ORCHARD PARK, NY—GM Gene, you really are a friggin' genius.
What do Aaron Kampman, Tyson Alualu, Terrance Knighton, Derek Cox, Mike Thomas, Eugene Monroe, Eben Britton and Deji Karim all have in common? That's easy: They're all Gene Smith acquisitions of the last two years that have helped change the face of a team that, when Smith was named the Jaguars' first-ever general manager less than two years ago, was in hard decline.
Those aforementioned players also have something else in common: They played major roles in the Jaguars' 36-26 win over the Buffalo Bills on Sunday.
Let's begin with Kampman, who turned in one of the most dominant performances by a Jaguars defensive lineman since Tony Brackens was in his prime. Here's the line on Kampman's afternoon: six tackles, 1.5 sacks for 14.5 yards lost, two tackles for loss, four quarterback hurries and one pass-defensed.
The guy was all over the field. His most impressive play of the day left those in the press box to say to each other, "Watch this," as the replay was shown of Kampman pushing two Bills blockers back into quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick.
His stats only begin to tell the story. To fully understand the impact Kampman is having on the Jaguars' recent surge to consecutive victories and into a four-way tie for the AFC South lead, you must look closely at the eyes of the opposing quarterbacks. They are looking for Kampman. He's in their head.
Here's the best part: The guy is only 10 months off knee reconstruction. What could Smith possibly have known about Kampman to have given $11 million to a guy who, on the day he signed his contract, couldn't have played a game? Is Smith clairvoyant? Lucky? Does it matter which it is?
Are you fully recovered, yet, Kampman was asked as he toweled off a day of amazing satisfaction?
"I'm getting there," Kampman said, which begs the even bigger question: How much better can this guy get?
"It's fun for me. I really enjoy playing defensive end. It suits the way I was created," Kampman added.
He didn't fit the way the Packers defense was being re-created by 3-4 mastermind Dom Capers. As a standup linebacker, Kampman wasn't himself and he wasn't Kevin Greene, either. He was a guy standing up who needed to have his hand on the ground.
Smith seized the opportunity to sign a player in free agency the Jaguars otherwise wouldn't have been able to afford. Thank heavens for torn anterior cruciate ligaments and 3-4 defenses. Simply put, without Kampman, the Jaguars wouldn't be where they are today. He is their best defensive player. He's also well on his way to becoming the best high-priced free-agent signing in Jaguars history.
"What we did is we grew again as a team," Kampman said of Sunday's win. "We had adversity. We had to look them in the eye. Slowly but surely we're expecting to win. You know this better than I do," he said to the reporter, "but that's something we haven't had."
Here's something else the Jaguars haven't had: a guy who can rush the passer. Kampman can. He changes everything.
The Jaguars have something else they haven't had in awhile: a strong cast of young players that are quickly developing into the core of a team on the rise. Karim, the sixth-round draft pick from another one of those little schools that cause Jaguars fans to wrinkle their noses, is the new star on the block. He returned four kickoffs for 145 yards; that's a 36.3 yards-per-return average. Karim thoroughly outclassed Bills rookie running back/kick-returner C.J. Spiller, a first-round draft pick from big-school Clemson.
Spiller returned seven kickoffs for 146 harmless yards. He also rushed five times for 31 yards and caught a pass for three yards. Karim rushed 15 times for 70 yards.
"Deji had a great day today. He's got game-breaking speed. It was great to get him involved," coach Jack Del Rio said.
Here's another guy that got involved: cornerback Derek Cox, a third-round pick in 2009 who had a sensational rookie year but lost his job following a meltdown in week one that caused him to lose his confidence, his head coach said. The Cox mystery would seem to be over. He got his job back after David Jones was beaten for a touchdown by Lee Evans and failed in run-support on a sweep to his side.
Not long after he got his feet back under him, Cox responded by knocking away a pass for Evans on the same type of deep sideline route that resulted in an easy touchdown in the first quarter and helped stake the Bills to a 10-0 lead.
So, it would seem, Cox's confidence has returned, except he said he had never lost it.
"Confidence has never been lost. I've always been confident. It's a pleasure to contribute to the win. That's what I expect of myself," Cox said with a degree of intended cockiness.
Meanwhile, Smith had other players about which he could boast:
- Alualu, Smith's first-round pick this year, is becoming a dominant run-defender. He chipped in with three tackles, one of which was a tackle for a loss.
- Knighton, a third-round pick in '09, would appear to be back on his game following a slump in the first two games of the season. He got a sack for five yards lost, made two tackles for loss and a quarterback hurry. Alualu and Knighton, it would seem are in the process of developing into one of the league's top, young defensive tackle tandems.
- The same can be said of Monroe and Britton, first and second-round picks in '09, at the two offensive tackle positions. Quarterback David Garrard would've gone sackless for a second consecutive game had he thrown away a pass instead of stepping out of bounds and accept a six-yard loss, and had he picked up a safety blitz and gotten rid of the ball more quickly. At all other times, Garrard got fantastic pass-protection.
- Thomas, a fourth-round pick by Smith in '09, continues to be the team's leading receiver. He had another solid day on Sunday, catching four passes for 54 yards and rushing three times for 53 yards, including a 33-yard end-around play that helped turn the game decidedly in the Jags' favor.
In this case, I didn't already have my column written about what a friggin' genius GM Gene is. I had to wait for his players to write it for me, and they did.