New special teams coordinator Russ Purnell has witnessed some of the greatest moments and biggest games in Jaguars history, beginning with the franchise's inaugural game, when Purnell was on the Houston Oilers' sideline as the Oilers scored a 10-3 win on Sept. 3, 1995.
Purnell was a member of Jeff Fisher's staff when the Oilers moved from Houston to Tennessee and became the Titans, and Purnell was the Titans' special teams coach in 1998 when they scored an upset win in Jacksonville that denied the Jaguars the opportunity to celebrate at home their first-ever division title. The fireworks were ready to go but the Titans doused them.
A year later, Purnell joined the Baltimore Ravens, where Jack Del Rio was in his first year as the Ravens' linebackers coach. The following season, Purnell was on the Ravens' sideline for one of the most famous games in Jaguars and Ravens history, the Ravens' come-from-behind, 39-36 win in week two that sent the Ravens toward a Super Bowl title and began a long slide for the Jaguars.
Then came the Indy years, beginning with 2002, the first year of the AFC South. Purnell joined the staff of new Colts head coach Tony Dungy, who got his referral on Purnell from Del Rio. Four years later, in a week 14 game of a season that would lead the Colts to a Super Bowl title, Purnell stood on the sideline in Jacksonville and watched the Jaguars rush for 375 yards in a crunching, 44-17 victory over the Colts.
This year, Purnell will find himself looking across the field at the Colts and the Titans. Purnell is the Jaguars' new special teams boss, replacing Joe DeCamillis, who took the same job with the Dallas Cowboys when his contract with the Jaguars expired following the 2008 season.
"They covered kicks and punts very well; very impressive. They were difficult to block, especially Montell Owens, Brian Iwuh. They had explosive guys," Purnell said of Jaguars special teams under DeCamillis.
Purnell was in a tough spot with the Colts, which was salary cap heavy at the top with stars such as Peyton Manning, Marvin Harrison and Dwight Freeney. Purnell found himself having to mold special teams out bottom-of-the-roster players who were hired more for their minimum-wage eligibility than for their physical skills.
"I'd look out there some weeks and there'd be 7-8 rookies covering kicks. They responded well but there are growing pains involved. Last year, I was pretty proud about what those guys did," Purnell said.
Purnell is a coaching veteran who was a member of John Robinson's USC staff when Del Rio was a star linebacker at USC. Purnell was tight ends/special teams coach for Robinson.
"I'm excited about it," Purnell said of his new job.
What's the goal?
"Go to the playoffs. I know there were some unusual circumstances last year that kept the team from achieving its goals," he said.
Purnell views special teams as "the conduit between offense and defense. We can help make both those units successful. It's a field position game, number one. If we can return the ball well, then the offense doesn't have that far to go. If we cover well and put people inside the 20, it's hard to score," he said.
What does he see on Jaguars special teams that he likes?
"When we got ready to play the Jaguars last year and I saw Brian Witherspoon's blazing speed, that was exciting. He can do a good job covering from the gunner's spot. Part of kick coverage is having a good kicker and Josh Scobee is one of the best kickers in the league. He has a strong leg and his ability to directional kick is big, too. You put the ball on the sideline and all of a sudden you have 12 cover guys; that white stripe is like another cover guy," Purnell said.
"I've admired Dennis Northcutt," Purnell added of the Jaguars punt-returner. "I always feared him. He has explosive speed and really good vision. Maurice Jones-Drew is really hard to bring down. He runs through tacklers. In that 2006 game, he returned one on us so I saw what he could do."
Developing a reliable punter may be Purnell's top challenge. Adam Podlesh, a fourth-round draft choice in 2007, has been inconsistent to this point. When Podlesh sustained a season-ending injury late last season, Steve Weatherford was signed to do the punting and he showed flashes of leg strength and promise.
"They're both talented guys. I scouted both of them coming out of college. From his rookie year to his second year, you could tell (Podlesh) worked hard during the offseason and he became a better directional punter and he worked on getting the ball out of there quick. Weatherford did a really job coming in late in the season," Purnell said.
One of the trademarks of Jaguars special teams play last season was a number of gambling, big-play attempts. Montell Owens went 41 yards for a touchdown on a fake-punt play in an overtime win over Houston.
"We'll work into that," Purnell said of trick plays. "Let's start at square one and progress from there. I'm not opposed to it. Joe had some good results doing that stuff. They've done a good job here and we're going to do a good job and do as much as we can to win football games.
"Ever since Jack got here, this team has been a hard, physical team; a tough team to play. It's going to be brass knuckles. It's not going to be a bunch of finesse. They have a hard-nosed mentality," Purnell said.
Purnell has certainly witnessed enough Jaguars history to know what the expectations are.