A winter of anxiety about what the Jaguars' salary cap problems would do to the team's roster, and whether or not it would cost the Jaguars their quarterback, did not blunt Tony Boselli's enthusiasm for the 2001 season. If anything, Boselli's spirits have been rekindled.
"I feel good because we brought back the majority of our starters, the most important being Mark (Brunell). If we can stay away from injuries, we're as good as anybody. I'll take our starting 11 on both sides and play with anybody," Boselli said following a morning offseason conditioning workout.
The big left tackle eased back in a chair and ran a hand through his hair as he collected his thoughts on a season that is introducing more uncertainty than any season has since 1996. No one is quite sure whether the Jaguars are stepping into the first season of a rebuilding phase, or if the massive contract re-structuring this past winter will have delayed the inevitable at least another year.
What about the 16-18 rookies who are almost guaranteed to make the Jaguars' regular-season roster? Doesn't that constitute a rebuilding season?
"We're going to have to have rookies carry a load on this team. That's where veterans are going to have to bring them along," Boselli said, counting himself prominently among those veterans.
Then he went into his full analysis of the current state of the team for which he says he passionately wants to play his whole career. Six years since becoming the franchise's first-ever draft choice, the kid from out west is as much a part of Jacksonville as the heat and humidity. This is where his heart his, and he talks about the Jaguars as would a boy who'd bet his autographed football the Jaguars will win the Super Bowl this season.
"I think Fred Taylor's best football is ahead of him," Boselli said, pushing forward in his chair and staring his interviewer in the eyes. "I see Jimmy Smith coming back to full strength. Keenan McCardell is as good as any receiver in the league. Mark Brunell's best football is ahead of him. Tony Brackens is just coming into his prime. It's not like we're an old team."
What about that defense, though? It's got some age to it and, quite frankly, it wasn't very good last season.
Boselli pushed back in the chair.
"Gary Walker is a very good defensive lineman, and you're going to add Marcus Stroud to the rotation. Hardy Nickerson has some football left in him. Beasley and Fernando; two years ago they were as good a combination as there was in the league. Our secondary, with Carnell back there, is a good secondary," Boselli said.
A year ago, coming off the disappointment of the AFC title game loss to Tennessee and in the midst of knee and ankle rehabilitation that cast doubt on his 2000 season, Boselli might not have been able to offer as much enthusiasm. He was more succinct in his comments. They lacked spark, which was understandable for a guy who was battling knee and ankle pain that made every day a survival struggle.
"I wasn't as fluid or natural or as comfortable out there as I had been in the past. I was proud of the way I played, but I didn't have the athletic ability I had in the past," Boselli said of last season, when he was named to his fifth consecutive Pro Bowl.
Last season, making the Pro Bowl had real merit, because at no time in his 16 courageous starts did Boselli move with the ease of the great natural athlete he is. Last year, Boselli moved with clenched teeth.
Now, the pain is gone, the knee and ankle are gaining in push-off strength, and his spirits are in full spring. He is one of the Jaguars' true leaders. He is one of the players from which this team will draw its energy.
"My role on this team is to raise my game another level, and be one of the core guys who brings these young guys along and teaches them that this is a winning organization and we expect to win here," Boselli said.
"The thing we have to do is win enough games to get into the playoffs. I do not want to be sitting at home that first week in January. If we win 16 games and get homefield, it makes it easier, but the bottom line is to get into the thing, because there's no one out there who is unbeatable," Boselli said, his mouth twisting into a smile.
Vic Ketchman is the Senior Editor of Jaguars Inside Report, the official team newspaper of the Jacksonville Jaguars. One-year subscriptions may be purchased by calling 1-888-846-5247.