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Players have to buy in


One of the great things about having done something for a long time is the ability to draw from life's many experiences. Of course, one of the not-great things about having done something for a long time is that it means, well, you're getting old.

But Jack Del Rio says his approach is to "accentuate the positives," and in keeping with that theme, we'll ignore the age issue and accentuate the experiences factor.

So, old man, have you ever seen anything this bad? You know, the team is 1-5, the coach is being criticized and the schedule is just about to begin its most difficult stretch?

Yeah, times are tough. Just sit in on one of the coach's press conferences and you'll know how tough times are. It doesn't get any worse than this, right? Wrong. How about 1-6 for a coach who had already won four Super Bowls? And you thought it didn't happen to those guys, huh?

The year was 1986 and Chuck Noll's Steelers were 1-6. Noll was in the second year of a four-year non-playoff stretch that was clearly a rebuilding phase between the Terry Bradshaw-Joe Greene years that had just concluded, and the Rod Woodson-Greg Lloyd years that lie ahead.

But in 1986, nobody knew what history would produce. All Steelers fans knew was their team had been shutout twice in the season's first seven games, the roster was weaker than anyone had seen it since Noll began building his dynasty in the early-'70s, and the schedule offered the potential for a truly embarrassing record.

Through it all, Noll was unflappable. He never wavered from his regimen or belief that the only way to get better was to keep working at it. To those reporters who pointed to his team's lineup deficiencies, Noll would say, "Help is not on the way."

He kept teaching, his players kept learning and at season's end, Noll was being lauded for one of the best coaching jobs of his glorious career.

His team finished 6-10, winning five of its last nine games. It lost two games in overtime; one in Cleveland to a Browns team that would go to the AFC title game, and one in Chicago to a powerful Bears team believed to be on its way to its second consecutive Super Bowl title. The same team that lost two of its first seven games by a combined 64 points, lost four of its final nine games by a combined 18 points.

Noll turned non-players into productive over-achievers. He beat better teams with simple gameplans that emphasized the execution of football's fundamentals. When his team began to block and tackle, it began to win, even though its quarterback situation was borderline dreadful.

You might say he and his players kept chopping wood. Noll believed very firmly in that kind of approach.

The point to all of this is that Del Rio is in a very similar situation, except, of course, he doesn't have four Super Bowl rings. That helps. In 1986, despite his team's record, Noll was still one of the game's icons and, to a degree, beyond criticism.

Rookie coaches are not beyond criticism and Del Rio is getting his share. Can he hold up under it? Can he continue to execute his philosophy of winning football, which is sound and time-honored? The answer to those questions will determine how history will record this season.

"Times will be better. But until it happens nobody feels the gratification. The hardest thing to do is what we do every day. Come to work, do your job and whether it's good or bad, keep doing a good job. There is a perception and then there's reality. We're going to deal with the reality," he told reporters yesterday.

They were words in a time warp. They have been spoken by a lot of coaches, a lot of great coaches, all of whom have encountered the same hard times at critical junctures in their careers. This is Del Rio's time. It came very early in his career and it will probably come again. When it does, he will have this experience from which he may draw.

What he will remember is his degree of belief in his words, and the degree to which his players shared that belief. The words are right, but they must be executed. In this, the Jaguars' bye week, it is this team's greatest task to buy into what their coach is selling.

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