JUST AFTER theJaguars released Fred Taylor, their alltime rushing leader, in February,Maurice Jones-Drew's cellphone rang. The voice on the other end was deliveringthe news of Taylor's release and offering some advice to Jones-Drew aboutbecoming an NFL starter.
The caller wasTaylor.
"Fred and Italked for like an hour," says Jones-Drew of his mentor, who's now with thePatriots. "He talked about his career and how he felt that he had to changeand do something different when he became a starter. He said, 'In actuality, Ishould have just done what I was doing and worked harder at it.' Instead ofworking out one time a day, he said to do that and then do something else tokeep your stamina up. So that's what I did."
The whole teammight want to heed Taylor's counsel and work harder. A year after going 11--5,eliminating the Steelers in the AFC wild-card round and pressing the Patriotsbefore losing in the divisional playoffs, Jacksonville fell to 5--11 lastseason, dropping six of its final seven games.
The uncertaintiessurrounding this team are many. The coach, Jack Del Rio, has only one playoffvictory in six seasons. The quarterback, David Garrard, threw 13 interceptionslast year after tossing just three in 2007. The new No. 1 receiver, Torry Holt,is 33 and was released by St. Louis in March.
"There's alot out there about, Do I still have it? I lost this, I lost that," saysHolt, who caught 64 passes in 2008, down from 93 in both '06 and '07. "Tenyears into it, who hasn't lost something? In terms of being passionate, thework ethic, the training, focus—I still have it. There is [motivation] to justshow people that I can still play at a high level."
Garrard cancertainly use some help. Among the hodgepodge of receivers he threw to lastseason, none caught more than three touchdown passes. The Jaguars gutted theunit in the off-season, releasing Matt Jones and Reggie Williams, two formerfirst-round picks who had run afoul of the law, plus unproductive Jerry Porterand Dennis Northcutt. But Garrard, entering his eighth season, acknowledges hehas shortcomings of his own. "I'm looking at my game, things that I thinkcould be better—the incompletions, not trying to win the game on everythrow," he says. "That's what I'm doing now, fine-tuning my craft andbuilding chemistry with my teammates."
Del Rio, always ataskmaster, held an even tougher, more physical training camp this summer."I've heard some people characterize our camp last year as not verydifficult," Del Rio says. He had about 40 new players to look at after theteamwide housecleaning in the off-season, and the best way to sort them wasthrough competition. There was more hitting in camp, more nine-on-seven drillsand even the infamous Oklahoma drill, a head-knocking exercise that pits ablocker against a defender who is trying to stop a running back from gettingpast him in a narrowly confined space.
Jones-Drew, 24,who rushed for a total of 2,533 yards in his first three seasons despite onlyfour starts, doesn't seem concerned about the pounding he'll take oncesummertime drills give way to the regular season. Though diminutive compared tohis peers, at 5'7" and 208 pounds, Jones-Drew says he is ready for theextra workload. He heeded Taylor's advice, ramping up his off-season trainingprogram. He also doesn't plan on being hit squarely too often.
"A lot ofrunning backs take too many flush hits," says Jones-Drew. "When youwatch and read and see, you learn that, instead of taking a guy head-on, yougive him a little wiggle. Or if you're trapped, you pick a guy and go athim—you don't take two or three guys on."
Spoken like aprotégé ready to take over for his mentor.
WITH 2008 STATISTICS
COACH: JACK DELRIO
50--46 in NFL, seventh season with Jaguars
Jones's rushingnumbers (2 att., 13 yards) should rise dramatically as he gets more work inrelief of Jones-Drew.
S Marlon McCree(29 tackles for Denver) returns for his third stint as a Jaguar and is battletested should Considine falter.
(R) Rookie:College statistics
TTD: Total touchdowns
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2008 RECORD 5--11
NFL RANK (Rush > Pass > Total)
OFFENSE 18 > 15 > 20
DEFENSE 13T > 24 > 17
13 at Indianapolis
27 at Houston
11 at Seattle
18 ST. LOUIS
1 at Tennessee
8 KANSAS CITY
15 at N.Y. Jets
29 at San Francisco
17 INDIANAPOLIS (T)
27 at New England
3 at Cleveland
NFL Rank: 11
Opponents' 2008 winning percentage: .516
Games against playoff teams: 6
The Jaguars dive right into their AFC South schedule with three of the firstfour games against divisional foes. They do get a break in drawing thelightweight NFC West, although Jacksonville must travel a bit farther than therest of the South for the two West Coast games. Not much potential for harshweather until the trips to New England and Cleveland that close the season.
Mike Sims-Walker, Wide receiver
THE RECEIVER-poor Jaguars have been waiting to unleashSims-Walker since they drafted him in the third round out of Central Florida in2007. It's been slow going. He spent his rookie season on injured reserve witha left-knee injury, and last year against the Steelers in October—in the midstof his best game as a pro—he sprained the medial collateral ligament in hisright knee. His best plays to date have been the leaping one-handed grabs inpractice that have teammates talking for weeks. "We've seen glimpses ofwhat Mike can do," says quarterback David Garrard. "I told him in theoff-season, 'If you stay healthy, it's going to be a big year for you.' He hasall the abilities a receiver needs to make big plays, be consistent catchingthe ball and be reliable. That's what we need."
Indeed, there's plenty of room in the Jags' peckingorder: None of the top four receivers from '08 are back, so Sims-Walker (whoadded Sims to his last name after his father, Michael Sims, died last December)has the chance to win a starting spot opposite free-agent veteran Torry Holt.At 6'2", 208, Walker has the body to fight off defenders, and for a teamthat has been dogged by drops the last several seasons, his hands might be hisbest asset. But that won't matter if his legs don't hold up.
MO TOWN With Taylor gone, Jones-Drew (left) is the featured back in Jacksonville.
GRAY QUETTI/CAL SPORT MEDIA