Coach Tom Coughlin did a capsule evaluation of the 2000 season, but clearly his energy has already shifted toward the major issues of the offseason, and he confirmed that the top priority is coming to a decision on quarterback Mark Brunell.
"Our situation will not be a total rebuilding, but if it can't be done, then you will see major changes in the franchise," Coughlin told reporters shortly after noon today, during the Jaguars coach's annual season-ending press conference.
The Jaguars concluded the 2000 season with a 28-25 loss to the Giants Saturday, which left the Jaguars at a disappointing 7-9 in a season in which they were considered to be one of the league's Super Bowl favorites.
Now, Coughlin and the Jaguars are faced with the singular task of repairing the team's salary cap, which has spiraled out of control the last couple of years. Brunell has made the cap issue a panic situation because he has one year remaining on his contract, which includes a $13 million 2001 cap hit the Jaguars can't afford to take. Brunell must be either re-signed to a long-term, cap-friendly deal, or traded to another team. Even if he was traded, the Jaguars would realize a $6.35 million hit on next year's cap.
"We can get a deal done, but there's got to be some common ground," Coughlin said, letting it be known the Jaguars are relying on Brunell's desire to remain in Jacksonville. They need him to bend in negotiations, but his agent is hard-balling Leigh Steinberg, who has negotiated the league's richest quarterback contracts. The deal Steinberg negotiated for Troy Aikman has literally wrecked the Cowboys' future.
Will a player take less money for the sake of remaining with the team for which he has played and with whom he has become identified? "If there's anybody (who would do it), it would be Mark," Coughlin said.
Speed is a major factor in the Brunell matter, too, because all of the Jaguars' offseason roster decisions will be affected by whether or not the team keeps Brunell. Coughlin would not offer a deadline on the Brunell decision, but when he was asked if next April's draft was an absolute drop-dead deadline, he said: "It would help if it was, but it would help other things if it was earlier than that."
Of course, if the Jaguars are unable to re-sign Brunell, they would want to trade him for draft choices and use one or more of those picks on a college quarterback. The Jaguars have no clear-cut quarterback of the future on their roster behind Brunell, and clearly don't have the cap room to court one in free agency.
The decision this winter would seem to be: Re-sign Brunell and salvage as many players as possible, or trade Brunell and blow up the roster.
"I'm going to do a really good job of analyzing this team," Coughlin said of his review of the 2000 season, "then I'm going to dive into this situation we're in regarding the cap. I'm going to put the personnel cap on real quick."
Coughlin was asked about free-agency decisions in recent years. He signed Carnell Lake and Hardy Nickerson, accomplished veterans whose best football was clearly behind them. Those signings were contrary to the "model" Coughlin built in his first years as coach of the Jaguars, when he only signed free agents who were coming into their prime years.
"We're going back to it," Coughlin said of that model.
Of course, the Jaguars have no choice but to go for young players. Their lack of cap room means they will be able to do nothing in free agency, limiting them to the NFL draft in seeking upgrades to their roster for next season. That will be absolutely true if the Jaguars re-sign Brunell.
"If we do the Mark deal, is there any (money) left to do (something)? Probably not, except for the draft," Coughlin said.
He rebuilt his offensive line this season, but center Jeff Smith and right tackle Todd Fordham are unrestricted free agents this winter, and Coughlin said it's unlikely the Jaguars will be able to keep their offensive linemen together. That means Smith and Fordham will probably be lost in free agency.
In an interesting line of questioning, Coughlin was asked about his rigid, disciplinarian style of coaching.
"Somebody has to be the demanding guy. That's a role I'm not going to give up. There are guys who would not like to be put on the spot," said Coughlin, who added that at times this season he was less demanding of his players than he had been in the past, "because I thought it was necessary. The results were not great," he said.
Much is about to change.