EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J.--Some of them dressed quickly, knotted their ties and fled for the bus, as though they had left their cars running at the Jacksonville airport. It was understandable. After all, their season was over.
Tony Boselli sat at his locker, staring into space in deep thought. Why did this season end on the final weekend of the regular season? Why did this team sink to 7-9? Why did this team's turn at the top pass so quickly?
It was the toughest of postgame locker rooms for the Jaguars, because none of the players knew how many new faces would be in that locker room next season. Many of them have been together since year one. Most of them have been teammates through four consecutive playoff seasons. Was this the end of an era? They pondered the question.
"I refuse to believe it's the end of an era. We'll be competitive next year. We'll keep our core group of guys together," Mark Brunell said.
He was being hopeful, but Brunell couldn't be sure what players will return for next season. It begins with him. If the Jaguars are able to sign Brunell to a new deal, the theme of this winter will almost certainly be: "Keep the team together." If the Jaguars are not able to reach a new agreement with Brunell, the theme will turn to: "Blow it up."
"We're all a family. We all have the same goal: Get to the Super Bowl, We're a ways off, but we have the guys to do it. Mr. Weaver, Mr. Huyghue and coach have a lot of tough decisions to make," Brunell said of the Jaguars hierarchy, who will decide if and how to fit Brunell within a salary cap that has taken the Jaguars hostage. Wayne Weaver and Tom Coughlin will make decisions; the salary cap will have final approval.
Meanwhile, Boselli sat at his locker, appearing to be lost in melancholy. He's going back to the Pro Bowl for a fifth straight season; started 16 games following knee reconstruction in January. In 2000, Boselli reached new levels of respect. Be it told, he had a great year.
"When you talk about tough, you better start with Boselli," his coach, Tom Coughlin, said.
Yet, Boselli was sullen in the moments immediately following the Jaguars' 28-25 loss to the New York Giants. Losing wasn't new, but the empty feeling he was experiencing was new. Season over? Without a playoff game?
"I agree with Mark 100 percent," Boselli said when told of Brunell's remark that he did not consider this the end of the first era in Jaguars history. "There are going to be changes, and it's sad, to me. You give us a healthy season and I'll take this team right here. That's not going to happen, but we'll keep the core together."
His words were soothing. It was a nice way to part company two days before Christmas, but there is much more to this top issue of the offseason. You begin with this: Who are the core guys?
Immediately, you think of Brunell, Boselli, Fred Taylor and Jimmy Smith. Who else? Keenan McCardell, Kevin Hardy, Tony Brackens, Gary Walker? We may all be very surprised to find out just who is and who isn't worthy of the "core" distinction.
Brant Boyer has been with the Jaguars through all six of their seasons. He is one of eight players on the Jaguars roster from the inaugural season, yet, Boyer is hardly considered to be a core player. He always has been and always will be marginal.
"You look around and you know guys are going to be gone. I'd love to finish my career here. Whether that happens, it's up to them," Boyer said of the Jaguars.
Actually, it's up to the Jaguars' salary cap, which soared out of control in the first era. Winning became an obsession. The more the Jaguars craved it, the more they spent, and the more they borrowed from their future salary caps. Now, the bill has come due. At $35 million over next season's salary cap, desperation has become the most prominent member of the Jaguars' front office.
The desperation is such that there's no guarantee the Jaguars will be able to field a playoff contender next season. They'll be competitive, as long as Coughlin remains the coach, but the rest is up in the air.
We had taken for granted that somehow, some way, the Jaguars would always find a way to defeat the cap. We had come to believe the Jaguars were too smart to be trapped by something as simple-minded as a limit on spending. We had come to consider the cap as something that applied to all the other teams in the league.
Now, we must re-think. The numbers are unforgiving. Not even Jim Fassel would make a guarantee.
If this isn't the end of an era, then the next era of Jaguars football isn't likely to be as rewarding and will probably last a lot longer.