The new era in Jaguars football began today with a defeat similar to those that ended the previous era. Today's 24-23 loss to the Carolina Panthers was, oh, so similar to that last-play, Hail-Mary defeat to the Browns last December.
But coach Jack Del Rio wasn't with this team then and doesn't want to look back. He's facing 15 games that lie ahead of his first Jaguars team and he knows two phases of his team's overall game must improve dramatically or this will be a long season.
"Any time you get outgained on special teams as badly as we did … I thought the field position was in their favor most of the afternoon. The second thing is if you can't stop the run … I thought that was the second thing," Del Rio said in capsule analysis of a loss that could more easily be blamed on a 12-yard, fourth-and-goal pass from Jake Delhomme to a diving Ricky Proehl with 16 seconds to play in the game.
But that would be too easy. The roots of the Jaguars' second-half collapse reach much deeper into the Carolina turf. Let's start with these two simple facts:
• The Panthers' special teams accounted for 210 combined yards in kickoff and punt returns, blocked a Jaguars punt to score a safety, blocked a potential game-winning field goal attempt and, at a time late in the game when the Jaguars were attempting to hold on for the win, the Panthers broke long returns to allow the offense to begin its drives near midfield.
• After having kept Stephen Davis and the Carolina running game in check in the first half, the Jaguars defense softened in the second half, allowing Davis to finish the day with 111 yards and a 5.0 yards-per-carry average. Worse is that Davis gained most of those yards on one of the most fundamental of running plays, the toss sweep.
"They outplayed us on special teams and they deserved to win," Del Rio said.
Asked about his defensive scheme, Del Rio said: "It was the same scheme (Carolina used to) stop our running game. They were able to establish a very basic play."
The Panthers ran it over and over. At first, they ran it exclusively to defensive end Tony Brackens' side of the field, but then they also found success with it to Hugh Douglas' side. But it wasn't until Delhomme replaced starting quarterback Rodney Peete for the start of the second half that the Panthers showed any movement on offense.
Trailing 17-0 after a Seth Marler 40-yard field goal on the Jags' first possession of the second half, Delhomme rallied the Panthers to their first touchdown. The big play was a 27-yard pass-interference penalty against cornerback Jason Craft. Delhomme threw 13 yards to Muhsin Muhammad for a touchdown on the next play.
Following a 49-yard field goal by John Kasay, Carolina blocked a Chris Hanson punt into the end zone. Hanson kicked the ball illegally out of bounds, resulting in a safety that cut the Jaguars' lead to 17-12.
Carolina took an 18-17 lead on a 24-yard touchdown pass from Delhomme to star return man and wide receiver Steve Smith, but Mark Brunell connected with Jags return man and reserve receiver Jermaine Lewis on a 65-yard touchdown pass that regained the lead with 5:14 to play.
One more time, special teams and defense had a chance to redeem themselves, but they didn't. Instead, the Jags' punt team allowed Smith to return a booming Hanson punt 36 yards to the Carolina 46-yard line. And from there the defense slowly but surely yielded.
Craft was the target of Delhomme's final two touchdown passes. Craft's coverage was tight but, "I just didn't make the play," he said. "My job is to make the play."
Amazingly, Brunell rallied the Jaguars to a 55-yard, potential game-winning field goal attempt by Marler. Operating with just 16 seconds to play, Brunell threw 14 yards to Lewis, then 12 yards to Matt Hatchette, who stepped out of bounds with one second to play. But Marler's boot was blocked by safety Mike Minter, which represented the final and decisive blow by the Panthers' special teams.
The new era in Jaguars football will make its home debut this Sunday against the 1-0 Buffalo Bills.