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The difference in Christmas'


Christmas was not a happy time of the year last season. The Jaguars were in the process of wrapping up their third consecutive losing season, which would result in the firing of the team's first and only head coach, Tom Coughlin.

It was in the holiday air. Everybody knew it was going to happen. It was a sad week.

A year later, Jack Del Rio is finishing his rookie season as Jaguars head coach, and though Del Rio will have to win this Sunday in Atlanta to equal the record that got Coughlin fired, what's happened in the second half of this season makes for a very positive attitude on this Christmas Eve.

Yeah, this is a much better Christmas than it was a year ago. The Jaguars' arrow appears to be pointing up, and Coughlin has just completed the first step in a job interview process most believe will end with Coughlin being named the next head coach of the New York Giants. That's the New York football Giants, ladies and gentleman; we're talking about one of the esteemed teams and jobs in all of professional sports.

So, what are the lessons in all of this?

• Well, for starters, the one year journey from Coughlin's exit to the conclusion of Del Rio's first season as coach is a statement in how fragile and unstable professional football teams are. They require massive attention and maintenance, and they still fall into disrepair.

• Head coaches must be thick-skinned and willing to move because they probably will. Last year at this time, Coughlin and Mike Shanahan were the third-longest tenured coaches in the NFL. As we speak, Coughlin is expected to become one of possibly eight new hires for 2004.

• Perception - not always, but often - is reality. The Jaguars finished 2002 with a 6-10 record and the perception was that the team was pointed in sharp decline. This year's team is 5-10 with one to play and there's a can't-wait feeling for next season.

• Strong finishes are better than fast starts. The Jaguars got off to a 3-1 start in 2002, and all that did was raise expectations and, subsequently, disappointment. This year's team started 0-4 and 1-7, which allowed for a heightened excitement for the Jaguars' strong finish.

• Wide-open football may be what the fans think they want, but stop the run is what gets it done. That's the major difference between this year's team from last year's. The Jaguars are second in run-defense; last year's team was 25th. Why do fans feel so good about how the Jaguars are playing in the second half of this season? Because they see the Jaguars physically dominating the action.

• Owners, fans and media are too quick to blame coaches for their teams' failures. Circumstances and cycles are the real factors. If the coaches are to blame, why are so many of them recycled?

• Young rosters and clean salary caps are coaches' best friends. Repair time is seldom afforded to coaches who allow their roster to get old and their salary cap to get messy. The new guy gets the repair time.

• NFL owners are spending obscene amounts of money on buy-outs and pay-offs. It's reached the point that some coaches' jobs are safe because the owner doesn't want to pay off two guys at one time.

• More than owners, coaches, quarterbacks and even the commissioner himself, fate is the most influential player in this game. Fighting it is exasperating and hopeless. Accept it and move on.

Merry Christmas, everyone.

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