Inside Jags coach Jack Del Rio's office you'll find a fairly typical array of trinkets, awards and framed photos. But up on the wall, behind the couch that lines one side of the room -- where you'd half-expect to see one of those insipid, dime-store inspirational prints -- is a rather large and ornately framed painting of what looks like an intense gathering of military leaders at the penultimate moment of some tide-turning battle. In a world of sans-a-belt and clichés, where helmet logos, telestration and face paint often pass for art, it's startling to come across something like this hanging in an NFL coach's office.
It's titled Meade's Council of War, 2 July 1863, Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. And it's one of those paintings you could stare at for hours; studying the expressions on each soldier's face, the balance of each man's position around the room and the different emotions that seem to jump off the canvas. Although it takes only a few seconds for the inscription below the painting to hit home: Stay and Fight it Out. I'm sure that's exactly what Del Rio must have been wondering after the first play of Sunday's game, when Jacksonville's quarterback and team leader, Byron Leftwich, was lost for at least a month with a broken bone in his left ankle. Finally, in Del Rio's third season, the 7-3 Jags, blessed with a cakewalk closing schedule, seemed to be rolling toward a deep run in the playoffs. And then -- crack! -- they were hit with every NFL team's worst December nightmare: the sight of their franchise QB getting carted off the field, hurtling backward through time, with a look on his face that asked the same question as that painting.
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I'm sure that's exactly what Del Rio must have been wondering after the first play of Sunday's game, when Jacksonville's quarterback and team leader, Byron Leftwich, was lost for at least a month with a broken bone in his left ankle.
Finally, in Del Rio's third season, the 7-3 Jags, blessed with a cakewalk closing schedule, seemed to be rolling toward a deep run in the playoffs. And then -- crack! -- they were hit with every NFL team's worst December nightmare: the sight of their franchise QB getting carted off the field, hurtling backward through time, with a look on his face that asked the same question as that painting.
When all is seemingly lost, who will stand and fight?
Fortunately for the folks in Jacksonville, I met the answer to that question a few weeks ago.
And the moment the Jags' massive tandem of Pro Bowl defensive tackles, Marcus Stroud and John Henderson, walked into an empty locker room to talk during their lunch hour, I understood why, to quarterbacks like David Carr, they seem to appear 7 feet tall and 10 feet wide. Stroud, the 13th pick overall in the 2001 draft, stands 6-foot-6, 312 pounds, while Henderson, selected ninth the following year, goes, oh, 6-7 and 328 bills.
You could hide a cruise ship behind these guys.
Yet somehow, in the way they communicate and move and work together on the field, Stroud and Henderson come across as smooth, athletic and, well, lithe almost. You know, in this era of the NFL, it's not the size of the players that's stunning. It's the fact that guys this huge can move so fast and with such alacrity that leaves you shaking your head while hitting the replay button on the VCR.
"It is amazing to think that athletes that are that big and strong and intense can orchestrate and coordinate such intricate moves," Del Rio says. "The choreography of it is really something else."
These are not your father's earth-eating, north-and-south plodding defensive linemen. Oh no. Stroud and Hendie can read the fingernails of a blocker to get a jump on a play. They know runners like L.T. are making cuts based on what shoulder they cheat toward. They understand that just as many one-on-one battles are won in the film room as the weight room.
And in a league that only seems to reward selfishness, they seem to appreciate just how much better than can be by working together. It's why Stroud and Hendie, even though their individual stats are down this season, are still one of the premier defensive tackle tandems in the league. And that, my First Coast friends, is why you can sleep well at night, even with your quarterback in a cast. I may not have the slightest idea what these guys can bench press. But I'm certain they're strong enough to carry this franchise the rest of the way.
After all, they've been preparing for this task since their first day of practice together in 2002.
"We ran a few plays and our timing and movement was perfect," says Henderson, who was an Outland Trophy winner at Tennessee. "So I just turned to [Marcus] and said, 'Is this the way you ran it at Georgia?' And he goes, 'Yep, is this the way you did it at Tennessee?' And I shook my head. We basically ran the same defenses in college, same techniques, same schemes, same stunts. So that really helped."
