Jack Del Rio stood in a dingy hallway on a cold and rainy day on the final weekend of the season and praised his team for its effort in a 13-6 win over the Oakland Raiders.
Del Rio spoke of the obstacles his team overcame to score the win, which left the Jaguars at 9-7, the franchise's first winning season in five years. He spoke of flying across the country on New Year's weekend and on the heels of a demoralizing defeat.
The reporters he was addressing, of course, wanted to talk about another issue Del Rio and his team confronted in the week leading up to the game. Questions about Del Rio's flirtation with the vacant LSU coaching job were foremost in Sunday's postgame press conference.
"As far as what has been swirling around, I've never met with LSU. It kind of snowballed out of control. I appreciate (Jaguars owner) Wayne Weaver and the opportunity I have in Jacksonville," Del Rio said.
"I have too much respect for Wayne Weaver to get into discussion without talking to Wayne first. I was going to take the high road. I have a great relationship with Wayne and I don't want to do anything to endanger that. That's how I do business. The bottom line is I have not met with (LSU) and I wouldn't do that without meeting with Wayne first," Del Rio said when pressed on the matter.
Del Rio reportedly declined an interview with LSU because he had been unable to meet with Weaver before the interview was to take place. Rebuffed, LSU was said to have moved in another direction.
"It's flattering. That's all it is and that's all it's been to this point. To read stories and speculation, I don't think it's really fair," Del Rio said. "It's very unrealistic for me to talk about anything other than Jacksonville. I'm very happy here."
With that, it would seem order has been restored to the Jaguars hierarchy. Del Rio is the team's head coach and it would seem to be a team with a bright future. Expectations for 2005 will clearly include the playoffs.
"We're disappointed we did not win enough to get in (the playoffs). I'm proud we won nine games and have a winning record. We were in the hunt to the very last game. The building is underway and doing well," Del Rio said in a sort of mini state-of-the-team address.
The Jaguars were eliminated from playoff contention on Sunday when the Denver Broncos beat the Indianapolis Colts. Had the Colts won that game, the Jaguars would be playing in the wild-card playoff round in Indianapolis this weekend. Instead, Denver will be in Indianapolis.
News of Denver's victory came to the Jaguars as they came off the field in Network Associates Coliseum. They had just finished off the 5-11 Raiders with two goal-line stands in the final five minutes of the game.
"It was huge to finish strong in the red zone and hold them out," Del Rio said.
And it was huge that rookie wide receiver Ernest Wilford finished the season as he began it, with a leaping catch. On opening day in Buffalo, Wilford's catch in the back of the end zone on the final play of the game lifted the Jaguars to an improbable victory. On the final day of the season, in front of a sparse crowd reported to be 41,112 (eyeballs, right?), Wilford made a 46-yard, one-handed beauty that gave the Jaguars a first-and-goal at the Raiders six-yard line.
Three plays later, rookie running back Greg Jones ran around left end for a yard to score what would be the game-winning touchdown with 3:41 to play in the third quarter. Jones replaced Fred Taylor, who missed his second consecutive game with a knee sprain.
"You couldn't see it on the scoreboard. They never really showed it," quarterback Byron Leftwich said of the score from the Indianapolis-Denver game.
When the day began, the Jaguars' fate was tied to two teams and, of course, themselves. To make the playoffs, the Jaguars needed a Pittsburgh win at Buffalo in a one o'clock game, and a win by Indianapolis and a win in Oakland in four o'clock games.
Pittsburgh's win left the Jaguars to take the field at full throttle. They were still alive in the playoffs race and they played with the desperation of a team that believed it could make it in with a win.
"None of us are ready to stop playing," Leftwich said. "I'm almost back to where I was before I hurt my knee. Today was the first day I didn't have it taped up."
Leftwich didn't have his best day statistically. He completed 15 of 28 passes for 149 yards, no touchdowns, one interception and a 54.0 passer rating. His counterpart, Kerry Collins, was coming off a six-game hot streak, but Collins slumped to a horrible performance against the Jags. Collins completed just 15 of 39 passes for 142 yards, no touchdowns, three interceptions and a ridiculously low 17.3 passer rating.
Making matters worse for Collins, he was intercepted in the end zone by safety Donovin Darius on a fourth-and-goal play from the Jaguars six-yard line with 4:07 to play in the game, and he fumbled the snap from center on a fourth-and-goal play from the Jaguars two-yard line on the next-to-last play of the game.
Both quarterbacks and their receivers were clearly affected adversely by the weather. A soaking rain left the field in puddles.
The Raiders were effective running the ball, however, despite being at the bottom of the league rush rankings. Zack Crockett ran for 134 yards on 22 carries, including a 47-yard gallop that was one of 11 consecutive running plays in the Raiders' first of two long drives that fizzled at the goal line.
"It's a good feeling in the locker room," linebacker Mike Peterson said. "We'll probably be mad about it later tonight.
"For two years we've been building our foundation," he added. "We didn't get into the playoffs but we did start building something."
"Definitely a building block," veteran wide receiver Jimmy Smith said. "We had four losing seasons. It feels good going into your last game having something to play for. We're going to be a good football team."
It was an upbeat and promising conclusion to a season that looked like it was headed for something even better. On the final day of the season, rumors of the head coach's departure came to an end and thoughts of the future returned.