In the final stages of the 2009 "Dead Zone," I find myself bidding farewell to vacation time and looking ahead to the 38th training camp of my life as an ink-stained/laptop-toting sportswriter. So what do I see?
Thanks for asking.
I see a Jaguars team in change. For the first time since the franchise was so young that it had yet to screw up its salary cap, I won't have Fred Taylor to run to when I need a story. I already miss him but football is a young man's game and Fred was getting old and sooner or later it has to happen this way. I hope I interview him some day in Canton.
Maurice Jones-Drew sat next to Fred in the Jaguars' locker room and got a chance to see how it's done, so I'm going to make Jones-Drew my go-to guy this year in hopes that he'll offer the same cooperation when I run to him on those days I need a story and nobody else wants to help me.
I see a Jaguars team that has taken its first step toward doing it the right way. When OTAs ended, there was almost no worry about bad things happening during the "Dead Zone" wild time because this is a team of good guys and their ranks will grow.
Doing it the right way also means using young players to challenge older players. That's the natural progression in the NFL; age is replaced by youth. As long as a team can maintain that order, it'll remain competitive.
The Jaguars will not be my pick to win the Super Bowl this year because it's likely that too many young players will replace too many old players. When replacement becomes too dramatic, a team can temporarily lose its sense of balance. Replacement should be subtle and steady.
I see a team that will have to do an extra good job of coaching, especially on defense. Yeah, I'm a big players, not plays guy, but the Jaguars defense this year is likely to need more plays to make up for what might be a lack of players on the defensive line. Defensive Coordinator Mel Tucker is gonna have to stay one step ahead of his counterpart.
The roster, in my opinion, should be the main concern. I think it should always be that way in training camp, but it should especially be that way for this team because this year may be more about future years than it'll be about this year. This year, in my opinion, is all about arrows. The Jaguars need a roster of guys whose arrows are pointing up. Last year, too many arrows were pointing down.
As committed as I am toward building for the future, I am in no way advocating a surrender mode for '09. Though I will not make the Jaguars my pick to go all the way, I think this team can give its fans a full season of competitive football because, frankly, I see an AFC South that isn't as strong as it would like to think it is.
I see a schedule that's especially difficult through the first month of the season but, should the ball bounce their way, the Jaguars could survive and maybe even get on a roll as they head toward their October bye week.
This will be David Garrard's season to prove he's "The Man." The 2007 season was his breakout year, last season wasn't nearly as bad as some people think it was, and my expectation for '09 is Garrard's improvement will be relative to that of his offensive line and receiving corps.
Unfortunately, I see empty seats. That's my biggest concern. There's no doubt in my mind the Jaguars are on the path to long-term on-the-field recovery, but empty seats and blackouts are dangerous for a franchise the national media is watching closely.
What do you see?