Reggie Hayward sat slumped in his seat on the team plane as it touched down in Jacksonville on the evening of September 13. Hayward's face told a story of disappointment as he became emotional thinking about his future.
Hours earlier, the Jaguars had suffered a two-point defeat to the Indianapolis Colts in the 2009 season-opener. To make matters worse, Hayward broke his left leg on the Colts' final play, a fourth-and-one with just over two minutes remaining. He didn't need a doctor to tell him the diagnosis; his season was over.
"It kind of dawns on you that it could be the last time you put on a helmet," Hayward said. "It's eye-opening because you don't want your story to end like that. It's overwhelming that you do this for so long and one play, the last play on defense, could be the last play of your career."
Unfortunately, injuries are becoming a part of Hayward's story. It was the second time in four seasons that he suffered a season-ending injury in the season-opener. He tore an Achilles tendon against Dallas in the 2006 opener and worked diligently to play a role in the club's postseason run the following year.
The Chicago native led the Jaguars in sacks in 2008 with 4.5 and was second with 22 quarterback pressures. He had a productive and healthy offseason and had visions of returning in 2009 to the dominant pass-rusher the Jaguars grabbed in free agency in 2005.
"I don't dwell," Hayward said. "You have to turn the page because the injury was bad. But it wasn't like I ruptured my Achilles again. That was a difficult one to come back from, and then to return and have success was promising. Last year was going to be even better because I felt better than I had in a long time."
With the NFL season now complete, Hayward has returned to Jacksonville for rehabilitation. He makes his way in for treatment four days a week, doing everything possible to make the muscle stronger in his ankle. He will have the surgical pin in his ankle removed this week and plans to start a scaled down weight training program.
"I feel great," Hayward said. "The ankle still has to come around. We're right on track."
It's too early in the process to pick a return date for Hayward, but he plans on being on the field for training camp. He has yet to run on the ankle and just remains focused on making the calf stronger.
The ninth-year pro doesn't need anyone to tell him the importance of the next eight months.
"Absolutely. I got hurt early and didn't have a chance to contribute," Hayward said. "I really want to come back and contribute, make some plays and have fun again. You sit out that long and you're not accustomed to doing what you do. You miss it."
It was a tough year for Hayward to watch from the sidelines, a place he stood for the club's home games. The Jaguars managed only a franchise-low 14 sacks as the club relied on a host of inexperienced defensive ends to generate a pass rush.
"It was tough to watch us not get sacks and then get criticized by the media," Hayward said. "I take it personal because that is my specialty."
Hayward has played in 92 games since being selected in the third round by Denver in 2001 and the one constant is his ability to affect the quarterback. He has 39.5 career sacks including a team-high 8.5 in his first season. He led the team with 57 quarterback pressures in 2005.
"Sometimes to get sacks you need someone to complement you," Hayward said. "I'll use the Colts as an example. (Robert) Mathis complements (Dwight) Freeney nicely. If you watch film and the quarterback is being harassed from the left and has to move to the right then the right end is naturally closer to the quarterback and vice versa. You need players that are going to help one another get sacks."
Hayward added that a defensive end can beat the tackle off the ball but if no one is complementing him on the other side and "shortening the corner," it's going to be difficult to knock the quarterback down.
He is hoping to solidify a defensive line that includes 2008 first-round pick Derrick Harvey, the emerging third-round pick Terrance Knighton and John Henderson. In addition, the defensive linemen will have a new leader running the meeting room in Joe Cullen.
The NFL playoffs proved the value of a strong passing game and a defense that can affect the quarterback. The Saints used a physical defense to punish Kurt Warner, Brett Favre and Peyton Manning in consecutive weeks to advance to their first Super Bowl win.
"If you can't affect the quarterback you can't win," Hayward said. "These quarterbacks know that. They are throwing the ball faster, the routes are getting shorter and quicker. You either adapt or you lose. The strong will survive. We have to become stronger in that area."
A healthy Hayward in the lineup will definitely provide an immediate upgrade.
Talking with Hayday
I know you are an avid reader. What books are you reading now?
The Lost Symbol by Dan Brown and Eating Animals by Jonathan Foer. I just take my time. I do so much traveling so I do the majority of my reading on the plane.
Best defensive end in your era
The proof is in the pudding with Dwight Freeney. He's been dominant all eight years. If he's not leading the league in sacks then he's up there.
Toughest offensive tackle you have ever faced.
The one guy where I couldn't get anything going was Jonathan Ogden. You have to think back a few years ago when he was in his prime. I actually just had problems getting anything going. It was frustrating but it was a testament to how good he was. I definitely have to give props to him.
I have had some great teammates. Definitely Trevor Pryce and Marco Coleman from Denver. Marcellus Wiley, Big Hen, Marcus Stroud and I have a good rapport with the young guys. I have always been able to get along with everyone.
What are your impressions of rookie Terrance Knighton?
I see big things. I need to talk with him because your first year is always nice and then the second year can be hard. They study you and they understand what you are capable of. The second year is always your hardest year. He's definitely going to have some adverse situations that he is going to experience and we're going to see how he's able to handle it. He's around a good group of guys and we can help him out with that. He should have a great year. You have to expect great things after the way he played as a rookie. He still needs time to grow and get better, but you have to expect a lot out of him.
Playing with John Henderson.
We were all kind of skeptical of the 3-4 (defense), but once guys got in there and started playing it they loved it. John really embraced it and it gave him a little energy. I think sometimes you get bored with always taking on double-teams every single play and having to fight through people. The 3-4 got him out on a tackle a little bit and he was one-on-one. He was able to just dominate one player and that made the game exciting for him again. It's like a change of venue as far as being on the defensive line.
Toughest quarterback to sack
Peyton Manning. I have sacked him off studying film and studying certain plays that they run where he's vulnerable. It's just studying plays and knowing when they're going to throw the ball. That has given myself the opportunity to get to him. He is definitely the toughest, not because he is athletic, but he knows how to get rid of the football."
I have heard a lot of players say this week that if you are going to blitz Peyton Manning then you better get to him.
If not, he's going to destroy you. What people don't understand is that their tight end, Dallas Clark, is so athletic that a lot of linebackers can't keep up with him. That is how they defeat most of your blitzes because of his ability to get open against some of your linebackers. If you don't get to Peyton, he's definitely going to dump it off to Dallas for like eight yards and that's like breaking a full-court press. If you can't get the ball trapped in the corners and they keep dumping it off the middle of the press, your defense is going to break down.