The house was not a happy place, not even for a second. In the
living room Joan McManus barked repeatedly at the TV set. Tom,
her son, could hardly glance at the screen. The two would
alternate primal yells with blank looks of disbelief. They would
have a hopeful thought, then watch it vanish with yet another
Terrell Davis dagger.
Broncos 7-0. Broncos 14-0. Broncos 21-0. Finally, Broncos 42-17.
When all was said and done, when the brutal fate was sealed,
mother and son got up, shook off the potato-chip crumbs and left
Joan's Jacksonville home. The Jaguars had been obliterated in
last December's AFC wild-card playoff game, run over by a Denver
offense that rushed for 310 yards and passed for another 201.
There was one place Tom, Jacksonville's injured middle
linebacker, and his mom needed to go. The nearest bar--and step
"I wanted to forget that game as quickly as possible," says
McManus, who missed all of last season with a torn anterior
cruciate ligament in his right knee. "Just the year before, we
had played Denver in the playoffs and beaten them. I was in that
game. Watching it this time on TV was the most miserable
experience of my life. Mom's too."
McManus didn't forget. He clutched the pain of that horrible
winter night, and he has refused to let go. So, for that matter,
have most of his teammates. "We just got it handed to us," says
defensive tackle John Jurkovic. "Sometimes that can make you
stronger." The Jaguars are stronger, much stronger. With the
return of McManus and a healthy Kevin Hardy, plus the signing of
free agent Bryce Paup, Jacksonville has transformed its glaring
Achilles' heel--consistent linebacker play--into a strength. The
upgrade is a final step in completing the organization's
rapid-fire boost from fuzzy little expansion club to feared
Super Bowl contender. "If we just make the playoffs again," says
tight end Pete Mitchell, "most guys here will be let down. Our
aspirations are extremely high."
Everyone knows that coach Tom Coughlin's offense, seventh in the
league last season, can blow up scoreboards. Mark Brunell is one
of the game's top quarterbacks. Keenan McCardell and Jimmy Smith
are a dynamic duo of pass catchers. The line consists of five
oxen. If James Stewart does most of the running, he will gain
1,000 yards. If rookie Fred Taylor does most of the running, he
will gain 1,000 yards.
The defense, on the other hand....
Coughlin plays a swarming, ball-hawking, blitzing 4-3 that
requires linebackers to attack on first instinct. With great
athletes there should be mass chaos near the line of scrimmage.
As last season wore on, the Jaguars had neither great athletes
nor mass chaos. Hardy, the team's defensive cornerstone,
sprained the medial collateral ligament in his left knee on Oct.
19 against the Cowboys. He missed the next three games and
didn't play well after that. The other starters, Bryan Schwartz
and Eddie Robinson, were blah. Jacksonville was adequate against
the run but 24th in the NFL in pass defense. Super Bowl teams
don't rank 24th against the pass.
Enter Paup. Some say that signing a banged-up 30-year-old to
romp through Jacksonville's hellish heat is foolish. Some said
the lightbulb was a bad idea. Paup has slowed in recent years.
He will never come close to the 17 1/2 sacks he had as the AFC
Defensive Player of the Year with the Bills in '95 and may not
even reach double figures. Fine. Paup is smart, strong and, age
be damned, one hell of a presence. "Bryce Paup isn't just an
All-Pro," says McManus. "He's someone we can look to for
leadership. He's seen stuff some of us never have."
Paup didn't see what Hardy saw last season, which was rip after
rip in the newspapers. When he was taken out of Illinois with
the second pick in the '96 draft, Hardy was hyped as a Lawrence
Taylor in teal. In his first season he didn't disappoint; he had
5 1/2 sacks and 130 tackles and was named to the All-Rookie
team. Then came the injury and his subpar return. "Watching
myself on game tape, I could tell I wasn't myself," Hardy says.
"I was dragging my leg. I didn't have that full range of motion.
That was a problem."
Now, he says, it is not. Hardy has been switched from the strong
side to the weak side, which will allow him more freedom. Paup,
playing both linebacker and defensive end, will rush the
quarterback nonstop. Schwartz, McManus and Robinson will all
play multiple minutes. "In college I always took pride in being
part of the country's best linebacking unit," says Hardy. "I'm
getting the same feeling here."
Maybe that's overstating things. But McManus--and his mom--will
happily drink to the idea. --Jeff Pearlman
COLOR PHOTO: DAMIAN STROHMEYER HALE AND... Hardy could very well be playing on the last Sunday in January if he puts his sophomore slump behind him. [Kevin Hardy in game]
B/W PHOTO: KELLY LADUKE Stewart [James Stewart]
Sept. 6 at Chicago
13 KANSAS CITY
27 at Tennessee
Oct. 4 OPEN DATE
12 MIAMI (Mon.)
18 at Buffalo
25 at Denver
Nov. 1 at Baltimore
15 TAMPA BAY
22 at Pittsburgh
29 at Cincinnati
Dec. 6 DETROIT
20 at Minnesota
28 PITTSBURGH (Mon.)
1997 Record 11-5 (2nd in AFC Central) NFL rank
(rush/pass/total): offense 18/4/7; defense 13/24/23
1998 Schedule strength NFL rank: 7 Opponents' 1997 winning
percentage: .535 Games against playoff teams: 8
Bryce Paup, signed by the Jaguars as an unrestricted free agent
after three seasons with the Bills, was one of five players
chosen for the Pro Bowl who changed teams during the off-season.
