Ten years ago, there would've been no salary cap issues to cloud the Jaguars' future. Then, coach Tom Coughlin would've known he would have all of his players back for the next season, and everything his team is accomplishing in the final games of this season would provide a distinct carry-over to the next season.
These are different times. The players who are developing into productive contributors as the Jaguars head down the stretch could find themselves on other teams' rosters next season.
Offensive tackle Todd Fordham is a perfect example. With Leon Searcy and his replacement, Zach Wiegert, gone for the season with injuries, Fordham assumed the starting right tackle job for the ninth game of the season and he has responded with impressive performances against some of the game's best pass-rushers, a list that includes Pittsburgh's Jason Gildon, Tennessee's Jevon Kearse and first-pick-of-the-draft Courtney Brown of Cleveland.
Fordham, however, will be an unrestricted free agent this winter, and the Jaguars are expected to lose Fordham to a team with more salary-cap room to bid.
There are other such players. Safety Mike Logan is one, and Logan will be coming off a finishing-kick performance that represents his best stint with the Jaguars. He'll be attractive in free agency, too, and it's unlikely the Jaguars will be able to bid for their former second-round draft choice's services.
Then there's second-year cornerback Jason Craft, who replaced injured Fernando Bryant in the starting lineup in Sunday's win over the Arizona Cardinals. Craft responded by knocking away a deep pass in the end zone in the first half. Fortunately, Craft's contract will bring him back to Jacksonville next season.
"Every time he plays he gives us more confidence for the future," Coughlin said of Craft.
They are words that could apply to a lot of Jaguars players these days. Coughlin's team is currently playing the most dominant brand of football in the league, and the only lament is that the Jaguars will not be able to keep this team intact for the 2001 season. The Jaguars' bulging salary cap will almost certainly exact a heavy price on a roster that is beginning to show its depth in the second half of the season.
The one player who hasn't responded is first-round draft choice R. Jay Soward, who was drafted to be a home-run hitter as a third wide receiver. Soward was suspended for Sunday's game, the result of having missed a team meeting late last week.
"Hopefully, R. Jay will respond. It's going to be in his lap," Coughlin said of his rookie, who the Jaguars need to provide depth at wide receiver next season, just as players such as Fordham, Logan and Craft have this season.
"The future is next year for our team," Coughlin said, but this will certainly be a different team next year.