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Worst ever? Loss reason for despair


INDIANAPOLIS--Never had they been as embarrassed. Through five seasons of establishing themselves as the most successful expansion franchise in NFL history, the Jaguars had never sunk this low.

There are other candidates, such as the heartbreaking loss in St. Louis in 1996, the demoralizing playoff loss in Denver in '97, the 50-10 shellacking in Minnesota in '98, and the crushing defeat to the Titans in last year's AFC title game, but this one was different in the biggest of ways. In the other low points, the Jaguars were a team with a future; Monday night, en route to an embarrassing 43-14 loss to the Colts, the Jaguars had the look of a team whose time has run out.

That's the worry today. If you have a strong sense of despair you haven't felt after any other loss, it may be that undeniable hurt of lost opportunity. Oh, no, is it possible the Jaguars have missed their turn?

If you wish to purge yourself of all your depression, consider these facts:

*At 2-2, the Jaguars are tied for third place in the AFC Central Division. It marks the first time since late in the '96 season the Jaguars have been lower than second place in the division.

*This Sunday, the Jaguars host the Steelers. With a win, all three of the Jaguars' wins will have come against the AFC Central's "second-division" teams.

*With a win over the Steelers this Sunday, the Jaguars will have scored each of their three wins against a team that was winless when the game was played.

*What if the Jaguars don't beat the Steelers?

More is at stake now than the playoffs. Homefield advantage will be not be discussed for several weeks; it may not be an issue at all this season.

What is at stake is this team's pride; this franchise's reputation for being a model for other franchises to copy. At stake is the winning tradition Tom Coughlin, Mark Brunell, Tony Boselli, Jimmy Smith, Keenan McCardell, etc., have spent the last several years establishing.

This loss hurt most of all because more was lost than in any previous defeat in Jaguars history, including that AFC title game loss last January. This week, the Jaguars are questioning themselves. They won't admit to it, but they do have doubt. They wore it on their shirtsleeve as they sneaked out of the RCA Dome in the wee hours of Tuesday morning.

Boselli quickly agreed it was the worst loss he's experienced. Of course, his credentials are considerable, since Boselli is the franchise's first-ever draft choice.

"Yeah, for numerous reasons" it was the worst-ever loss, Boselli said, though opting to keep some of those reasons to himself. "Coming out at halftime, I felt they hadn't stopped us," he said.

"Did you guys quit?" he was asked.

"No," Boselli said.

"You realize, it will be written this week that this team has a penchant for falling apart in the second half," the reporter said.

"I don't blame them. It should be said. We haven't finished games, and I don't know why. There are probably a million reasons," Boselli said.

Each player will have to search his soul for those reasons this week; a short week, which is either the bad news or the good news, depending on your perspective. Whatever it'll take for this team to right itself, it better do it quick. A win over the Steelers will allow the Jaguars to maintain life. A loss could kill this team, which is why you might say this is a very big week in the history of this franchise.

"It is definitely the lowest point because there were some things we hadn't faced before. I felt a sense of despair tonight," strong safety Donovin Darius said.

His despair was shared. There was something about this loss that made you sad. Others may have made you angry, but this one made you sad.

This was a very good team that had been raised right and groomed to be a champion, and it was being humiliated in front of the largest of TV audiences. This was a team said to be in its last-gasp season , and as we watched Peyton Manning throw for more yards than any other quarterback in Colts history, which includes a guy named Johnny Unitas, we had to wonder if the Jaguars' last gasp may have, in fact, occurred last January in the AFC title game.

All of the sights made you swallow hard: Mark Brunell unable to avoid a rusher and being sacked for a safety; Colts receivers running free in the Jaguars secondary; Manning standing in the pocket with little more than a threat of being sacked.

"That was as bad a nightmare as it gets," Coughlin said.

Unfortunately, it was not a nightmare.

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