The roster has been cut, Frances is slowly moving out of Jacksonville and coach Jack Del Rio's attention has turned sharply to Sunday's season-opener.
"We're going to make our way to Buffalo somehow," Del Rio said, referring to the rugged conditions posed by Hurricane Frances this past weekend. Power outages, downed trees, leaking roofs and closed roads were the order of the day in Jacksonville, as Del Rio canceled Monday's practice due to lingering storms. The Jaguars will begin preparations tomorrow morning for Sunday's game against the Bills.
On the heels of a 5-11 season that was damaged early by a 1-7 start, the Jaguars face a first-month schedule that could be the team's most difficult stretch of the season. Following Sunday's opener in Buffalo, the Jaguars will open the home season against the Denver Broncos, travel to Tennessee, then host the Indianapolis Colts. The Broncos, Titans and Colts all qualified for the AFC playoffs last year, and any chance the Jaguars have of competing for the AFC South Division title this year must begin with beating the Titans and Colts.
"You raise a good point in the difficulty of the first month. It starts out with a game on the road against a team that had its way with us last year," Del Rio told reporters at today's press conference.
Del Rio spent the weekend cutting his roster, and today was the first chance reporters had to question the Jaguars coach about his personnel decisions. Those cuts included eight veterans: David Allen, Mike Compton, Chris Luzar, Anthony Mitchell, Sammy Williams, Courtland Bullard, Derrick Ransom and Derrick Fletcher. Also released were fourth-round draft choice Anthony Maddox, sixth-rounder Sean Bubin, and undrafted free agents Rich Alexis and Joe Tate. Del Rio said he expected to have an eight-man practice squad in place by the end of today.
Alexis, Tate, Fletcher, Bubin and Matt Cherry, a wide receiver who was waived on Aug. 28, were signed by the Jaguars this afternoon and assigned to the team's eight-man practice squad.
"We set out in the offseason to address depth and sign free agents. Seven of those guys are here. We had a solid draft and we were able to keep seven of those guys," Del Rio said. "We felt we kept the best mix of youth and experience for our football team. I recognize that there is some youth."
Del Rio's message today seemed to accentuate two thoughts: The Jaguars will be a better team in 2004 than they were a year ago, but this is still a roster of young players.
"I feel better about where we are as a team, having some leaders emerge, having a solid nucleus. But there's still a lot of work to be done. This is still a young football team," Del Rio said.
The Jaguars' top two draft picks, wide receiver Reggie Williams and linebacker Daryl Smith, are expected to be in the starting lineup on Sunday, and Del Rio confirmed that fifth-round pick Josh Scobee will be the Jaguars' kicker. It marks the third consecutive year the Jaguars have opened the season with a rookie kicker.
It is second-year quarterback Byron Leftwich, however, who is the player of primary focus. Leftwich was the Jaguars' starting quarterback in 13 games as a rookie last season, and Del Rio said that experience should aid Leftwich's performance this season.
Fans grew restless as Leftwich struggled through a touchdown-less preseason, but Del Rio remains firmly in support of his first-ever draft choice.
"It should make a tremendous difference," Del Rio said of the experience Leftwich received last year. "We were fortunate to be able to get the time we got with Byron last season. He was thrust right into the fray of things. All of those things should benefit him the second time around."
Del Rio talked of the need for leaders to emerge, and Leftwich is a major candidate to assume one of those roles.
"I need leaders to carry the torch into the locker room for me. I believe we're making strides in that area," Del Rio said. "An example would be Troy Aikman. He carried the torch for Jimmy Johnson.
"I'm not asking (Leftwich) to put the team on his shoulders and carry it. I'm asking him to do his job and be a good quarterback. I think he happens to be a natural leader. I think it comes easy for him," Del Rio added.
Last season, with Mark Brunell at quarterback, the Jaguars opened the season with a loss at Carolina from which the Jaguars never recovered. The Jaguars led 17-0 in the third quarter when Jake Delhomme rallied the Panthers to a 24-23 win with a 12-yard touchdown pass with 16 seconds remaining to be played. That win sent the Panthers toward the Super Bowl, and the Jaguars on to their worst start in franchise history.
"In the end, the better team won," Del Rio said of last year's season-opener. "We want to be the better team.
"You can't put too much into any one game. It's a long season. I'm going to drive these guys. I'm going to drive the staff. And we're going to expect success," he added. "We're on track to becoming a good football team. How quickly that comes will be determined by what happens on Sundays."