JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- You look around the Jacksonville Jaguars' locker room for familiar faces. They are hard to find. Injuries have decimated the team, which is why a group of players at a specially erected set of lockers in the middle of the large room looked like players from the jayvee just called up to the varsity.
They dressed quietly, almost sheepishly, as the veterans still standing met the media around them.
|LB Mike Peterson's feud with coach Jack Del Rio was yet another distraction. (US Presswire)|
That's what being crippled by injuries does to a team. It forces you to pick up scrap players and hope they can somehow help. Not to demean those players, because obviously they have talent enough to sign with an NFL team, but like one longtime Jaguars reporter said about the middle-locker group this past Tuesday, "I have no idea who they are."
All teams have injuries in an NFL season, but the plethora of them in Jacksonville is one of the many reasons why a team picked for the Super Bowl by some is now 5-9 and looking toward 2009 heading into Thursday night's game with the Indianapolis Colts.
"It's been a tough year," Jaguars coach Jack Del Rio said. "We expected a better year. It's pretty sobering to have a year like this. It's taught me how fine a line there is between being good and being bad. I will never get accustomed to not winning. That's not my way. We'll fix this."
The injury troubles aren't the only reason for the fall, but it is certainly a big one. The Jaguars have a franchise-record 16 players on the injured-reserve list. They've lost 45 starts already by their projected starting lineup when the season opened. They've also lost 24 games from two of their top special-teams players in Scott Starks and Chad Nkang. Since many of those who lost games are on IR, by season's end, the Jaguars will have lost at least 91 games to projected starters and the three special-teams players, including punter Adam Podlesh.
"I thought we'd be here at this time thinking about maybe getting a first-round bye," tackle Tony Pashos said. "Instead our minds are on getting ready for the offseason next year."
There are several other reasons besides the injuries for the team's decline. This is a team that played the New England Patriots tough in an AFC divisional playoff loss last year, which led to the Super Bowl talk this summer.
One by one, the problems started to show, which chipped away at the team's foundation and psyche.
The other issues besides the injuries are:
• The shooting of tackle Richard Collier, which left him paralyzed from the waist down and cost him part of a leg.
• The Mike Peterson-Del Rio feud, which led to the benching of Peterson, a team leader. That didn't sit well in the locker room, according to sources.
• The less-than-expected season by quarterback David Garrard, which, in turn, led to a primitive passing offense.
• Bad drafting and bad personnel moves, which might lead to the firing of general manager James Harris after the season. He has one year left on his deal after this season, according to team sources.
• Talk of strife involving Del Rio's staff.
When Collier was shot Sept. 2 as he sat in his SUV outside a home, it ended his playing days. He was paralyzed from the waist down and lost a leg, taking 14 bullets. For a while, teammates didn't know if he would survive.
Collier was well liked by his teammates and it took a toll on the locker room. For most of the season, the players said it didn't impact their play.
Looking back on it now, some say it did.
"I think we did a good job with Rich's situation overall," Pashos said. "Guys were strong about it. We weren't in the dumps. We wanted to win for Rich. But it was something we all had to think about."
From a football standpoint, Collier was expected to back up at both tackle spots. The Jaguars have had trouble at both positions, which has led to Garrard getting hit more than any other quarterback in the league, according to STATS LLC Inc. Collier might have stepped in at one of the spots and taken over as the starter.
During a loss to the Cincinnati Bengals, linebacker Peterson posed after a late sack with his team losing.
Del Rio didn't like it.
So during a team meeting the week after that loss, Del Rio warned his players to be quiet as he read them the riot act. Peterson, unhappy about his contract situation, didn't like being called out by Del Rio for flexing. So he stood up and said something.
Del Rio banished him from the facility for two days, fined him and then benched him after he returned -- even though he was the team's leading tackler. That led to ill will among some of the players, who petitioned Del Rio to make Peterson a captain when he wasn't named one by Del Rio in the summer.
Del Rio said the relationship between he and Peterson is fine now. Sources say otherwise. Peterson declined to discuss the situation Tuesday.
"Not now," he said. "Maybe later."
Peterson, who will start the final two games because of an injury to Daryl Smith, is definitely out after the season. He is an unrestricted free agent and the team has no plans to re-sign him. Peterson has always been considered a hard worker and a football junkie.
Seeing him benched wasn't a good thing for some of the other veterans to see. His benching came after players perceived Del Rio let go some other key veterans because the belief was he didn't like them.
"They all aren't here for reasons," Del Rio said.
Leftwich is gone because the Jaguars thought Garrard was better. Grant is gone because they didn't want to pay him what he received from Seattle. Stroud was traded to the Bills, which turned out to be a horrible move, because the Jaguars doctors thought he'd have trouble playing in 2009, according to a source, although Del Rio would not confirm it. That thinking has proved to be false since Stroud has started all 14 games for the Bills.
None of those three players talks highly of Del Rio now.
