The Jaguars frolicked to a 31-14 win over the Washington Redskins in Thursday night's preseason finale. Now the fun stops.
"We'll be ready when we open up next Sunday (Sept. 9)," head coach Jack Del Rio said of the Jaguars' season-opener against the archrival Tennessee Titans. Nothing about that game will be light and carefree. It's a game that could send the Jaguars soaring into the 2007 season, or at an immediate disadvantage.
Del Rio's immediate task is to cut the team's roster to 53, which the Jaguars must do by four p.m. on Saturday. It will not be an uneventful final cut. There are major decisions to be made at wide receiver, running back and who knows where else.
The thought of what lies ahead caused Del Rio to ask reporters at his postgame news conference on Thursday to limit their questions to the win over Washington. Del Rio obviously wanted to bask in the glow of a game punctuated by the spirited play of second and third-stringers, many of whom have little or no chance of making the team.
"That was a lot of fun tonight. Guys were just having fun playing football. Ivan (don't call me Isaac) Smolko played fullback, tight end, defensive end, linebacker and on every special teams unit," Del Rio said.
Smolko, a Penn State product who wears Kyle Brady's number 80, even got a game ball for his performance, which included three receptions, one of which was for a touchdown.
He was one of the feel-good stories following the game, but quarterback Quinn Gray was the definitive feel-good story. On Saturday, Gray will bury his father. On Thursday, he honored his dad by completing 17 of 22 passes for 172 yards, two touchdowns and a 129.4 passer rating. Gray, who missed most of training camp with a sprained ankle, came to life just in time to probably lock up a spot on the roster.
"It means a lot. My dad wouldn't want it any other way. If he was alive and I had done poorly, I would've already gotten a phone call," Gray said.
Gray replaced David Garrard at quarterback early in the second quarter, after Garrard had retired to the bench having completed seven of 10 passes for 77 yards. Garrard was the starting quarterback, as Byron Leftwich and nearly all of the Jaguars' starters were given the night off.
"I thought he had a great preseason. I think he's taken a step as a player. I think he's an improving player and I'm glad we have him," Del Rio said of Garrard, whose preseason passer rating was 113.5.
Charles Sharon and rookie John Broussard certainly helped their chances of making the team. They each caught four passes and tied for the preseason team lead in receptions with 10 each. Broussard made the most exciting play of the evening, a leaping catch along the sideline that punctuated his roster push.
"I'm happy. I'm always happy," said Sharon, who claims to have no anxiety about final cuts.
LaBrandon Toefield and Alvin Pearman each turned in solid performances in their bid to win the final spot at running back. Toefield pounded out 84 yards in 19 carries, including a 12-yard touchdown run, and Pearman rushed for 21 yards in nine carries, caught a couple of passes and returned a punt 28 yards. Del Rio must now decide between Toefield's big-back running skills or Pearman's versatility.
"Toefield showed you he can be a very good running back in this league. He and Pearman both did some outstanding things tonight," Del Rio said.
Those comments and comments Del Rio made about Toefield at halftime would suggest Toefield was being showcased for a team that might be interested in trading for him.
"I'm so ready for it," running back Fred Taylor said of the start of the regular season. "I'm so excited about it. This is going to be such a fun season."
Taylor, of course, needs just 487 yards to join the 10,000-yard rushing club. Clearly, Taylor is energized by the prospect of joining the most elite group of running backs in football history.
"I would rather do it here," Taylor said of reaching 10,000, "but that would mean I'd have to do it in the second game, laugh, laugh. I think Houston would probably be ideal; at home against the team that caused us not to go to the playoffs last year."
Yeah, that would be ideal, especially if it causes the Jaguars to go to the playoffs this year.