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Taylor's performance reason to celebrate


There were plenty of reasons for concern, but they were all eased by the Jaguars' one great reason for celebration: Fred Taylor is back.

"We told him in the huddle it was good to see him in there again," quarterback Mark Brunell said of Taylor, who was playing in his first game since suffering a season-ending groin injury in week two of last season.

Never mind that the Jaguars lost a meaningless preseason game Friday night, 23-13 to the Atlanta Falcons in the Georgia Dome. What was important was that Taylor was back and, despite his protestations, there was statistical evidence to suggest Taylor is all the way back.

He darted up the middle for 13 yards on the Jaguars' first offensive play of the preseason. When his night's work was complete in the second quarter, Taylor had rushed eight times for 42 yards and a 5.3 yards-per-carry average, and he had accounted for all but 12 yards of the Jaguars' total offensive output in their first four possessions.

That was the good news and the bad news; Taylor was back, but the rest of the offense wasn't.

"My expectations are always high. I'm better than that," Taylor said in critical analysis of his performance, which came close on two occasions to delivering an old-fashioned, Taylor-like long run.

"I'm searching rather than hitting holes. On every run in the open field I was searching a little bit. I've got to get used to a lot of stuff," Taylor added, suggesting he has yet to reach a comfort zone in his rehabilitation from a groin injury some thought would threaten his career.

"Fred Taylor ran the ball pretty well. I thought we could've stuck with that a little more," coach Tom Coughlin said.

But the preseason is about total evaluation, and that meant Coughlin needed to assess his passing attack, which had been woeful throughout practice in the week leading up to last night's game.

It was no mirage. The Jaguars played just as they had practiced. The passing game remained woeful.

"The negative was the pass-protection," Coughlin said in citing the major reason for Brunell's meager production; three completions in eight pass attempts for 28 harmless yards and a brutally-low 47.9 passer rating.

"No gloom and doom," Brunell begged jokingly of a reporter.

Of course not, it was only a preseason game; only the first preseason game. But, Mark, what are you going to do about that passing attack?

"It can be fixed," Brunell said.

Fixing it will begin with improved pass-blocking. Brunell was hurried into several throw-aways, and rookie quarterback David Garrard, who replaced Brunell late in the second quarter, was on his way to a similarly frustrating evening before he took matters into his own hands.

Garrard's scrambling ability gained 30 yards and accounted for one third-down conversion and, ultimately, a 14-yard, fourth-quarter touchdown run that was the Jaguars offense's only reason to cheer.

"I was trying to stay as calm as possible, but to be out there in front of everyone I grew up with, that was fun. I felt I belonged," Garrard said of his touchdown moment in front of 12 family members. Garrard added that his mother, who died from breast cancer in 1994, was also watching.

Statistically, Garrard was four of eight for 41 yards and a 65.1 passer rating. Emotionally, he had just experienced one of the best nights of his life.

Coughlin was upbeat in his postgame address to reporters, but he remained concerned about his offensive line's inability to protect the passer, and the lack of production from the passing game.

"It wasn't anywhere near as smooth as I thought it would be and should be. In order for us to accelerate, they're going to have to improve by leaps and bounds. Our second offensive line, with the veterans we had on it, should not have had the problems with pass-protection it had. We did not throw the ball downfield the way I intended. We had a couple of opportunities downfield but didn't get the ball thrown," Coughlin said.

Five sacks for 40 yards lost left the Jaguars with just 29 net yards passing. Ouch!

When asked to give his capsule evaluation of the state of his team's progress following its first preseason game, Coughlin added: "I don't think we're executing as well as we should. That's an issue with me right now. I thought we would execute better because we had a very simple plan."

Here are some other observations:

• The Jaguars defense, especially the pass-defense, was every bit as impressive as it had been dominant against the Jaguars offense in training camp practices. Cornerbacks Jason Craft and Fernando Bryant were outstanding.

"I think we're going to surprise some people. We have some guys who want to get to the ball," Craft said of this year's defense, which had lost six starters during the offseason salary-cap purge and was expected to be the team's weakness.

• First-round draft choice John Henderson saw considerable action and was admittedly hesitant. the result of four offside violations by the defense in the first half that left Henderson fearful of joining the list of offenders. "I was hesitating a lot; didn't fire off the ball the way I'd been doing in practice," he said.

• Third-round pick Akin Ayodele was the Jaguars' most productive defensive player, accounting for five solo tackles, including one for a loss of yardage. Ayodele left the field late in the game with a hip-pointer injury, but he was walking without a limp in the locker room after the game.

• Second-round draft choice Mike Pearson saw considerable action at left offensive tackle and was judged to have turned in a competent effort. That is likely to improve Pearson's chances of moving into the starting lineup.

• Seventh-round kicker Hayden Epstein booted field goals of 32 and 21 yards and clearly established himself as the favorite to win the kicking job.

In this Friday's preseason home-opener against Tampa Bay, the Jaguars will attempt to establish their passing attack, which had always been the team's most dependable asset. But this is a year of change.

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