, in which Jacksonville and the Carolina Panthers, the other team beginning play in '95, will each have 14 selections. And all those pro games and video reviews will help Coughlin and his coaches make the best of the February allocation draft, which will give the new clubs the leftovers and salary-cap headaches from the 28 existing NFL rosters. The Jags and the Panthers will also be in the hunt for free agents during open season this winter.
On board a private jet taking him to Gainesville for the Florida-Georgia game—his weekend itinerary also included a trip to RFK Stadium in Washington to see the Eagles beat the Redskins 31-29 on Sunday—Coughlin talked about the task he is facing.
"Normally a team has one or two or three major priorities for three to five roster spots," he said. "We have 53 priorities. But I think there are two things you have to take care of right away: the quarterback and the defensive-pressure people. That's why this weekend's so important. We'll see the leading passer in the history of the Southeastern Conference, [Georgia's] Eric Zeier, in a big game against two of the higher-ranked defensive linemen in college football, Ellis Johnson and Kevin Carter. Then tomorrow we'll get to see a bunch of Philadelphia players who'll be free agents after the season, and it will be a little bonus if I can get to see [backup quarterback] John Friesz of the Redskins."
As the Georgia-Florida game progressed, Coughlin liked the plucky, fast-balling Zeier, who was almost a one-man team until he started throwing wildly into coverage. Coughlin also came away impressed by the cat-quick, 6'6" Carter, who was in Zeier's shirt all evening. In the second half Carter plowed through Zeier after he released a pass, and Coughlin said into his dictating machine, "Carter just ran over Zeier again. That's the fourth time he's done it now."
Coughlin felt good on his way home from the game because he had gotten a long look at Zeier and his tendency to force balls into coverage, which Coughlin might not have seen had the Bulldogs been playing, say, Kentucky. And he saw Carter stand out, tormenting a big-time quarterback.
Coughlin wouldn't be so lucky the next day. In Washington he carried with him a list of 13 prospective Redskin and Eagle free agents, six of them playing defense on a day that saw the offenses dominate. He wasn't able to see the play-forcing ability of linebacker Byron Evans or the kind of coverage that cornerback Eric Allen is capable of. He watched quarterback Randall Cunningham closely too, mindful of the reports last April that Philadelphia was shopping him on draft day. "He's thrown one pass downfield all day," Coughlin said in the second half, frustrated that he hadn't gotten a look at Cunningham's deep arm.
But Coughlin, who was lured away from BC after last season, did get in some practice coaching. "The thing we aren't doing is the split-second gymnastics of calling plays under pressure," Coughlin said. "So I try to make calls when certain situations come up." Midway through the first quarter he had a perfect opportunity. The Eagles had a fourth-and-six at the Redskin 32; their kicker is the rather weak-legged Eddie Murray. "Punt or try the field goal?" Coughlin was asked as the Philly coaches huddled to consider the-same question. Just as Murray was pushed onto the field to try a 49-yard field goal, Coughlin said, "I punt. If you punt, you pin the kid quarterback [rookie Gus Frerotte] deep in his own territory. If you miss the field goal, you give them the ball at their 40—their best field position of the day."
Bingo. Murray missed the field goal. And Frerotte promptly led Washington to a touchdown and a 7-0 lead.
In the coming year and beyond, Coughlin will be making nearly every important call for Jacksonville. But his first responsibility will be deciding how to fill his roster. He almost certainly won't select a quarterback with his first pick of April's draft (the second choice overall); none of the current crop is worth such a lofty pick. If the Jaguars do not trade the pick, they are likely to go for a pocket-collapser such as defensive tackle Warren Sapp of Miami or Florida's Carter. But Coughlin has reliable contacts around the NFL from the years he spent as an assistant with the Eagles, the Packers and the Giants, and he won't be afraid to trade down.
Last week a clue to Coughlin's thinking lay on the stand holding the 32-inch TV monitor and VCR in his office. He had 15 tapes of veteran quarterbacks on the stand, including Arizona's Steve Beuerlein, Chris Chandler of the Rams, Mark Rypien of the Browns and Mark Brunell of the Packers. Brunell, a lefthander in his second season, might be an interesting prospect because, a source close to the Packers told SI, he may be available in exchange for a second-round pick.
The Jaguars are also considering a run at 39-year-old Phil Simms, the former Giant quarterback and current ESPN broadcaster; a low-cost veteran such as Friesz; and a quarterback of the future such as Kansas State's Chad May or Steve McNair of Alcorn State. While Simms would probably cost Jacksonville $2 million a year and might not hold up behind the weak offensive line the Jags are certain to have, signing him might not be as foolish as it appears. Simms would be the first one in the locker room in the morning and the last one out of the weight room at night, and he would be the perfect mentor, no matter how much or how little he played, for McNair or another young quarterback.
"How can you know now?" Coughlin said. "All we can do is work every day so we'll know enough about every player and be able to make the right decision when the time comes."
