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Jaguars give professional effort

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CINCINNATI-- It wasn't a consolation win. It wasn't a win that salvaged their season or eased the hurt of so many losses. It was simply a win that would allow the Jaguars some joy in an otherwise sad season.

But there was also more. These kinds of wins in these kinds of seasons validate the soul of a team. It's proof they still care, because Cincinnati in December is a place where a lot of teams have given up the ghost.

On this sunny but chilly December day in the Queen City, the Jaguars were an odd collection of players. They were a group of young no-names who are treating these final weeks of NFL 2001 as tryouts for next year.

Then there was a group of established veterans, players such as Mark Brunell, Jimmy Smith, Keenan McCardell and Hardy Nickerson, for whom there is no explanation for the quality of their effort other than to say they are professionals.

Why does one of the best quarterbacks in the game play on a bad leg and with a chewed up passing-hand index finger that appeared to have gotten stuck in a paper shredder? And this wasn't a game for the playoffs; this was a meaningless encounter in a half-full stadium against a woeful Bengals team. For the playoffs? This one was for last place.

"I've told everyone there's no quit," McCardell said. Earlier, he had scored the game-winning touchdown on an 11-yard pass from Brunell.

"We get paid a lot of money to play this game. Every time you go out there it's your signature. You put your signature on your work," McCardell said.

McCardell, Brunell, Smith and Nickerson are consummate pros. Their effort is always genuine. In McCardell's and Nickerson's case, it's especially impressive because they are players who are expected to become salary cap casualties during the offseason.

"I don't know what the future holds, but we were out there enjoying playing the game," McCardell said.

Smith turned in another record-book-type performance; nine catches, 119 yards and a touchdown. Why? What is the motivation of a player whose contract guarantees he will be back with the Jaguars next season? Smith's remaining amortization assures him of that.

"That guy inspired us," Smith said of Brunell, who missed only one play after getting his finger stuck in blitzing cornerback Mark Roman's facemask. As Brunell boarded the Jaguars' charter flight back to Jacksonville, his finger was heavily wrapped with tape.

"We're playing for pride. We'll try to finish strong. It's our job. Who wants to spend an offseason asking why we didn't win games? Let's win some games," Smith said of his motivation.

Sprinkled throughout the Jaguars' postgame locker room were players the opposite of Brunell, Smith, McCardell and Nickerson. Maurice Williams, the Jaguars' most productive rookie, talked of the feeling among the young players, whose playing ranks reached startling proportions in the fourth quarter at Paul Brown Stadium. At one point when the Jaguars were in their "dime" defense, the defensive backfield was comprised of Jason Craft, Kiwaukee Thomas, Ainsley Battles, rookie James Boyd and Damon Wheeler, who had been promoted from the practice squad the day before the game.

"I love to win and I want to be a leader on this team. I take my job very seriously, Williams said. "The young guys definitely want to get better so next year this doesn't happen."

"Just that they're getting playing time right now is huge for them," said Nickerson, a 15-year veteran who established his future in football in 1988 on a 5-11 Steelers team that played its best football in the final month of the year.

But why does he continue play with that kind of young determination now? He's almost at the end of his career. Why not coast in?

"It's just love of the game. As an older player, you enjoy competing and winning," Nickerson said.

That's why the Jaguars were able to celebrate a 14-10 win over a bad team. They achieved that which they love to do, compete and win.

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