I can remember talking to one of the Jaguars coaches after mini-camp in the spring of 1996 and walking away stunned. The coaches were unsure of their investment in wide receiver Keenan McCardell who didn't look the part of what was then a high dollar free agent signing. This particular coach wondered how they would explain their mistake to owner Wayne Weaver.
What no one knew, including the Redskins, Bears and Browns for whom McCardell had toiled in relative anonymity since 1991 was that the not too big and not too fast wide receiver was a game day assassin and his competitiveness was off the charts.
The wide receivers room that fall opened with a lot of questions. Could Andre Rison be the big time player he had been in Atlanta? Was McCardell worth the $4 million that back then was a huge number for a receiver? Who was this Jimmy Smith kid who scored three touchdowns in Denver at the end of 1995?
McCardell got out of the gates quickly and put the coaches and his teammates at ease with 100 yards against the Houston Oilers and he would post a similar day against the Saints.
His record setting 16-catch 232-yard performance in St. Louis in October though showed the Jaguars and a few coaches that their instincts had been right on McCardell all along. A superb route runner, he was open all day long because not one of the Rams' defensive backs could stay with him. The NFL took notice of McCardell and so did defensive coordinators.
McCardell finished his first season in Jacksonville with a team leading 85 catches for 1129 yards and three touchdowns. He earned the first Pro Bowl nomination in Jaguars history because a majority of those catches were in the middle of the field, where only the brave receivers focus on the ball and not getting cut in half by safeties who were gunning for him. Every defender in the AFC was wary of No. 87.
He was so tough and so determined that over the next six seasons, he and Jimmy Smith would catch 1,061 passes for more than 14,000 yards and 97 touchdowns and put up numbers only Jerry Rice and John Taylor could match in a six-year time frame.
That 1996 team surprised everyone with their five-game win streak to close the season and their playoff wins in Buffalo and Denver. All but McCardell who stood in the locker room underneath the Astrodome after a December win over the Oilers and asked the media, 'why not us?' His election to the Pro Bowl was a worthy honor to a player who always had something to prove.