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Happy birthday, Jaguars


At some point between the day (Nov. 26, 1997) the kid got his head stuck in the head of the Jaguars statue and the day Jaxson de Ville's head caught fire (Nov. 16, 2008), I became, shall we say, emotionally attached to the Jacksonville Jaguars.

Yeah, it took some time but, after a couple of seasons covering the Jaguars, I began feeling a fondness for my new team. They were different from the team I had formerly covered. The Jags had cheerleaders and a mascot and fans that following a loss to Chicago in the inaugural season, gave the home team a standing ovation as it left the field. I'll never forget that. I wish it was like that today. When did we suffer the loss of innocence?

Reporters are supposed to be cold and detached, but we're not because it's difficult to remain aloof from a team on whom you report on a daily basis. How do you not grow close to people whose lives you make the focus of your own life? You don't.

This Sunday will mark them 15th anniversary of the team's founding. What you're about to read is a compilation of memories from my 14 seasons covering the Jaguars. I wasn't here the day the franchise was awarded, but I was at Stevens Point, Wisc., the day coach Tom Coughlin opened the Jaguars' first-ever training camp, and except for a couple of games I was forced to miss due to some cancer surgery that couldn't wait until the offseason, I've been there to watch this franchise grow, shrink and grow again every step of the way.

So, folks, for your enjoyment I humbly offer you on this Thanksgiving Day, 2008, "The Best of Vic Ketchman's Years Covering the Jaguars."

The coaches

Tom Coughlin—He once fined Ben Coleman for talking to me in the hallway and it upset me, so I went to Coughlin and asked him how he do could something that mean? "It was outside media time," Coughlin said. I wrinkled my face. "Look," he said, "I don't want these guys walking around here with smiles on their faces. I don't want a lot of happy talk. Football is an edge game and I want these guys to have an edge." Then it hit me. "So that's why you fine them, isn't it," I asked. Coughlin shot me a look that said what took you so long to get it? Such is the man who laid the foundation to this franchise. They say he's softened a bit. Yeah, I'll bet. He was the most intense coach I've ever covered and he also had the best passing offense I've ever covered. His practices were two hours of throwing the football, which caused me to once complain to him about a lack of nine-on-seven and sled work. The Jaguars' five-man blocking sled? It was permanently parked against the fence, where it rusted from a lack of use. I don't think I ever saw it move. Yet, Jaguars fans regarded Coughlin as running an old-fashioned offense. Even his owner remarked, "No more three yards and a cloud of dust," when Jack Del Rio was announced as Coughlin's successor. I never got it. My criticism of Coughlin was that he didn't run the ball enough. I thought he had an unhealthy obsession with balance between run and pass. Well, all of that is water over the dam now, but I have noticed that Coughlin has developed somewhat of a Harry Truman reputation: Everybody hated him when he was the coach, but years later they've come to appreciate what he did and what a great coach he was and is.

Jack Del Rio—It was a few days after a preseason game in Minnesota, which happened to be Del Rio's debut as Jaguars head coach. The Vikings ran the ball on the Jaguars and when I asked him about it, Del Rio raised his eyes to meet mine and then said: "We WILL stop the run." I knew right then that a new era of Jaguars football had begun. This guy was going to play the kind of football with which I was familiar during all the years I covered the Steelers. He was going to run the ball and stop the run. He was going to play what I like to call, "big boy football." No more three yards and a cloud of dust? How about four yards and a cloud of dust? Del Rio is the guy who changed the Jaguars' reputation from a team the Tennessee Titans thought they could always push around, to a team that quickly became the most physical in the AFC South. What makes Del Rio unique for me, however, is his penchant for bold decision-making. Simply put, he's the best fourth-down coach I've ever covered. No coach I've covered – certainly not Chuck Noll – was as willing to risk field position on fourth down as Del Rio has. He has consistently challenged his offense to make it on fourth down and his charges have consistently earned his trust. There is, however, another enduring recollection of my years covering Del Rio. Go back to that 2007 preseason game in Green Bay. Byron Leftwich had a bad game, David Garrard had a great game and there was no doubt in my mind Del Rio was considering a change at quarterback. Did he have the guts to do it? That was the only question. It was on Monday of a week that would conclude with final cuts that Del Rio stopped at my office and said, "Make sure you're here on Friday. We'll have big news to announce." I knew right away what it was but good reporters dig, right? "How big," I asked? "The biggest," Del Rio said. Five days later, Del Rio announced that Garrard was the Jaguars' new starting quarterback and Leftwich would be cut if the Jaguars couldn't trade him. Wow! If Wayne Weaver was using "dust" to suggest Del Rio wouldn't be boring, then Weaver was right on.

The players

Tony Boselli—What I liked most about Boselli wasn't that he was the best left tackle I ever covered, but that he was one of the two biggest fans of football among the players I've covered. The other one is Joe Greene. Boselli, as Greene was a long time ago in the Steelers locker room, was my go-to guy with the Jaguars. Boselli loved to talk about football and he'd always give me his honest opinion. In the vernacular, he was very good copy. Then, on a Saturday morning in the winter of 2002, Boselli called me at home with this news: "Tom (Coughlin) just left here. He told me I'm going to be left unprotected in the Texans expansion draft. He said anyone left unprotected who isn't drafted by the Texans will be cut." It was the centerpiece of the Jaguars' strategy to fix their overburdened salary cap. Just like that, my go-to guy was gone.

