The postseason is no longer at issue. The most successful expansion franchise in NFL history is now entering a new era. Rebuilding would seem to be the new phase, and it began today with a 28-21 loss to the Seattle Seahawks.
Talk of running the table and rallying to make the playoffs ended for the Jaguars this afternoon. They had talked during their bye week of being a new team, the one that won in Dallas and distanced itself from the group that had lost five straight. Against the Seahawks, they returned to their old ways, blowing a 21-7 lead with 1:16 to play in the first half, then failing on a fourth-and-goal play from the Seahawks one-yard line on the final play of the game.
"It was clearly a game I felt we should've won, could've won. We did not stop them and we did not put the ball in the end zone when we had opportunities," coach Tom Coughlin said of the defeat, which left the Jaguars at 3-7 and tied with Cleveland for fourth place in the AFC Central Division.
In a game of big plays, none deserves more scrutiny than the final play of the game. Quarterback Mark Brunell audibled out of a quarterback draw and into a pass that would have wide receivers Jimmy Smith and Alvis Whitted cross paths, with the idea of delivering the ball to Whitted in the back-left corner of the end zone. Unfortunately, Whitted, who had never previously run the play in practice or in a game, did not recognize the line-of-scrimmage audible, and the ball sailed over Whitted's head as he stood dumbfounded a couple of yards across the goal line.
"The last play, we didn't anticipate that coverage. We had a run on, we were forced to check to a pass and they had a couple of defensive backs in the middle," Brunell said of his decision to audible to a pass for Whitted. "The run wasn't there. It was miscommunication, and it's unfortunate because the opportunity was there. We got the break to win it and it just didn't happen."
The "break" came in the form of a pass-interference penalty against Seahawks safety Reggie Tongue on the previous play, a pass in the end zone for tight end Kyle Brady, who almost caught the pass.
Brunell and coach Tom Coughlin explained that usually Smith and wide receiver Keenan McCardell execute the "pick" play to which Brunell audibled. However, McCardell was lined up wide to the right, with the idea being to spread out the Seahawks and make them vulnerable to a middle run.
The Jaguars did execute another scoreless second half, which marks the fourth time this year that's happened. Hurting the Jaguars cause was a McCardell fumble in the third quarter that Seattle converted into a 74-yard touchdown drive that tied the game at 21-21.
"Penalties, today, really hurt us; even on that first drive. We might've very well scored there," Coughlin said, referring to holding and illegal procedure penalties against guard Brenden Stai, after the Jaguars had moved to the Seahawks 25-yard line. The drive ended in a punt.
A roughing-the-passer penalty against defensive tackle Gary Walker in the Seahawks' game-tying touchdown drive also hurt the Jaguars cause. The penalty negated a Fernando Bryant interception.
Coughlin put himself on the spot in the fourth quarter, with the Jaguars facing fourth-and-goal from the Seahawks one-yard line. He decided against a field goal attempt, and sent running back Fred Taylor off the right side of the line. Taylor, who rushed for 103 yards and averaged 4.9 yards per carry, was stopped for no gain.
"I'd go for it every time. You have to knock it in the end zone there," Coughlin said.
As it turned out, a field goal wouldn't have been enough, as the Seahawks offense began to have its way with the Jaguars defense late in the game. Maligned quarterback Jon Kitna threw for 231 yards and three touchdowns, and made key throws in the Seahawks' game-winning touchdown drive.
"How many times do you get tired of saying we shot ourselves in the foot? But that's what happened," linebacker Kevin Hardy said.
Interestingly, Seattle coach Mike Holmgren chose to speak more about Brunell, a former Holmgren student at Green Bay, than Kitna.
"I think Mark's a fine player, a really great player. He's always been one of my favorite guys, as you know. I'm very proud of the job he's done in his career. I had him as a youngster and it's really hard now to play against him. He always is tough to beat. He runs, he gives you that dimension. He's the type of player you build a franchise around," Holmgren said.
They are words that may be viewed as interest in trading for Brunell during the offseason. The Seattle coach certainly went out of his way to endorse Brunell's performance, which included 340 yards passing, a 67-yard touchdown pass to McCardell that was the result of Brunell freezing the defense by scrambling to the sideline, and four scrambles for 15 yards.
"You saw the way we lost. It's been the same thing all year. Nobody around here thinks they're a loser. We just have to stop being careless," Taylor said.
As the Jaguars head into their final six games, Taylor is clearly their young player of leadership.
"We just need to think about getting a win and playing for pride. The thing I'm going to try to do is make sure these guys don't point the finger and break up this team," Taylor added.
With the offseason almost certain to begin on Christmas Eve, the Jaguars are now closing on an offseason of change. Just as certainly, the face of this team is going to change dramatically from the group that went to two AFC title games in four years.
"It hurts," McCardell said. "This group of guys doesn't know what losing is all about. Quit isn't in this locker room. If you pack it in now, it shows what kind of person you really are."