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Season-opener is big

Join senior editor Vic Ketchman as he tackles the fans' tough questions.

Scott from Gilbert, AZ:
How do the rookies afford to live right now?

Vic: They get a per diem expense. It's common to see the rookies in the stadium cafeteria sneaking food and drink into their bags to help them make it through the long weekends. These are kids who, in some cases, are going to get rich in the next 2-3 weeks, but their pockets aren't bulging now. Do you think they might be anxious to sign a contract? Now put yourself in the position of a team negotiating to sign their rookie class to contracts. Are you going to cave early or are you going to press your advantage and see how much food and drink they can steal from your cafeteria before they cave in? People ask me all the time why teams wait so long to sign their rookies. It's an endurance test and the teams have the resources to last longer. In subsequent contracts, however, the players often have the drop on the teams. It's professional football. It's about the money. Frankly, I like it that way.

Chris from Jacksonville Beach, FL:
What time is the scrimmage on Aug. 4? I had a great time last year.

Vic: It's set for 7:30 p.m. Last year's scrimmage drew a nice crowd. I think it's a cool event. I'm going to help Brian Sexton with the radio broadcast of this year's scrimmage and I'm looking forward to it. Admission is free and I commend Jack Del Rio and the Jaguars for creating this fan-friendly evening.

Nen from La Blanca, TX:
Are the Jaguars preparing for the (season-opener against the) Dallas Cowboys, or are they not looking that far ahead?

Vic: Following the final practice of the spring, Byron Leftwich made mention of preparing to play the Cowboys. It's an interesting approach: A whole training camp and preseason to prepare for one game. No coach, of course, is going to do that from a physical standpoint, but you can use the time to create a very sharp mental focus for the season-opener, especially if you believe it's of particular importance. In the Jaguars' case, I think this year's season-opener is of particular importance because the Steelers are next on the schedule, followed by games in Indianapolis and Washington. I can remember one other time when a team I covered used training camp to prepare specifically for its opener. It was the Steelers in 1992, when Bill Cowher was a rookie head coach. They weren't expected to be very good that year and they were to play the division favorite, the Oilers, in Houston in the opener. It was supposed to be an easy win for the Oilers, but the Steelers won in an upset and got Cowher's team off to a fast start in a season in which the Steelers would win the AFC Central. I can remember thinking that preparing for the opener in training camp was short-sighted. Well, maybe being short-sighted is a good thing, sometimes. I see nothing wrong with having a sharp focus on the opener. I wouldn't want to be 0-1 with the Steelers, Colts and Redskins immediately ahead.

Jason from Jacksonville:
Have you ever seen that "Saturday Night Live" skit where a bunch of guys were sitting at the bar and they kept saying, "Da Bears?" That one makes me laugh every time. Funny thing is my friend's mom is from Chicago and she really says it that way, "Da Bears." Sorry, Vic, I am going crazy waiting for the season to start. I hate the "Dead Zone."

Vic: "Ask Vic" is a forum for those of higher intellect. I will not have this kind of mindlessness within our group. I want you to read something of worth. I want you to read a real book by a real writer. Do not return here until you can tell me of a literary conquest.

Andrew from Ft. Lauderdale, FL:
I could've sworn I remember you saying many people believe Alexander is fairly soft and earns most of his yardage on just a few plays in a game. So what's changed your opinion on him?

Vic: That's the rap on Alexander, that he's soft. I've only had a chance to see him play a couple of times. In the 2001 game against the Jaguars at Husky Stadium, he was sensational. In the season-opener last year, he lit it up late in the first half, then the Seahawks melted in the second half. I haven't seen enough of Alexander to have much of an opinion of him, but even though I'm not big on stats, I can't dismiss what the guy has done. He is one of the most productive running backs of my lifetime. Does he have Bo Jackson-like ability? No way, but Alexander gets it done and, one more thing, he's durable. I wish I saw more of him.

Peter from Toronto, Ontario:
When you go on vacation, do you come back to five days' worth of e-mails?

Vic: Yeah, I do, but eventually I get them all read. I say this to you in all honesty: I have never deleted an e-mail without at least a quick read of it. That's my credo: Read 'em all. I owe the readers that respect. I'm going to take Wednesday-Friday off next week. I'll have a column on Monday and Tuesday but none the rest of the week.

Paul from Lake Elsinore, CA:
Why do you think the Jaguars get overlooked in the overall scheme of the NFL? Even last year, with their record and beating some strong teams, nobody talked about them until they went up against the Patriots in the playoffs? What do the Jags need to do to be considered serious contenders?

Vic: I explained this several times last year. It's real simple. If you want the respect of the big-time media guys, you gotta win the big-time games. The table was set for that when the Colts played at Alltel Stadium late in the season. We know what happened. The Jaguars had a second chance to get national attention with a win in the playoffs. Unfortunately, the Jaguars were in bad shape heading into the playoffs. Mike Peterson, Mo Williams, Paul Spicer and several other Jaguars players were hobbled by injuries and Byron Leftwich was making his first start since the last Sunday in November. The big-time media guys want the Jaguars to do something big. A win over Dallas in the season-opener would be a start. It'll be a nationally-televised game and much of America will be tuned in to see Terrell Owens in his comeback game. Just win, baby, win.

Chase from Redmond, OR:
How would you say Rashean Mathis ranks among the other cornerbacks in the NFL today?

Vic: I think he has a chance to be at the top of the cornerback crop. It's not an especially strong group right now. It may be the only time in all the years I've covered the NFL that the league's safeties are better than the cornerbacks. Mathis has it all. He can run and cover and catch the ball. He'll also come up and support against the run. The lone weakness I've seen in Mathis' game is that he'll bite on the double move. Two great cornerbacks I covered, Mel Blount and Rod Woodson, also did that early in their careers. Mathis can be special.