Mark Brunell—He's still playing in the league but, for all intents and purposes, his career ended on that summer night in 1997, when Giants linebacker Jesse Armstead crashed into Brunell's knee in a meaningless preseason game and took from Brunell the trademark scrambling ability that had made Brunell a star in the Jaguars' Cinderella run in the 1996 playoffs. I had seen it long before that. His improvisational skills were obvious the first time I saw him, in that first-ever training camp. I knew right away he would push Steve Beuerlein aside and become the Jaguars' starting quarterback, which Brunell did by the fifth game of that inaugural season. He was the only thing on that team worth watching. His wild scrambles were like nothing I had ever seen. In '96, he put the Jaguars on his back – Brunell took every snap from center that season – and carried them to the AFC title game. Then came the Armstead hit and Brunell was never the same again. The ACL, I later learned, was partially torn and, to my knowledge, still hasn't been fixed. Brunell developed into an efficient distributor of the ball, but gone forever was the quarterback I thought had a chance to be even better than the best quarterback I've ever covered, Terry Bradshaw.

Fred Taylor—I was the senior editor of a doomed publication known as "Jaguars Inside Report" when Taylor sustained a knee injury in the 2000 preseason and was forced to miss the first three games of the regular season. The fans started mocking Taylor by referring to him as "Fragile Fred." These were the same fans that were scared away from attending the Jaguars' home opener against the Bengals by a forecast for rain storms that never happened. I knew it wouldn't win favor but I wrote an editorial that began with this headline: "Fragile Fred? How about fragile fans?" Only 45,000 fans showed up that day. I think I got more hate mail than that. Taylor is near the end of his career now and, fortunately, he and the fans have made their peace. Taylor is now a beloved figure and the 2007 season was his victory tour. He's one of the two-best running backs I've ever covered – Franco Harris is the other one – and if Taylor had played for the other team I covered, which featured the run more than the Jaguars did early in Taylor's career, he'd be headed for the Hall of Fame. He may possess the greatest football talent of any player in Jaguars history.

Byron Leftwich—Simply put, he is the most misunderstood, underappreciated and abused player I have ever covered. I'm not gonna tell you he's a great player, but he's a great guy and he never did anything to deserve the ridicule – they mocked the way he talked and walked and even called him fat – that was heaped on him in Jacksonville. On his draft day, he came to Jacksonville that night to meet with the media and present himself to his new team, new town and new fans. The excitement on his face was Christmas-like and he wore a handsome suit that featured a teal dress shirt. Hey, wait a minute. Who has a teal dress shirt in their closet? I knew right away that he went out and bought one that afternoon just for this occasion. What a shame that innocent enthusiasm had to meet with ugly contempt. His feud with Del Rio is only camouflage for the one we all tried to ignore.

The owner

Wayne Weaver—When I took the job to do "Jaguars Inside Report," I right away did some homework on the team's owner. He sells high heels? I love high heels, I thought. This is gonna be fun. Weaver did the smart thing. He hired a guy, Coughlin, who would micro-manage the team and accept responsibility for everything. Coughlin allowed Weaver to grow into the business, which he did. Then, when he saw in the fall of 2001 that his team was in irreversible decline and its salary cap was nearly irreparable, Weaver swung into action. He didn't invent the phrase but he certainly made it popular: "The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result," Weaver said. He took the reins of this team and set a course for roster reconstruction and salary cap repair. He founded the team, fixed the team and its future in Jacksonville is directly attributable to him. I hope the Jaguars can recover from their most recent decline to give Weaver another window of opportunity to win it all. There's one other thing about which I will always remember Wayne: I was sitting with him in the TV studio, about to begin my weekly video Q&A with him on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001. On a TV monitor we watched the report of airplanes flying into the World Trade Center.

The co-owner

Delores Weaver—I don't know her nearly well enough, and that's my fault, but I know her well enough to appreciate that she is one of the most genuinely good people to which the game of football has ever introduced me. She works long, hard hours for her beloved Jaguars Foundation. On several occasions as I've walked to my car following the 6-8 p.m. "Jaguars This Week" radio show, she's walked out the door right behind me. My enduring memory of Delores is from an interview I did with her for a Super Bowl program feature I was writing about her and her husband. She spoke these beautiful words that I will never forget: "We should pay more taxes. We have more to give." It looks like she's gonna get her wish.

My favorite games

The ones against Pittsburgh are my favorite, for the obvious reason that they brought together the two teams I've spent my adult life covering. Having them perform in front of me makes me feel as though I am the beneficiary of a command performance, and they have almost always been worthy of, "Bravo!" The two in 1997 immediately come to mind. Both games ended on touchdowns. The one in Jacksonville in 2004, when a rookie quarterback named Ben Roethlisberger drove his team to the winning score with but 18 seconds remaining on the clock, only to see Josh Scobee narrowly miss a 60-yard field goal attempt a few seconds later, is one of the great games I have ever covered. The ones in Pittsburgh in 2007 are committed to Jaguars lore and they represent the greatest triumphs of the Del Rio era, and maybe even the high point of the franchise. Yellow towels and swirling snow, wiggle sticks on a warm and humid night, and the mix of my two worlds colliding on a field of green in front of me are represented by 14 wonderful years that have gone by more quickly than I'd like, but not too quickly for me to fully remember and cherish them.

Happy birthday, Jags.

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