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Season later, hype is gone


On this day a year ago, Tom Coughlin was fired and the wheels of change began to turn. Three weeks later, Jack Del Rio was announced as the team's new head coach, amid a flurry of promises that may have only succeeded in creating unrealistic expectations for the first year of the "new era in Jaguars football."

Del Rio met with reporters today, less than 24 hours after he concluded his first season as the team's coach. He was the same guy he was on the night he was introduced to Jacksonville; the same glint in his eyes, the same conviction in his voice. But gone was the fanfare; no hard sell, just the facts. And you know what? The facts following the Jaguars' 5-11 season are more genuinely encouraging than all of the hype and cheers of that night in the East Club, when promises included a free hot dog and soft drink for fans willing to attend.

Today, the promise to "put the excitement back into Jaguars football" was replaced by something a little more specific. "We need an infusion of play-makers," Del Rio told reporters.

And Wayne Weaver's "no more three yards and a cloud of dust" was replaced by mention of Fred Taylor. Weaver was right. In 2003 it was 4.6 yards and a cloud of dust.

"Fred Taylor is a play-maker. Fred was the most consistent play-maker for us," Del Rio said.

This was a very different kind of press conference. This was a press conference about a team with its head on straight. This was a press conference about a team that doesn't need to hype itself. It doesn't need more promises. It needs more players; but maybe just a few more.

"It's possible, but I don't believe that's going to be our approach," Del Rio said when asked if the Jaguars would go after some big-name free agents. "The flashy name is going to be a high-risk proposition," he added.

Would that have been the answer last January? No way. The Jaguars were intent on making a big splash in free agency last season, and Del Rio admitted today the team got less.

"The level of production we got for the investment was not what you hope for," Del Rio said of defensive end Hugh Douglas and the $6 million in signing bonus the Jaguars paid him.

All of a sudden, there's a sense of stability and order. The hype is gone. What is it about 5-11 that has created such calm?

"I do recognize that there was a lot accomplished in a short amount of time. Not enough of it showed in the won-lost column," Del Rio confessed.

But he knows this season was not about the record. It was about establishing a foundation. It's the primary goal of all new coaches. They need to sell their program. They need to get their players to buy in. That's where Del Rio's good spirits are born. He knows it happened.

"The one thing we were able to establish this year is our mind-set. Coaches, players understand what the Jaguars are going to be known for. We're going to bring it on Sundays and be physical and tough," Del Rio said.

"I love to coach. I love to lead men. I'm a former player who now coaches. I believe in some old-school things. I don't consider myself a player's coach," he added.

But we were led to believe that's what he would be. On that January night last winter, who among us didn't think Del Rio was going to be a coach with one arm draped around his players' shoulders and the other around the fans? Nobody wanted demanding, right?

So, exactly what did we get? Del Rio was criticized in the summer for having an out-of-shape football team that was wilting in the heat, but his practices included far more contact drills than Coughlin's notoriously demanding training camps. Del Rio had to be pushed to the limit before he cut Larry Smith, but the coach whacked Marlon McCree in the bat of an eye.

Label him as you wish, but all we know for sure is that he is not the guy we were led to believe he was. Forget the hype. He's not that guy. The "no more three yards and a cloud of dust" guy we were promised is really a run-the-ball, stop-the-run devote who is more about convention than any of us ever imagined. You know those fourth-and-two plays? Forget about it. He won't go for the sticks next year when he has a real football team behind him.

We're just beginning to learn about Del Rio and his program. Here's what we know:

• It's defense-based. We probably knew that last January; after all, he's a defensive guy. But most people thought he was going to be all about sacks. The fact of the matter is that Del Rio's defensive philosophy is all about stopping the run and playing to opposing offenses' tendencies, and that's old-school stuff.

• He wants to run the ball. We know that because very few 5-11 teams run it as often or as well as the Jaguars did in 2003. Houston, Cleveland, Washington, Detroit and Atlanta are the other 5-11 teams, and only one of them was ranked higher than 20th in rushing. The Jaguars were eighth.

• Byron Leftwich is the quarterback. He's "The Man" and he's going to be "The Man" for a very long time to come. It may be the most significant accomplishment of Del Rio's rookie season as coach; that he had the courage to put Leftwich under center in game four and stick with him the rest of the way.

"Took very few sacks; very decisive in his decision-making. You see areas in which he will get better. The great thing is there won't be any contract issues to work through," Del Rio said, looking forward to Leftwich's second season as a starting quarterback.

And that led Del Rio into hard assessment of his first team. No hype; just the facts.

"We need more production in the red zone and ultimately more points," he said.

"Defensively, it's been a very solid front we've been able to assemble. If there was an Achilles heel all year, it was our inability to get off the field on third down. That's clearly an area we have to get better in. We have to get better with our rush. We're not happy with only getting 24 (sacks).

"Special teams … I really believe we have to get better. We must get more production in our kicking game. We left too many points out there," Del Rio said, and he promised that the place-kicking position will be "more competitive" in the spring and summer.

"When you look at our football team, you have two big tackles (Marcus Stroud and John Henderson) who are only going to get better.

We need play-makers," Del Rio said.

That may, in fact, be a promise.

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