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Getting over the hump

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The Jaguars would like to think they could be one of the two teams that'll be squired around Detroit during this week next year. The big question is: How close are the Jaguars to becoming Super Bowl contenders?

Well, they missed the playoffs by one win this season. The Jaguars were 2-2 against the AFC playoff field and 1-1 against the NFC. Two of those three wins against playoff teams were on the road and one of the losses was by a point at home against the team that would finish with the best record in the league.

All of that has to leave the Jaguars hopeful one more offseason can get them over the hump. This isn't to suggest a 9-7 team is to be considered in the same class with the 14-2 Patriots and 13-3 Eagles teams that will play for the Super Bowl XXXIX title this Sunday at Alltel Stadium, but the facts are such that the playoffs should be a realistic expectation for the Jaguars in 2005.

Let's put it this way: The playoffs should be the target.

So what will it take to put this team in the playoffs? What will it take to get the Jaguars over the hump? Here are some of the major issues.

• New offensive coordinator Carl Smith will have to fit the Jaguars' many pieces into a clear picture of this team's offensive identity. That's not going to be an easy job because the pieces may be a tough fit. Fred Taylor remains one of the league's best yards-per-carry running backs, but he's not a short-yardage runner or a third-down pass-catcher. The Jaguars think they found their short-yardage pounder in Greg Jones late in the season and they hope Jones will improve his blocking skills so he may finalize his move to fullback. Jones, however, does not appear to be a pass-catcher and that means the Jaguars still need someone to fill that role. At wide receiver, the Jaguars have two young guys who rely on height, not speed, and a 36-year-old star who still relies on speed but may have to begin assuming more of a possession-receiver role. One tight end can block but can't catch and the other can catch but can't block. Leftwich was at his best in '04 when the Jaguars went hard to the shotgun, but Smith is a run-the-ball guy and that'll almost certainly require Leftwich to spend more time under center. Smith has to find a way to blend all of those talents and issues into a workable arrangement.

• Make sound free-agent decisions. Terrell Owens and Jevon Kearse were expensive free-agent acquisitions that helped put the Eagles over the top, but when you dabble in those kinds of high-profile signings, you run the risk of disaster. Will the Jaguars tempt fate in free agency this year? Are they close enough to being a contender that they can take an Eagles-like swing for the fence? The decision they make on their approach to free agency this year will be critical to the fortunes of the Del Rio era.

• Define draft philosophy and approach. In year one, the approach was said to be "draft the best available player," and it produced impressive results. Indications are the Jaguars turned toward need in last spring's draft and they did not get the same bang for their buck. Which is it going to be this year? A commitment needs to be made to one or the other.

• Address needs. The Jaguars have distinct need at defensive end, offensive left tackle and cornerback. There are also needs at linebacker, wide receiver, running back and tight end. To get over the hump, all of those needs must be addressed. Free agency will address some and the draft will address others. Using those two forums for player acquisition so that they massage each other will be critical to the personnel department's ability to get the Jaguars over the hump.

• Decide on Darius. Should the Jaguars "franchise" Donovin Darius for a third consecutive season? Should they go ahead and give him a big, long-term contract? Or should they move on at the strong safety position by allowing Darius to escape in free agency? Every year the price goes up for "franchise" players and Darius would cost the Jaguars about $5 million as a "franchise" player in '05. That makes the decision even more difficult. This is now very heady stuff. Sign him or "franchise" him and take a major risk at a not-so-critical position. Let him go and add safety to your list of needs. It's a critical decision.

• Improve overall. That should do it for a team that finished one win out of the playoffs. A stronger roster, another offseason of conditioning and development, a better plan on offense and a total commitment of effort to making the playoffs in '05 should put this team over the top. Of course, saying and doing are very different. Yeah, the Jaguars only missed the playoffs by one win, but, as you can see, there's work to be done and the hump may be a little higher than we think it is.

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