The others: Yancey Thigpen (Steelers to Oilers), Chester
McGlockton (Raiders to Chiefs), Dana Stubblefield (49ers to
Redskins) and Kevin Glover (Lions to Seahawks). Paup, who was a
three-time Pro Bowl selection with the Bills and also
represented the Packers in the game after the '94 season, has a
chance to become just the eighth player to represent three teams
in the postseason all-star game.
Player, position Team Pro Bowls Team Pro Bowls Team Pro Bowls
Chris Doleman, DE Vikings 6 Falcons 1 49ers 1
Irving Fryar, WR Patriots 1 Dolphins 2 Eagles 2
Kevin Greene, LB Rams 1 Steelers 2 Panthers 1
Ted Hendricks, LB Colts 3 Packers 1 Raiders 4
Keith Jackson, TE Eagles 3 Dolphins 2 Packers 1
Warren Moon, QB Oilers 6 Vikings 2 Seahawks 1
Deion Sanders, DB Falcons 3 49ers 1 Cowboys 2
Running back James Stewart won't give up the starting position
to first-round pick Fred Taylor of Florida without a fight. In
his lone appearance as the feature back last season, a 38-21 win
over the Eagles, Stewart gained 102 yards on 15 carries and
scored five touchdowns. "I'm not going to just go away and
vanish," says Stewart.... Many in the organization are high on
second-year tight end Damon Jones, a '97 fifth-round pick out of
Southern Illinois. Nicknamed Big Sofa because of the way he
flops on the couch in the team lounge, the 6'5", 272-pound Jones
had only five catches last year but is a terrific blocker who
reminds some of a young Eric Green.
Projected Lineup With 1997 statistics
Coach: Tom Coughlin
Fourth season with Jaguars (24-24 in NFL)
Offensive Backs PVR*
QB Mark Brunell 8[PVR*] 435 att. 264 comp. 60.7%
3,281 yds. 18 TDs 7 int. 91.2 rtg.
RB James Stewart 114[PVR*] 136 att. 555 yds. 4.1
avg. 41 rec. 336 yds. 8.2 avg. 9 TDs
FB Damion Shelton 370[PVR*] 6 att. 4 yds. 0.7 avg.
0 rec. 0 yds. N.A. 0 TDs
RB Fred Taylor (R) 130[PVR*] 214 att. 1,292 yds. 6.0
avg. 24 rec. 238 yds. 9.9 avg. 13 TDs
Receivers, Specialists, Offensive Linemen
WR Keenan McCardell 45[PVR*] 85 rec. 1,164 yds. 5 TDs
WR Jimmy Smith 64[PVR*] 82 rec. 1,324 yds. 4 TDs
WR Willie Jackson 269[PVR*] 17 rec. 206 yds. 2 TDs
TE Damon Jones 207[PVR*] 5 rec. 87 yds. 2 TDs
K Mike Hollis 29[PVR*] 41/41 XPs 31/36 FGs 134 pts.
PR Reggie Barlow 310[PVR*] 36 ret. 11.4 avg. 0 TDs
KR Reggie Barlow 310[PVR*] 10 ret. 26.7 avg. 1 TD
LT Tony Boselli 6'7" 322 lbs. 12 games 12 starts
LG Ben Coleman 6'5" 327 lbs. 16 games 16 starts
C Michael Cheever 6'4" 295 lbs. 6 games 4 starts
RG Rich Tylski 6'5" 306 lbs. 13 games 13 starts
RT Leon Searcy 6'4" 320 lbs. 16 games 16 starts
LE Jeff Lageman 28 tackles 5 sacks
LT Kelvin Pritchett 32 tackles 3 sacks
RT Renaldo Wynn 28 tackles 2 1/2 sacks
RE Tony Brackens 44 tackles 7 sacks
OLB Bryce Paup [N] 78 tackles 9 1/2 sacks
MLB Bryan Schwartz 79 tackles 1/2 sack
OLB Kevin Hardy 55 tackles 2 1/2 sacks
CB Aaron Beasley 25 tackles 1 int.
SS Travis Davis 93 tackles 1 int.
FS Donovin Darius(R)[N] 119 tackles 7 int.
CB Deon Figures 58 tackles 5 int.
P Bryan Barker 66 punts 4.9 avg.
[N] New acquisition (R) Rookie (statistics for final college year)
*PVR: Player Value Ranking (explanation on page 88)