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Blueprint for the Jags

4447.jpg Senior Editor Vic Ketchman is on vacation this week, so five "Ask Vic" readers were randomly selected to be "Vic For A Day." Each guest columnist was given a topic on which to write and the guest columnists' work will appear this week on Peter Nguyen from Jacksonville is today's guest columnist and his assigned topic is: What would your formula be for building a winning team?

By Pete Nguyen

Why is it in this salary cap era of professional football that a team like the New England Patriots is able to win three Super Bowls in a span of four years and be considered a dynasty? The answer lies in their approach at handling personnel, managing the salary cap and coaching average players into good players and good players into great players.

Although this is easier said than done, the Patriots have left a blueprint from which other teams can learn in this copycat league. A great example of this is the current Jaguars organization, a team that is on the brink of rebirth with their first winning season last year after four consecutive losing seasons. Losing was directly the result of a salary cap mess that was caused by a last-ditch effort to reach the Super Bowl in 1999.

This is my take on the Jaguars' new winning formula and how they should expand on it.

The Jags struggled on offense last year, especially in the points-per-game rankings. Much was blamed on the play-calling by former offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave. Criticism was also focused on quarterback Byron Leftwich, the disappointing performance of rookie wide receiver Reggie Williams, and on running back Fred Taylor. The excuse was that the personnel did not fit the system, something a top-notch organization must accomplish; marry the playbook with the roster.

Now, with the hiring of Carl Smith, who has formulated a playbook suited solely for the team, expectations are for a more vertical passing game complimented by a ball-control running game, however, the really important expectation is for more points. The addition of first-round pick Matt Jones, a year of learning for Williams, the hopeful return of a fully-recovered Fred Taylor, and plays favorable to Byron's abilities should finally make the offense's success equal to or greater than that of the defense. The offense should become the strength of this team, instead of a liability.

As for the defense, again, the personnel dictates what philosophy to follow. Some fans have inquired about the use of a 3-4 defense, citing the success the Patriots and the Steelers have had using it. It worked for them, however, because of the type of players they have on their rosters. They consist of linebackers who are tweeners. The Jaguars personnel is made of two stalwarts in the middle of the defensive line, with Marcus Stroud and John Henderson pairing up with other large defensive linemen who can stop the run. With the acquisition of a true pass-rusher, Reggie Hayward, the 4-3 is a perfect fit for the Jags.

The Jaguars have learned the hard way of how negligent management of the salary cap can result in a culture of losing, causing a severe drought in fan support, which was already struggling, and the inability to dominate much less compete with rival teams in their division. The new philosophy is to keep a close eye on how much the team spends. A good trend the Jaguars are now following is to put most of the money up front in the first years, instead of their previous folly of pushing money back and using signing bonuses, a dangerous tactic that can lead to excessive amortization.

One of the franchise's most difficult decisions was the trade of Mark Brunell to Washington. Based on his performance last season, that call was right on the money. A good organization should know when to cut or release veterans who offer diminishing returns.

The release of Keenan McCardell and the loss of a number of veterans in the Houston expansion draft are clear examples of decisions necessitated by the salary cap. To prevent a repeat of another massive loss of talent, the Jaguars should continue to focus on contracts that are both beneficial to the player and the team, wipe the saliva from their mouths when a star free agent who is past his prime is dangled in front of them, and know when to release a veteran who is asking for more than what he's worth.

Acquiring new players, especially on the offensive side of the ball, should occur primarily in the draft, as rookies tend to be considerably less expensive than veteran free agents.

James "Shack" Harris believes in drafting the best available player and the first round of the draft should provide a player who satisfies the BAP philosophy and need at a particular position. The later rounds should be a balance between BAP and need, taking players who satisfy both when possible, but always siding with BAP when need can't be addressed.

In terms of free agency, defensive players are cheaper than offensive players and defense should be the side of the ball mainly addressed in free agency. With the emphasis on the "chuck" rule, the Jaguars can afford to sign bargain-basement defensive backs who can play zone coverage in the secondary, leaving the premium defensive positions, right defensive end and left cornerback, to be scouted for rare talent worthy of the money those positions demand.

New England and Philadelphia are two of the best salary cap managers in the league and their winning records have proven their models for spending and managing the cap work. Good salary cap management does not result in mediocre results. The Patriots and Eagles aren't stingy, just careful. They know what star players can put them over the top, as seen in the signings of free agents Corey Dillon and Terrell Owens, spending premium money on premium players.

The Jaguars are hoping Hayward, a premium-position player on whom the Jaguars spent $10 million in bonus money, is the last piece of the puzzle on defense. If he is, he could help lead this team to its first playoff appearance in five years.

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