John from Waco, TX:
I know that Marcedes Lewis is a great pass-catching tight end, but does he have the ability to develop into a premier blocking tight-end like Kyle Brady?

Vic: Before the draft, Jack Del Rio told me the Jaguars believe Marcedes Lewis can be an effective blocker. As good a blocker as Kyle Brady? I doubt it. Brady is an out-of-this-world blocker. He has never been fully appreciated for his skill and impact as a blocker. Why do you think the Jaguars have kept him around? Because of his soft hands and light feet? They've kept him around because he mashes people and whether you want to believe it or not, football is first and foremost a mashing game. Lewis wasn't drafted because of his blocking ability. He was drafted in the first round because the Jaguars believe he can put their passing game over the top.

James from Jacksonville:
All this inferior talk has got me thinking. Would you consider the NFC an inferior conference to the AFC?

Vic: It was last year. The NFC drafted well this year. That could help them close the gap.

John from Jacksonville:
Great wide receiver discussion! Where would you place Sonny Randle in the history of wide receivers? There were many records he held until a guy name Jerry Rice came along and beat them.

Vic: Sonny Randle was an outstanding pass receiver for the St. Louis Cardinals in the 1960's. He had size and some speed and soft hands. But as I said in describing Paul Warfield, the NFL was not a throw-the-ball league. Randle's best receptions season was 1962 when he had 63 catches. That's all, 63. But look at his touchdowns; 15 in 1960 and 12 in '63. He also went over the 1,000-yard receiving mark twice, which was a fantastic feat back then. He averaged 20.7 yards per catch in 1964. They didn't dink and dunk back then. They made you play run and when you started playing run too hard, they threw the ball deep. I wonder about guys like Randle and Warfield. What would they have accomplished in the west coast offense? By the way, Randle was drafted in the 19th round.

William from New Orleans, LA:
What's on your summer reading list?

Vic: I'm finishing "The Last Gangster," which I have thoroughly enjoyed. Next up is "My Country Versus Me," which is the story of a Los Alamos scientist who was accused of being a spy.

Greg from Mims, FL:
If you had the power to set the schedule for all things football throughout the year, what changes would you make? Wouldn't it be better to have a steady stream of football throughout the year?

Vic: No way. I hated that about the USFL. Much of the romance of the game of football is the weather in which it's played. Football is the autumn game. When we go to the northeast in October, everybody loves it. You can smell football in the air when you step out of the plane. Jacksonville gets some of that climatic feeling late in the season. Every sport needs an offseason. The NFL has literally made the offseason a separate season. It's the time of the year when the league's teams regenerate. I like that. I don't want to see an endless stream of football games. I need bookends. I need a beginning and an end.

Jason from Abilene, TX:
Jerome Bettis: five rushes, three yards, three touchdowns. When you see a line like that, it stands out to you. Any team will miss a guy who can produce those numbers in short yardage. His last two years with the Steelers, he had 22 touchdowns. Will the Duce produce?

Vic: When Duce Staley was their feature back in the first half of the 2004 season, he came out and Bettis went in when the ball was on the goal line. What's that tell you? Touchdown-makers should not be taken for granted. Long after Marcus Allen's skills had eroded, he could still get the ball into the end zone. In his 16th season, Allen scored 11 rushing touchdowns. What team doesn't want a guy who scores touchdowns?

Thrill from Jacksonville:
Yesterday you wrote that Mike Holmgren made one of the all-time blunders in Super Bowl history by not featuring Shaun Alexander in his offense. What are some of the others? How about a top five ranking?

Vic: The number one blunder in Super Bowl history, in my opinion, is John Fox's decision to go for two. He made the mistake of being too aggressive and going for two too early in the game. It ended up being the difference. It's a shame because Fox did everything else right. One little goof will haunt him forever. The number two position is a tie between Holmgren and Holmgren. Make the Shaun Alexander blunder 2a and make the decision to allow the Broncos to score a touchdown 2b. The blunder against the Broncos was twofold: Holmgren lost track of the downs and never, ever concede the winning touchdown. My number three all-time Super Bowl coaching blunder belongs to Bill Parcells for throwing the ball 14 times (I think that's right) in a row after Curtis Martin had run up the middle for a touchdown against the Packers that gave the Patriots the lead and established control of the line of scrimmage. The Packers returned the ensuing kickoff for a touchdown but, hey, why the panic? The Packers seized control of the game during Parcells' panic. My number four all-time Super Bowl coaching blunder belongs to Mike Martz for throwing the ball 44 times and running Marshall Faulk just 17 times against a Patriots defense that was in "nickel" and dedicated to stopping the pass. Faulk averaged 4.5 yards a carry. My number five all-time Super Bowl coaching blunder is a tie between Chuck Noll and Don Shula. Noll got away with what he did, so, does that make it blunder or genius? The Steelers had a fourth-and-four (I think) at about the Cowboys' 30-yard line with less than two minutes to play in the game and leading the Cowboys 21-17. Noll had no faith in his kicker or his punter, who already had one punt blocked, and Terry Bradshaw had been knocked out of the game on a touchdown pass and Terry Hanratty was in the game. Noll wanted the game in his defense's hands so he just ran the ball into the line for a one-yard gain that burned about four or five seconds off the clock and gave it back to Roger Staubach. The Steelers held on for the win but why not try a pass? So what if it had been intercepted in the end zone or inside the 10-yard line? Noll played it ultra-conservatively and won, so, was it a blunder he got away with or was his decision the genius of disciplined thinking? Shula joins the hit parade for underestimating the Jets in Super Bowl III. That's a tough one to prove but if ever a team looked flat for a big game, it was the Colts.

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