Jack Del Rio breathed a sigh of relief that his team finished the preseason healthy, then turned his attention to the last piece of business that has to be completed before the Jaguars begin preparations for their Sept. 11 opener against the Seattle Seahawks. By six p.m. on Saturday, Del Rio must cut his roster to 53 players.
"We've had a very thorough process of evaluating this roster," Del Rio said following Thursday night's 27-20 loss to the Dallas Cowboys. The loss evened the Jaguars' preseason record at 2-2. Who cares?
"I'm ready. I think the team is. We've had a productive offseason. Now it's time to go play," Del Rio said.
Well, almost time. First come final cuts, which should be easier to make as a result of the extended playing time afforded the second and third units in the loss to the Cowboys.
Del Rio didn't play his first-team defense at all. Cornerback Kenny Wright is the only starter who played against the Cowboys. Meanwhile, the first-team offense got only five plays worth of action; they went three-and-out in their first possession and then scored their second touchdown of the preseason in a two-play drive in their second and final series of the game.
That touchdown, the result of 33 and 14-yard pass completions to Ernest Wilford and Reggie Williams, buoyed Del Rio's spirits and allowed an offense that struggled through most of the summer to close the preseason with a sense of confidence.
"It was an ideal scenario. We hoped to have Byron (Leftwich) throw a touchdown pass to Reggie and then take them out. It's good to go in with some confidence," Del Rio said. "We've talked about wanting the ability to have a quick-strike offense. You saw with that two-play drive that we're looking to have that as part of our attack."
Jimmy Smith has been the biggest part of the Jaguars' passing game since the second season in team history, but Smith finished a preseason littered with dropped passes with, yet, another drop and Del Rio addressed the matter in his postgame press conference.
"You saw what you saw. It wasn't a reaction to the play," Del Rio said when asked if the dropped pass prompted the coach to take Smith out of the game, "but he did drop it. He's had too many drops. We expect him to catch it. For anybody on the roster, you've got to produce.
"It's not an ultimatum," Del Rio added. "We're in the production business. Now that our roster is stronger, we may rotate guys more freely."
The loss in Dallas capped a "Cinderella story" for undrafted rookie running back Derrick Wimbush, who broke loose on a 55-yard run and turned in another stellar performance on special teams. Wimbush was used at running back and at fullback and is thought to have locked up a roster spot.
"He's been a very pleasant surprise," Del Rio said of Wimbush.
The major disappointment in the loss to the Cowboys was the play of the second-team defense, which was flattened by the Cowboys' number one offense. Drew Bledsoe threw for 91 yards and a touchdown and running back Julius Jones rushed for 75 yards on 11 carries.
"I think it made it easier," Del Rio said of the roster decisions he has to make among his team's defensive linemen. "We're going to let the tape tell the story for us."
One of the major stories of this offseason, training camp and preseason is running back Fred Taylor and his recovery from major knee surgery last January. Taylor's surgery was first believed to be minor in nature, but following Thursday night's game Taylor revealed that his recovery from that surgery has been the most difficult medical challenge he has faced in a career that is in its eighth season.
"This has been the toughest thing I've ever gone through," Taylor said, putting this recovery ahead of the severe groin injury that caused him to miss the final 14 games of the 2001 season. "With the groin, I had the time. With this, I have to go.
"I had days when I felt good and I had days when I wondered if this was the end for me," he added.
Taylor said he'll be ready to go against the Seahawks on Sept. 11, even though he had only four rushes and two pass receptions in the preseason. The big question is how will Taylor's knee react to a 20-carry afternoon?
"I can do however many (carries) they give me," he said.
So an offseason of issues has come to a close for the Jaguars. Their star running back says he's ready to go. Their offense has a new coordinator, a new playbook and a new attitude.
It's almost time to begin a season for which there are major expectations. Is this the year the Jaguars return to the playoffs? It is the question of all questions and the first of 16 answers is just nine days away.