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Jaguars hit bottom in loss to Bucs

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It's not as though we didn't see this coming. Training camp had given us daily warnings about an offense struggling to execute the simplest of pass plays. Friday night, the situation came to a head in a 20-0 preseason loss to the visiting Tampa Bay Bucs.

The Jaguars are at the lowest state in their preseason history, after establishing two dubious honors. It was the first time the Jaguars had been shut out in their preseason history, and the 47,036 fans in attendance at Alltel Stadium represented the smallest preseason crowd in the team's eight-year existence.

"Not a very well-played football game," coach Tom Coughlin said in what might be considered a gross understatement.

The Jaguars' deepest penetration of the night was the Bucs' 13-yard line. What appeared to be a fourth-down conversion pass inside the Bucs' five-yard line was nullified by a pass interference penalty against rookie wide receiver Kendall Newson.

Rookie kicker Hayden Epstein followed that play with a miss from 40 yards. His kick was low and was knocked down at the line of scrimmage. An earlier attempt, from 49 yards, was also deflected at the line of scrimmage.

"I am disappointed in the kicking game. I didn't expect (Epstein) to drive the ball into the backs of our offensive linemen twice," Coughlin said.

So it was that Coughlin's disappointment was complete. His offense was a personal embarrassment, his kicking game must undergo serious scrutiny, and his defense, which had been the one positive through training camp, was soft against the Bucs.

"The thing that disappointed me about the defense was when (the Bucs) came off the goal line," Coughlin said of a point early in the game when Tampa Bay moved the ball from its five-yard line to the Jacksonville 42.

Tampa wasn't exactly a ball of fire on offense, either, but the Bucs were marginally more effective than the Jaguars. Martin Gramatica booted field goals of 28 and 31 yards, Jacksonville native Frank Murphy caught a three-yard touchdown pass from former Jaguars quarterback Rob Johnson, and rookie Marquise Walker capped the scoring with a 31-yard touchdown reception midway through the final quarter.

It was a homecoming game for former Jaguars wide receiver Keenan McCardell, but McCardell made only one reception for 21 yards.

The Jaguars have scored only one touchdown in their first two preseason games and there is clearly a growing degree of concern about the offense's failures. Starting quarterback Mark Brunell completed six of nine pass attempts for a mere 40 yards and a 76.2 passer rating, and his backup, rookie David Garrard, struggled to complete 11 of 17 passes for 76 yards, an interception and a 50.1 passer rating. Garrard was blitzed heavily by the Bucs.

"It is a preseason game. We're going to have to analyze it, find the people we can count on and go from there," Coughlin said.

Coughlin agreed with a reporter's observation that Jaguars receivers are not getting open. "We've got work to do there," Coughlin added.

That immediately brought into focus the Jimmy Smith situation. Smith was in the 23rd day of his training camp holdout. Clearly, the Jaguars need Smith in the lineup, but there's concern Smith is seeking money the Jaguars' salary cap situation will not permit them to pay.

"Last year people said the offense would be a lot better with Fred in there," running back Fred Taylor said, drawing a comparison to Smith's absence this year. "I'm starting to believe what they said.

"I think we've got what it takes to make the offense go, but it would be a lot better with him in there," Taylor added of Smith.

With or without Smith, it's becoming increasingly obvious Taylor is the player who will make or break this offense. Taylor was sharp, decisive and forceful in gaining 25 yards on four carries. He is clearly this team's player of true star potential.

"I thought Fred ran the ball up in there hard. Perhaps, I should've stayed with the run," Coughlin said. Had it been a regular season game, he would've called more running plays; "absolutely," Coughlin said.

"If the passing game doesn't open up, of course they're going to have that other guy down on the line of scrimmage," Taylor said.

Taylor could be looking at a season of 30 rushing attempts a game. He smiled sheepishly at the suggestion.

"I wouldn't shy away from it. That's something every back wants, but I couldn't have handled 30 tonight, given the (humid) conditions," he said.

So what do the Jaguars do about their slump-ridden passing game? Pay Smith what he wants? Or give the ball to Taylor?

"Being patient is good, but we only have two more preseason games. If we're in our opening game and it looks the same, we're in trouble," Taylor said.

He has two more preseason games to get into 30-carries shape.

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