JACKSONVILLE – In 2018 offseason jaguars.com series featuring 11 former players talking about 11 current players, former Jaguars defensive end Reggie Hayward talks with senior correspondent Brian Sexton about the Jaguars’ ’17 success, the team’s current defensive ends and the team as it moves forward …
Question: As someone who was part of one of the best teams in Jaguars history, what was it like to watch the 2017 team rise from a decade of losing and make a run to the AFC South title and the AFC Championship Game?
Answer: It was exciting to see good football in Jacksonville. After I retired I became a fan, and to see the team I cheered for day-in and day-out have success brought joy to my heart. It also brought back a flood of emotions and memories of being in a similar situation. The exhilaration of beating Pittsburgh in Pittsburgh, which is difficult, especially during playoffs. And then to think about them having a chance to do something we couldn't do - beating New England in New England - made me want to put on my equipment and play.
Q: Did you enjoy the fact that your 2007 team and this 2017 bunch are the only two teams in NFL history to win in Pittsburgh twice in the same season?
A: Yeah. I think it gave the team legitimacy – that they are the real deal. I think a lot of people have talked about how the AFC South was this year – how the Jags were the best of some average talent. To go in there and beat Pitt at home twice, it made the world recognize that this team is talented, and you have to take them seriously. When we did it in 2007, our defense played extremely tough. In 2017 they repeated that same recipe and were successful again. To beat Big Ben and the Steelers at home, your defense has to have a grit to them.
Q: What were your thoughts when the Jaguars brought Tom Coughlin back last year? Did you see this coming based on his personality and reputation or were you surprised they were able to turn it around so quickly?
A: When I heard that Tom was coming back I thought it was amazing for the organization. I and other people around the league thought Tom left too early, and that he was on the cusp of doing something special in Jacksonville. Having him back seems like the organization is righting the ship as far as leadership for the team. Tom Coughlin is a winner. Has won two Super Bowls, and he knows how to propel a team into championship mode. I think it's one of the best moves Shad Khan has made since he acquired the team.
Q:What did you see from defensive end Calais Campbell in his first season in Jacksonville? Is it too much to say he was the catalyst that turned them around?
A: Anyone that plays defensive end and has 10 or more sacks is a game changer. With 14.5 sacks he came in and gave the defense some identity. When you have a player that can get a sack on any down, it makes everyone's job easier. Whether that's coverage or rushing the passer, he makes the team better. I think he was monumental in them having success this year.
Q: What about Yannick Ngakoue? What do you see when you watch him play and where does a smaller defensive end like Yannick get better even after a Pro Bowl season with 12 sacks and six strip-sack forced fumbles?
A: I don't think you get better. You stay consistent. If he can repeat the same success he had last year with close to identical numbers, that would be amazing. And don't underestimate a small, fast guy. You think about [former Indianapolis Colts defensive end] Robert Mathis: he wasn't a big guy, and he consistently had 10-plus sacks a season. When you have the right mixture of strength and speed, it doesn't really matter what size you are.
Q: You were part of some great defensive teams. How loaded is this one from front to back? What does a rookie first-round draft pick like Taven Bryan – who doesn’t even have to play – do for a group that includes Marcell Dareus, Malik Jackson and Dante Fowler Jr.?
A: This defense is geared to win a Super Bowl. When you have this amount of talent, I think it puts a lot of pressure on them to dominate offenses, and you add to the success that they had last year, I as a fan want to see the same domination. Me as a player realizes that is difficult, but do I expect less? No. Our defense is the heart of our team, and the reason why we did have a deep run into the playoffs. Having a talented rookie that doesn't have to play, and he can get a year of just learning and veteran guys teaching him how to be a pro, it's amazing when he does step onto the field he should be hitting on all cylinders. He will be learning from some of the best d-linemen in the league.
Q: Do you think the 2018 Jaguars can take another step this season? In your estimation what does it take for a very good team to become a great team? Do you think the Jaguars have the pieces in place to do that?
A: I think that the Jaguars do have the pieces to be successful. I think they have leadership and players who have bought into the system. I think they have the coaching staff to make a deep run. My only concern is the quarterback play, his decision making, especially in high-pressure situations when the game is on the line, or we need a big first down. I would also like to see the running game be more dominant. There's nothing like a great defense with a great running game to suck the life out of the other team. With Tom Brady and Big Ben getting a year older, there will be a changing of the guard, and it is prime for the Jaguars to step into that position.
Q: The Jaguars teams you played on had some incredible personalities. Marcus Stroud, John Henderson, Paul Spicer, Mike Peterson, Donovan Darius, Chris Naeole, Maurice Jones-Drew and on and on. Does this team have as many of the dominant personality types and do you think that’s critical for a team? Would you have enjoyed the personalities on this team from what you can tell?
A: I think that this team has a lot of personality. I see a lot of personality coming from the defense. Maybe because they are winning so much, it allows them to let their hair down and have fun. The 2007 team was no “offense over here and defense over there.” We all hung out together and had fun. We were wild, but we got our jobs done. We demanded everyone got their job done. This present team, I see glimpses of personality. I see glimpses of wildness, but it is nothing like 2007 with Big John and Reggie Williams. We had some characters on our team. Despite all of that, we won.
Q: What has replaced professional football in Reggie Hayward’s life? What makes you tick after retiring from the NFL?
A: Reggie Hayward is all over the map. With the kids, I love to see them play sports, and I love to watch them have success. Me and the wife travel. I also take care of my father, and I watch a game of football here and there. I am down 35 pounds since I played, but if the Jags need me to suit up, let me know. I still have that quick first step. After that, it's all downhill.