NO TEAM hasimproved more on offense over the past 12 months than the Jaguars, who now havea real chance to scale Mount Indy and win their first division title since1999.
Think of wherethe Jags were a year ago. They'd shocked the NFL by cutting Byron Leftwich aweek before the opener and handing the starting quarterback job to longtimebackup David Garrard. They had no go-to receiver. They had a new offensivecoordinator, Dirk Koetter, who'd been fired by Arizona State and had nevercoached in the NFL.
Then, in just thesecond week of the season, Koetter was out of synch with coach Jack Del Rio,who believed the Jaguars would forever play second fiddle to the Colts in theAFC South until they developed a more potent passing game. After Koetter called34 running plays on 63 snaps in a narrow win over the feeble Falcons, he gotthe message from Del Rio.
"Jack said,'Dirk, come on. We've got to be more explosive,'" Koetter recalls. "Iwas being conservative. We had such a strong running game that I didn't wantour passing to lose games."
Through a fewfits and starts—Garrard missed three midseason games with a sprained leftankle—Koetter built the kind of attack Del Rio had been longing for. In theirlast eight games, the Jaguars scored 256 points, second only to the high-flyingPatriots (258). Over the course of the year Fred Taylor and Maurice Jones-Drew,the best one-two rushing attack in football, combined for 1,970 yards. Garrardwas remarkably efficient (a 64.0% completion rate, 18 touchdown passes and onlythree interceptions) and, just as important, emerged as the kind of leaderLeftwich never was.
Garrard andKoetter began to see the game the same way during a wintry four-week span inwhich the Jaguars won twice at the Steelers' Heinz Field—including a gutty31--29 wild-card playoff win. "You might not know it from my early years inthe league, but I like to air it out," the 30-year-old Garrard says."And when you have two backs as good as we've got, we're going to be ableto air it out easier because teams have to respect our running game so much. InPittsburgh in that first game [on Dec. 16], Dirk made a call in the thirdquarter that really helped us win."
Jacksonville hadtaken over at its 45-yard line, leading 16--7 with 19 minutes to play. Thecommonsense move was to bleed the clock with Taylor and Jones-Drew. But Koettercalled for a play-action naked bootleg ... with Garrard's first option being abomb to Dennis Northcutt. Garrard, who's always been a good runner, had maybe20 yards of open field in front of him, but, trusting Koetter, he heaved theball to Northcutt for a 55-yard touchdown. "Perfect call, perfecttime," says Garrard.
"It's O.K. totake four-yard gains," says Koetter, "but you shouldn't work hard forthem."
Given some new,potentially dangerous weapons with the off-season acquisitions of wideoutsJerry Porter and Troy Williamson, Garrard wants to stretch the defense morewhile still playing 16 games as efficiently as last year. He'll need to if theJaguars are to have a chance to surpass Indianapolis. "It's not realisticthat I can throw three interceptions in a full season," he says, "but Ithink I can be in single digits. I want to be accurate and explosive, and Iwant to keep in mind that checkdowns can be a quarterback's bestfriend."
After lastseason, don't expect Garrard and Jacksonville to be sneaking up on anyone. Acertain division powerhouse, in particular, is quite aware of which team isclosing the gap. "You could see as the season went on last year that theJaguars had more confidence in Garrard than any quarterback they've had sinceMark Brunell," Colts coach Tony Dungy says. "They are a realthreat."
PROJECTEDSTARTING LINEUP WITH 2007 STATISTICS COACH JACK DEL RIO (45--35 in NFL), sixthseason with Jaguars
Jerry PORTER --New ACQUISITION
SACKS 1 1/2
SACKS 3 1/2
SACKS 7 1/2
Drayton FLORENCE-- New ACQUISITION
2007 RECORD 11--5NFL RANK (Rush/Pass/Total): OFFENSE 2/17/7 DEFENSE 11/15/12
7 at Tennessee
21 at Indianapolis
12 at Denver
2 at Cincinnati
9 at Detroit
1 at Houston (M)
7 at Chicago
14 GREEN BAY
18 INDIANAPOLIS (T)
28 at Baltimore
(M) Monday (T) Thursday
NFL Rank: 3
Opponents' 2007 winning percentage: .559
Games against playoff teams: 6
SI.com's NFL personnel expert Michael Lombardievaluates the Jaguars' units.
Ultraefficient Garrard should get even better.
Taylor and Maurice Jones-Drew are league's best tandem.
As a whole, unit is tall and rangy but has no speed.
Lewis is the blocker, George Wrighster the pass catcher.
Must get better production, especially at tackle spots.
Grade could go higher with more pressure from the ends.
Very good size and speed; Ingram will be excellent if healthy.
Williams moves to strong safety alongside explosive Nelson.
Two solid kickers who aren't fazed by poor field conditions.
The Jags focused on the pass rush in April's draft, solook for Groves, who had 26 sacks in 49 games at Auburn, to get significantearly playing time. "Incredibly fast around the edge," QB David Garrardsays of the second-rounder. As a nickel rusher he'll need to be quick in Week3, Jacksonville's first meeting with Indianapolis.
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EXCERPTED FROM SI
January 13, 1997
FRIDAY NIGHT at a hotel in Denver, the Jaguars'6'7", 325-pound left tackle, Tony Boselli, the rock of the team, wassprawled out on his bed, sick to his stomach, horrible headache, throwing up.At about 9:30, a handful of teammates came into his room, surrounded his bed,knelt and prayed for his recovery. Fourteen hours later, bingo! "Godactually healed me," said Boselli.
Free access to all JAGUARS stories and photographs from the SI archives, plusvideo clips.
SLIM PICKINGS Garrard takes aim at another season of single-digit interceptions.
GRAY QUETTI/CAL SPORTS MEDIA
AL TIELEMANS, PETER READ MILLER (COVER)