A few weeks back as the Jaguars were in the midst of a three game winning streak a popular sentiment began to take shape. "The Jaguars can compete for the playoffs if they can continue to avoid injury." It's popular sentiment because in any city around the NFL this season it's clear that any team other than Houston, Detroit and Cincinnati can find themselves in the postseason mix if they stay healthy. It's also a little silly since no one can avoid injury in professional football.
It's time to throw that crutch away in Jacksonville and hold the Jaguars to a higher standard. Tom Coughlin has assembled a roster with enough talent to compete every Sunday against every team. The loss of any single player other than quarterback Mark Brunell shouldn't necessarily change that. Winning requires a commitment to prepare regardless of the circumstances, regardless of the opponent, regardless of the players. Jacksonville can find no better example of this than in the league's other 'small' market, Green Bay.
Three weeks ago the Packers lost their starting right tackle in a game against Carolina. Mark Tauscher is a young player whose ability level and performance last season were on par with some of the best right tackles in the NFC. Losing Tauscher and having to play with veteran Earl Dotson whose best days are behind him was a significant setback for the Packers. Did it slow Green Bay down the next Monday night when they played Chicago? Not in the least. Quarterback Brett Favre threw for 359 yards and the Packers claimed a huge divisional win.
They didn't leave Champaign without without a new problem however. Pro Bowl defensive end Joe Johnson was lost for the season against Chicago which seemed disastrous for a team that was already playing without Vonnie Holliday, their other defensive end. In back to back weeks the Packers lost one of their best offensive linemen and one of their best from the defensive line. Did it slow Green Bay down the next Sunday when they went to New England to face the defending Super Bowl champions? Not one bit. Favre threw three touchdowns, running back Ahman Green ran for 136 yards and the defense intercepted Super Bowl MVP Tom Brady three times in an enormous 28-10 win.
The Jaguars are a more talented team in 2002 in both quantity and quality. It hurts to lose Mo Williams, a young offensive tackle who was just starting to show signs of being a dominant player. But that's why the club has a roster that includes versatile and veteran performers like Zach Weigert and Todd Fordham and it's why they drafted Mike Pearson in the 2nd round last April. Two of those three players have to overcome the circumstances and outperform the expectations of them.
The loss of Tony Brackens should by all rights mean the loss of a significant portion of their pass rush. But Brackens wasn't himself from the opening day of training camp and players like Paul Spicer and Stalin Colinet knew they would eventually be called upon to take his place. Are they the same caliber of athlete? No. Can they perform well enough for the Jaguars to win? Certainly.
If the Jaguars are going to do as the Packers and outperform the circumstances they are going to need more than just Weigert and Colinet and Spicer and Pearson to raise their level of play. The young defensive tackles have to start dominating the middle of the line and the linebackers have to get to the hole quickly in order to stop the run. The Jaguars offense is going to have to convert on 3rd down to keep that defense fresh and continue to keep the pressure off Brunell so that the offense can stay balanced and unpredictable. And the whole team is going to have to reach a level of focus during the practice week that excludes thoughts of both overconfidence after a big win and despair after an injury filled loss.
Raising the standard of performance this week in Baltimore and next week against Houston will fall on the shoulders of the entire team, not just those thrust into the line-up. For that matter it will require extra effort and creativity from the coaching staff to develop then execute a game plan that plays to their strengths and won't expose weakness. The Packers have done it and own the league's best record at 5-1. The Jaguars should do it and if they can they'll find themselves in the race as the season starts to heat up. They've come to far from the end of last season to let injuries be the reason they don't get to where they want to be.