A coach's work, even when he's not coaching, is never done.
Shake It Up, Pepper
Give democracy some of the credit for the Browns' 6-2 start. After Cleveland lost at home to the Steelers in Week 2, middle linebacker Pepper Johnson, safety Eric Turner and defensive tackle Michael Dean Perry met with coach Bill Belichick and urged him and defensive coordinator Nick Saban to give the defense more freedom to adjust plays on the field. Belichick, normally a do-it-by-the-book type, gave his O.K., and the Browns reeled off five straight wins. Despite a 26-14 loss to the Broncos on Sunday, the Browns have allowed only 105 points; through Sunday's games, only the Packers, who played on Monday night, have been stingier.
When Johnson was a Giant, Belichick was New York's defensive coordinator under Bill Parcells. Says Johnson, who is leading Cleveland with 94 tackles, "This is how Belichick and Parcells raised me to play: Give us a way to attack the offense, teach us the tendencies, and let the players play. Who knows better what's going on out there than the players?"
Case in point: Against the Bengals on Oct. 23, Turner recognized a flaw in the Cincinnati pass protection that he thought would allow Johnson to attack the quarterback unblocked. Turner asked Saban to call a play that would have Johnson blitzing, with Turner picking up Johnson's man. Saban agreed, and Johnson stormed into the backfield and trapped quarterback Donald Hollas for a 20-yard sack. "Last year I don't think Eric's input would have influenced the call," Johnson says.
The Vikings will have one distinct advantage over the rest of the NFL's contenders down the stretch: They lead the league in cap room, a statistic nearly as important as passing yardage, sacks and interceptions. At the moment, the Minnesota payroll is nearly $2 million lower than the $34.6 million salary cap. If the Vikings are hit with injuries, they will have that sum to spend on spare parts and probably won't have to cut anyone to make room for a high-priced replacement. Toward the other end of the scale are the Cowboys, a mere $40,000 under the cap. If Dallas needs, say, a new tackle, either someone will have to go or a lot of contracts will have to be renegotiated before it can purchase one. Of the teams with five or more wins at the season's halfway point, only Minnesota could sign high-priced talent without seriously disrupting its existing lineup or salary structure
Things are so bad for Buc coach Sam Wyche (12-28 in 2½ seasons with Tampa Bay) that after the Vikings' 36-13 rout in Tampa on Sunday, fans pelted Wyche with assorted objects as he left the field. A pair of binoculars missed him by a couple of feet. The Bucs have fallen behind 17-0, 34-0 and 24-0 in the last three weeks....
The Redskins arc 0-12 in NFC East games since opening 1993 with a win over the Cowboys....
The Bills are a funny team. They lose to the Jets by 20 points and to the Colts by 10, then beat the Dolphins and the Chiefs by a combined score of 65-21. After Buffalo whomped Kansas City 44-10 on Sunday, linebacker Cornelius Bennett, who forced a fumble and had an interception, said, "The entire team, including the coaches, was fired up. I don't know if it was just because it was the Chiefs, but the locker room was like we had won the AFC championship before the game had started."
...Lion linebacker Pat Swilling ought to take his demotion like a man and earn his starting job back instead of beefing that he has been made the scapegoat for the team's disappointing 4-4 start. A defensive starter who makes only 49 tackles in 1½ years doesn't have grounds to complain....
Cowboy quarterback Troy Aikman has already had two concussions in 1994 and a total of six going back to his high school days, but he tells SI, "I am not at the concussion crossroads of my career. The CAT scan of my brain [last week] was absolutely normal." Still, the league blew it by not fining Cardinal Wilber Marshall for his Chuck Cecil-like hit on Aikman on Oct. 23. Marshall slammed helmet-first into Aikman's face, cutting his chin, causing him to bite a hole in his tongue and giving him a concussion....
Speaking of protecting Aikman, Dallas could be in a huge jam without starting right tackle Erik Williams, who is out indefinitely after he ran his Mercedes into a retaining wall in the wee hours of Oct. 24. Left on the Cowboy roster for the foreseeable future are rookies George Hegamin and Larry Allen, second-year man Ron Stone, recent pickup James Parrish and Mark Tuinei, who has missed two games this year with back spasms.
The End Zone
While 49er coach George Seifert was busy guiding his team to the top of the NFC West, his wife, Linda, was in Tanzania, scaling 19,340-foot Mount Kilimanjaro. On Oct. 15, after a six-day climb, she and six others reached the highest point on the African continent, but the wind-whipped summit was so cold that the party could stay for only 20 minutes. The epicurean highlight of the trip, according to the San Francisco Examiner"? Roasted antelope on a spit.
BAN VAN HOOK
Coughlin visited rainy Gainesville to get a firsthand look at Carter (57), Johnson (61) and Zeier.
PETER READ MILLER
Pepper Johnson (52) was right when he told Belichick the D would jell if the players had a say.