Deep within Jacksonville Municipal Stadium, locked away in a
cabinet somewhere near the desk of Jaguars vice president of
football operations Michael Huyghue, is a thick binder
containing Huyghue's original three-year building plan for the
team. It is said to be quite a detailed read, with daily
schedules, salary-cap numbers down to the dollar and intricate
draft notes. It's no doubt quite an intriguing read, too. In NFL
circles, Huyghue would have a hot commodity on his hands if he'd
just release the key to that cabinet.
"Oh, no," he says. "The league's too competitive to give away
our insights. Maybe I'll release it all in a book when I retire,
but right now we're still following our original plan. We've
just had to modify things a bit and set our sights higher."
The three-year blueprint proved so effective that Jacksonville
was just two thirds of the way through it when the team found
itself in the AFC Championship Game. After starting 4-7 in 1996
the Jags came together as a team and won their last five games
by an average of 4.2 points. The second-year club sneaked into
the playoffs as a wild card, then upset Buffalo and
AFC-title-favorite Denver before falling 20-6 to New England,
one stop short of the Super Bowl.
The central figure in the Jacksonville story is 26-year-old
quarterback Mark Brunell, who led the NFL in passing yards in
1996. In his third year as a starter, he's on the verge of
superstardom, but he is also approaching a critical career
point. This is the final year of his contract, and he is an
absolute steal at $1.2 million for 1997. The Jaguars entered the
summer anxious to hook up their QB with a long-term deal. The
southpaw was looking for at least $6 million a year.
Brunell's contract status isn't the Jaguars' only worry
concerning their quarterback. They lost offensive coordinator
Kevin Gilbride, who took the head coaching job in San Diego. How
Brunell fares under Gilbride's replacement, Chris Palmer--who is
credited with putting Drew Bledsoe back on track in New
England--will be an equally important development.
Of course, Brunell did not take this team to within two
touchdowns of the Super Bowl by himself. He is protected by left
tackle Tony Boselli, already one of the league's best; in the
playoffs Boselli dominated Buffalo's Bruce Smith. Also returning
on offense are running back Natrone Means, who hit his stride in
December and rushed for 315 yards in the first two postseason
games, and wideout Jimmy Smith, who led the AFC in receiving
Coach Tom Coughlin has developed one of the league's youngest
and nastiest defenses, featuring right end Tony Brackens, 22,
and linebackers Kevin Hardy, 24, and Bryan Schwartz, 25. The
additions of rookie defensive tackles Renaldo Wynn from Notre
Dame and Seth Payne from Cornell could make Jacksonville the
NFL's next name defense.
Joining the secondary is free-agent cornerback Deon Figures,
formerly of the Steelers, who appears to be back in the top form
he showed before he was shot in the knee during a random attack
near his Los Angeles home in 1995. Figures will vie for the
right corner spot with Dave Thomas, who returns after breaking
his femur in 1996.
Coughlin loves such competition among his players, and he's a
stickler for discipline and conditioning. Although he has been
known to go overboard in all three areas on occasion, the team
seems to fully subscribe to his methods. Only safety Travis
Davis did not participate in the off-season training program in
Florida, and he had good reason, returning to Notre Dame to get
his degree. "The fact that we were so physical in the end last
season made all the difference in the world," says guard Brian
DeMarco. "Other teams were tired and dragging, so we realize how
important the off-season is."
Not all went well during the summer, though. Seemingly envious
of the Jags' quick success, several teams refused to deal with
Jacksonville, settling for what seemed to be less advantageous
predraft trades elsewhere. And while the other teams that played
for the conference championships last year each received five
national television dates this season, Jacksonville must settle
for a single Monday-night appearance.
Not to worry. According to the Jaguars' updated master plan, the
only national TV date that matters is the one on Jan. 25, 1998.