When Peterson was benched, the Jaguars were 3-5. They've won twice since, one of those coming against the winless Lions.
Did it matter? You decide.
Garrard's so-so season
A year ago, Garrard took over as a first-time starter and led the Jaguars to an 11-5 record and a playoff berth. He threw 18 touchdowns and three interceptions.
The led to the team rewarding him with a six-year, $60-million extension in the spring, even though some questioned why there was a rush to do so since he had one more year left on his contract.
"He played with a horseshoe in his ass last year," one NFL coach said.
As it turns out, that coach might be right. The Jaguars might have made the move too soon. Garrard hasn't been as good -- he has thrown 13 touchdowns and 10 interceptions and hasn't played with the same confidence.
Until a victory against the Packers last week, he didn't have a completion that went 30 yards in the air, which highlights the inability of Garrard to take chances.
Garrard is a functional quarterback when everything goes well. But with problems on the offensive line, he's taken too many hits and he also held the ball too long. By no means is this all is fault. The receivers are merely OK and the scheme has been predictable. Even with defenses loading up to stop the run, the Jaguars haven't challenged vertically.
Del Rio wants that to change.
"We need to have more explosive plays," he said. "That will change next season. That's what I believe in. People think because I'm a defensive coach I don't want big plays. That's not true. We just have to be better."
They keep saying it. But it never happens.
The current regime has had six drafts. They've had one Pro Bowl from a player in those drafts, that being corner Rashean Mathis in 2006.
They've missed big on their first-round picks, which is why they're in the situation they're in, which is with a star-depleted roster.
In the first draft in 2003, this regime picked Leftwich with the seventh overall selection. Leftwich never became the franchise passer they expected -- at least in the team's mind -- and Del Rio made the decision last season to release him and go with Garrard. Leftwich is now a backup in Pittsburgh and showed well in his only lengthy play in a Monday night victory against Washington.
They followed the Leftwich pick in 2004 by netting receiver Reggie Williams with the ninth overall pick, receiver Matt Jones with the 23rd pick in 2005 and tight end Marcedes Lewis with the 28th pick in 2006.
Those players were expected to be the nucleus of what supposed to be an explosive passing attack. The Jaguars rank No. 16 in passing, but they have only one play of 40 yards or more, the lowest total in the league.
Williams is more like a No. 3 receiver, Jones a No. 2 and Lewis more blocker than receiver. It doesn't end there.
The 2007 first-round pick was Reggie Nelson, who the Jaguars compared to Ed Reed, but hasn't come close to playing at that level. In 2008, the Jaguars traded up to draft Derrick Harvey and used a third-round pick on Quentin Groves with the idea those two ends would liven up the pass rush.
They have four sacks between them. As a team, the Jaguars have 26. DeMarcus Ware of the Cowboys has 19 by himself.
By using their first four first-round picks to help the passing game, the Jaguars ignored picking big people on both lines, and that has come back to haunt them. Age and injuries have contributed to sub-par play.
The free-agent moves haven't been much better. They signed receiver Jerry Porter and corner Drayton Florence last year and both have been busts. Porter had hamstring surgery and was limited to 11 catches before going on IR this week with a groin injury -- that's 11 catches for a $10 million signing bonus. Porter is almost a lock not to be back next year since sources say he also became a locker room problem.
Florence has a lot of athletic ability, but has made too many mental mistakes and struggled in coverage.
The bad personnel moves could cost Harris his job, although Del Rio was said to be equally behind the Porter and Florence moves as well. The talk in Jacksonville is Harris will indeed be let go after the season. It's likely that Gene Smith, the team's director of player personnel, will take over as the man making the football decisions.
The moves to sign Porter and Florence caused envy problems in the locker room. Players had a tough time understanding why the team would pay players like that and not pay Peterson. It caused friction, sources say.
There's also talk that not enough players in the locker room are as committed as they should be. Del Rio wouldn't go there, but he did say, "At the core, you want players who love to play football. If you have enough of them, you will win."
Del Rio has one coach left from his first staff in 2003. That's strength coach Mark Asanovich and the talk among some is that he won't be back in 2009, although Del Rio wouldn't confirm that.
Del Rio has had three offensive coordinators and is on his second defensive coordinator, although the first, Mike Smith, left to be the head coach of the Atlanta Falcons. Gregg Williams, the current defensive coordinator, isn't coming back. He was on a one-year deal and the Jaguars won't pay him the type of money he's looking for to be their coordinator.
That means it will be three offensive and three defensive coordinators in seven seasons for Del Rio. That's too much change.
There's also talk of discord among the current staff, although Del Rio said that isn't true.
"We all get along fine," he said.
Sources have said that there is indeed friction among the offensive coaches.
Fixing the coaching staff and the personnel-decision makers both have to be priorities if this team is to bounce back in 2009.
"We're in it to win it," Del Rio said. "But we can't talk our way to it. I believe in our program and what we do here. This has just been a tough year."