|Jaguars showing progress, still chasing Colts, Patriots in AFC|
|Written by Admin|
|Monday, 14 January 2008 23:41|
Now comes the tough part: closing the gap on AFC powers Indianapolis and New England.
Jacksonville is 1-8 against the Colts and Patriots the last three years - the main reason the Jaguars haven't won a division title and haven't advanced very far in the postseason.
``We're not there, but we're a good team,'' receiver Dennis Northcutt said.
The Jaguars believe they're close, and the offseason could prove it. Coach Jack Del Rio vowed Monday to be more aggressive in free agency to make the Jaguars more competitive in the division and in the conference.
``We've got a good, solid core of players,'' Del Rio said. ``We've got a lot of (salary) cap room. We had a quarterback emerge. We're playing with an unselfish attitude, a consistent approach. There's just so many positives right now. It's not perfect. There are things we need to build on, things we need to improve on as we go into this offseason.
``But we're excited with where we are and what the future may hold.''
Jacksonville finished 11-5 in the regular season and behind the Colts in the AFC South for the fifth straight year, won at Pittsburgh in the first round of the playoffs and ended the season with a 31-20 loss at New England.
There was plenty of drama along the way.
Del Rio named David Garrard his starting quarterback a week before the season opener, a stunning move that included the release of former first-round draft pick Byron Leftwich and could have created a rift in the locker room.
The players rallied around Garrard. They also overcame key injuries to defensive tackle Marcus Stroud, linebacker Mike Peterson, safety Gerald Sensabaugh and guard Chris Naeole, and really united after Del Rio cracked down following two arrests the day before a November game.
``We battled through a lot of adversity this year,'' said running back Fred Taylor, who was named to his first Pro Bowl. ``The team didn't miss a beat. We didn't separate. We continued to stick together. ... We did a pretty good job considering some of the ups and downs we had, just not enough I guess.''
Garrard, under first-year offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter, enjoyed one of the best years in franchise history. Garrard threw 18 touchdown passes and just three interceptions, and finished with the highest passer rating (102.2) and completion percentage (64 percent) in team history.
He had the highest passer rating in the league on third down (128.8) and the second-lowest interception ratio (0.92) in NFL history.
``Dave is definitely the highlight of the season,'' guard Maurice Williams said. ``Once the mantle was handed over to him, he took it and ran with it. He did a good job this year.''
With Garrard under center and Taylor and Maurice Jones-Drew leading the way, the Jaguars set team records for points scored (411) and touchdowns (50).
Taylor and Jones-Drew were one of the best 1-2 combinations in the league for the second straight year. Together, they ran for 1,970 yards and 14 touchdowns. Only Minnesota's Adrian Peterson and Chester Taylor were better.
In the postseason, though, the Steelers and Patriots sold out to stop the run and forced Garrard and his receivers beat them.
Garrard almost did it twice. He ran for 32 yards on fourth down to set up the game-winning field goal against Pittsburgh and made two perfect throws that could have been touchdowns against New England. Northcutt dropped one near the goal line and Matt Jones dropped another in the end zone.
The Jaguars settled for field goals after both, resulting in an eight-point loss and a huge difference considering the Patriots led 28-20 in the fourth quarter.
Despite the result, Jacksonville has plenty of confidence heading into what promises to be an interesting offseason.
``We're at the bottom of the iceberg and we're going to keep rising,'' receiver Ernest Wilford said. ``We've got the coaching staff, the talent and we're coming together as a team.''
The team could look very different next season, though.
Wilford, Williams, backup quarterback Quinn Gray, safety Sammy Knight, defensive end Bobby McCray, cornerback Terry Cousin, defensive tackle Grady Jackson, cornerback Aaron Glenn, guard Tutan Reyes and running back LaBrandon Toefield are unrestricted free agents.
The Jaguars also expect fullback Greg Jones to opt out of the final year of his contract and become a free agent.
And no one knows what the team will do with Stroud (ankle) and defensive end Reggie Hayward (Achilles' tendon), both still trying to recover from lingering injuries.
The Jaguars will be about $30 million under the salary cap and shouldn't have a problem signing a go-to receiver and a big-time pass rusher.
Maybe the additions will help the Jaguars close the gap on the Colts and Patriots.
``I think we're going to be able to make some noise in the offseason and hopefully better our team for next year,'' Taylor said.