COLOR PHOTO: JOHN IACONO COVER [REGIONAL] Title Run Mark Brunell and the surprising Jaguars are hungry for more
COLOR PHOTO: ROB TRINGALI JR./SPORTSCHROME Boselli provides the invaluable Brunell (8) with a strong left-side shield. [Tony Boselli and Mark Brunell in game]
BY THE NUMBERS
1996 Yards per Game (NFL rank)
1996 Record: 9-7 (second in AFC Central)
Rushing Passing Total
OFFENSE 103.1 (17) 256.9 (1) 360.0 (2)
DEFENSE 111.3 (19) 206.5 (16) 317.8 (15)
Bad News, Good News
Mark Brunell led the NFL in passing yards last year, but he was
just the sixth quarterback since 1960 to do so while throwing
more interceptions than TD passes. Still, he is the only one of
those six to lead his team to a playoff victory in that season.
Passing Yardage Leaders Who Threw More Picks than TDs
Yards Int. TDs
Mark Brunell, Jaguars, 1996 4,367 20 19
Drew Bledsoe, Patriots, 1994 4,555 27 25
Fran Tarkenton, Vikings, 1978 3,468 32 25
Joe Ferguson, Bills, 1977 2,803 24 12
Joe Namath, Jets, 1972 2,816 21 19
John Hadl, Chargers, 1971 3,075 25 21
John Hadl, Chargers, 1968 3,473 32 27
Joe Namath, Jets, 1967 4,007 28 26
Joe Namath, Jets, 1966 3,379 27 19
Stats from 1960 on; includes AFL
PLAYER TO WATCH
This should be the year that safety Chris Hudson reaches the
potential he showed at Colorado in 1995, when he won the Jim
Thorpe Award as the best defensive back in college football.
Hudson missed all of his rookie NFL season with a groin injury,
and in 1996 he was still feeling its effects. But now he is
healthy. Says Chuck Heater, Hudson's secondary coach at
Colorado, "All the kid wants to do is play the game."
PROJECTED LINEUP WITH 1996 STATISTICS
Head Coach: Tom Coughlin
Offensive Backs PVR*
QB Mark Brunell 4[*] 557 att. 353 comp. 63.4% 4,367 yds.
19 TDs 20 int. 84.0 rtg.
RB Natrone Means 38[*] 152 att. 507 yds. 3.3 avg.
7 rec. 45 yds. 6.4 avg. 3 TDs
FB Le'Shai Maston 303[*] 8 att. 22 yds. 2.8 avg. 6 rec.
54 yds. 9.0 avg. 0 TDs
Receivers, Specialists, Offensive Linemen
WR Keenan McCardell 23[*] 85 rec. 1,129 yds. 3 TDs
WR Jimmy Smith 32[*] 83 rec. 1,244 yds. 7 TDs
WR Willie Jackson 293[*] 33 rec. 486 yds. 3 TDs
TE Pete Mitchell 127[*] 52 rec. 575 yds. 1 TD
PK Mike Hollis 265[*] 27/27 XPs 30/36 FGs 117 pts.
KR Randy Jordan 316[*] 26 ret. 21.3 avg. 0 TDs
PR Chris Hudson 353[*] 32 ret. 10.9 avg. 0 TDs
LT Tony Boselli 6'7" 323 lbs. 16 games 16 starts
LG Ben Coleman 6'5" 325 lbs. 16 games 16 starts
C Michael Cheever 6'4" 291 lbs. 11 games 2 starts
RG Brian DeMarco 6'7" 322 lbs. 10 games 9 starts
RT Leon Searcy 6'4" 313 lbs. 16 games 16 starts
LE Jeff Lageman 44 tackles 4 1/2 sacks
LT Don Davey 30 tackles 1/2 sack
RT John Jurkovic 36 tackles 1 sack
RE Tony Brackens 55 tackles 7 sacks
OLB Kevin Hardy 86 tackles 5 1/2 sacks
MLB Bryan Schwartz 22 tackles 0 int.
OLB Eddie Robinson 87 tackles 1 sack
CB Deon Figures[A] 59 tackles 2 int.
SS Dana Hall 49 tackles 1 int.
FS Chris Hudson 56 tackles 2 int.
CB Aaron Beasley 29 tackles 1 int.
P Bryan Barker 69 punts 43.7 avg.
[A] New Acquisition (R) Rookie (college statistics)
[*] *PVR: Player Value Ranking (explanation on page 165)