I'll say. By the time Henderson lined up for his first start, the pair had perfected what's known as a "Tom" stunt that netted the rook three sacks against the Eagles. It goes like this: When Henderson gets double-teamed, Stroud will make a powerful, penetrating move upfield in his direction. (They do this without communicating -- they just know, or sense, the right time to hit it, like an alley-oop pass.) And the minute the guard shifts to contain Stroud, Henderson peels off and circles under and around his teammate, boomeranging himself into the clearing left by Stroud where the only thing left to do is "hit the quarterback right in the mouth."
"You can't manufacture great teamwork," Del Rio says. "Some of the timing and teamwork aspects of this game, you just have to be born with or gifted with. And these guys are."
Of course, says Del Rio, oftentimes in the trenches all that fancy-shmancy stuff gets tossed out the window and it comes down to sheer power and determination. They have plenty of that, too. Like the time last season, when Henderson was tripped on his way to the quarterback.
"So big John just literally crawled the final 3 yards to the quarterback and got him that way," Del Rio says, shaking his head. "Timing and teamwork are nice, but a lot of times it comes down to just sheer desire and will."
Even while being interviewed, Stroud and Henderson seem to be working together, finishing each other's sentences, mirroring each other's body language and adding sounds and special effects to each other's anecdotes.
When Henderson talks about his power pass-rush move, Stroud is in the background emphasizing his points with forklift sounds.
SNAP. POW. WHOOOS. Shhhhheeeeeerooooop. Kaaapoooosh!!!
And when Stroud starts talking about digging in for the dog days of the schedule, Henderson nods his head in agreement like a dedicated member of the congregation.
Stroud: "The first thing on our minds as defensive linemen is to be violent and disruptive and rip someone's head off."
Stroud: "But what you realize is to do that you need great timing."
Hendie: "Yep. That's right. That's right."
It's also why the Colts would be wise not to look past their Dec. 11 game in Jacksonville. Yes, Peyton Manning is an MVP candidate when allowed to settle in and throw from the pocket. But when pressured up the middle by tandems like Stroud and Henderson (sounds like a financial planning institution, doesn't it?) he becomes, dare I say, mortal.
Of course, the Jags will be at a huge disadvantage without their No. 1 QB. Leftwich is the kind of dynamic quarterback who can take plays beyond where the coach's chalkboard ends. He's also the kind of dude who will stop an interview in midsentence to chat up the Joe Blow construction workers at Alltel Stadium. And it's never easy for a team to recover from losing its leader. But the truth is, David Garrard, a scrambler in his fourth year out of East Carolina, is a capable backup. And in the Jags' scheme, I'd say Fred Taylor's ankle injury is more problematic.
But even with a healthy Leftwich, the Jags' playoff hopes will still come down to their defense and its ability to disrupt opponents. And that concept begins and ends with Stroud and Henderson, who act like a pair of 320-pound dominoes up front.
On run downs, by maintaining gap integrity and occupying blockers, they allow the Jags' linebackers clear and open lanes to the ball carrier. On pass downs, their job is to push the pocket so that when the team's defensive ends turn the corner, the quarterback has nowhere to go, thus forcing the ball out early and to the wrong spot, which makes for easy pickings in the defensive backfield.
In the final month of the season, Stroud and Henderson must step up and become the BASF of Jags football: They don't have to make the sacks or the interceptions themselves, they just have to do the dirty work that makes those plays possible for somebody else.
"People have a misconception with defensive tackles that they're just big guys who stomp around with no plan," Jags defensive coordinator Mike Smith says. "That's totally wrong. This is a very intelligent position. In a four-second play these guys not only have to be physical, they have to process a ton of information and make many, many decisions that affect everything we do behind them."
If only they could play quarterback, too.
David Fleming is a senior writer at ESPN The Magazine. His book, "Noah's Rainbow," a father's emotional journey from the death of his son to the birth of his daughter, can be preordered through Baywood Publishing. Contact him at Dave.Fleming@espn3.com