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McCardell likes darkhorse role

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Keenan McCardell will tell you the 1996 season is the favorite football year of his life. That's why he's looking forward to this season.

McCardell and '96 are perfect fits; the underdog player on the Cinderella team. Nobody expected much out of McCardell when he was a 12th-round draft choice by the Redskins in '91, and nobody thought the Jaguars were capable of reaching the AFC title game in just the second year of their existence.

Player and team came together that season to form one identity. McCardell became the first-ever Jaguars player to be selected to the Pro Bowl; the Jaguars became one of the NFL's elite teams.

Five years later, the Jaguars have returned to their underdog roots. The team's first non-playoff year since its inaugural season has stripped the Jaguars' of their elite status. They will begin this season as just another team, and McCardell likes it.

"In '96 people knew we had some talented players, but they didn't think we could put it together. People think we can't put it together fast enough to make a run this year. Why not put it together?" McCardell asked rhetorically.

"We're going to be a darkhorse. Coming out of the pack ain't that bad," he added.

McCardell and his teammates want to believe in the similarities to '96. Then, and now, the Jaguars were a team with an impressive core of players, but were otherwise young and unproven. This Jaguars team wants to reclaim the '96 magic.

Yet, only eight players -- Mike Hollis, Mark Brunell, Aaron Beasley, Kevin Hardy, Tony Boselli, Jimmy Smith, McCardell and Tony Brackens -- remain on the roster from '96. In some ways, the Jaguars have spent so many years in the favorite's role that it may be difficult to remember what it was like when this franchise was just a puppy wanting its bark to be heard.

"It doesn't seem like ancient history. I think you realize how fast the years go by. I've seen how this franchise has grown. We are a full-fledged, full-grown franchise," McCardell said.

The Jaguars are also suffering all of the pangs of NFL "adulthood." Their salary cap is a full-fledged, full-grown problem, and it has people saying 2001 will be the first season in the Jaguars' painful rebuilding period.

McCardell doesn't agree.

"We have a lot of key veterans who are still in place. We may be young depth-wise, but we're still mature in the starting lineup," he said.

"The core guys realize we can get it done. We've been there before. We just want to get that one extra step," he said of a Super Bowl berth the Jaguars have twice previously come within one more win of securing.

However, the upcoming season is not similar to '96 in at least one big way: The Jaguars' core players are no longer young. Brunell is not a young quarterback scrambling his way to stardom, and McCardell is no longer an unknown wide receiver with a bargain-basement contract.

The Jaguars' salary cap woes are such that no one can say for sure how much longer the current core of Jaguars players will remain together. The possibility exists that 2001 will be Jaguars fans' final look at this team as we've known it since that magical '96 season.

McCardell is one-half of a pass-catching team that has been the most delightful and dependable aspect of the Jaguars. Jimmy Smith is the other half, and Jaguars fans collectively hold their breath as Smith attempts to recover from his recent surgeries for a blockage in his small intestine.

"We know we need each other," McCardell says. "There's no ego that we don't need each other. We know we have a good thing going."

The two have jointly established themselves as one of the best pass-catching tandems in NFL history. They compare more than favorably to some of the all-time great teams, such as Swann and Stallworth, Branch and Biletnikoff, Rice and Taylor, and Irvin and Harper. Of course, each of those duos has at least one Super Bowl ring. McCardell and Smith don't.

"We want to win that big ring together. We talk about coming out of that tunnel; one of the most prolific tandems in the league coming out of that tunnel together. That's when we'll feel like we've put ourselves in those categories with Jerry Rice and the others, because they did it," McCardell said.

The thought sits in the back of McCardell's mind; eats at his heart, but he believes too much day-dreaming of the

Super Bowl can blunt a team's focus, as it may have a year ago. Last season, the Jaguars broke training camp with major injury problems, but continued to speak of the Super Bowl as though it was their assigned destiny.

Then, in week two, the roof caved in when the team blew a 16-point halftime lead in Baltimore. "That was a turning point. If that game goes our way, it changes our whole season. If that happens this year, we have to realize there's always next week," McCardell said.

"In '99 and 2000, the pressure was there, to live up to expectations: You are supposed to be there. You don't put pressure on yourself like that. I think we did," McCardell said.

"I'm looking forward to this season. When everybody says it's a rebuilding year, a competitor stands up and plays. I'm looking forward to doing better than I did last year," he added.

McCardell did just fine last season. In fact, he caught more passes (94) than he ever had previously in a season. He defies the aging process, and he maintains a youthful energy for the game. McCardell has caught 50 or more passes in each of the last six seasons.

He is currently 14 regular-season catches shy of the 500 mark, and there are receivers in the Hall of Fame with considerably fewer catches than McCardell. He is among the all-time elite, but his name will always be spoken with Smith's. The two pass-catchers' identities will be forever linked.

"I feel like I can play a whole bunch more years and be at a high level," McCardell said. "Why not us? If we go out and play, I think there are going to be a lot of people surprised at what we do. A lot of people aren't giving us hope. They're calling it a rebuilding year. I call it a modification year."

Vic Ketchman is the Senior Editor of Jaguars Inside Report, the official team newspaper of the Jacksonville Jaguars. One-year subscriptions may be purchased by calling 1-888-846-5247.

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