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Perceived lack of respect unifying Jags

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- Not a lot of people, at least outside northern Florida, seem to talk much about the Jaguars as serious Super Bowl contenders. It probably has a lot to do with their soft schedule down the stretch of last season -- in going 8-2 over their last 10, the Jags played one game against a team that ended the season with a winning record -- leading many to believe they were a fluke 12-4 team. Maybe it's the market.

"Maybe it's because we don't have that one person that talks a lot or gets into trouble that brings attention," quarterback Byron Leftwich said.

Whatever the reason, I haven't heard a lot of TV/radio types put Jacksonville on blast this preseason, and frankly the majority of the ink the Jags have received in 2006 has come courtesy of their public relations department, and is now bound in their media guide.

A lot of teams try to play the "no respect" card but with Jacksonville it's a legit complaint. The Jags weren't even favored in their home opener, and even after their 24-17 win over Dallas (conversely a team many pundits believe will play in Super Bowl XLI), people are going to spend more time talking about T.O. and what's wrong with the Cowboys than a Jacksonville club that at the end of the day, better yet at the end of the regular season, will more than likely be one of the only 12 teams worth talking about.

Matter of fact, forget the Super Bowl. Not many seem to be giving Jacksonville a chance to win its division. You've got people picking Miami over New England, maybe K.C. or even San Diego over Denver, Pittsburgh or Baltimore over Cincinnati, and any one of three teams in the NFC East, North and South divisions. Find me one national pundit picking the Jags to overtake Indianapolis. Didn't think you could. They're the least-talked-about good team in pro football, though they're one of just seven franchises to win at least 20 games the past two seasons.

That all figures to change quickly with more wins like Sunday's. "They will [talk about the Jags] in a minute," Leftwich promised.

They don't win popularity contests, these Jaguars, just a lot of games. Leftwich again pointed out after the victory over one of the popular picks for Super Bowl XLI that the 2005 Jaguars beat both Super Bowl XL participants. For all the talk about how the Jags feasted on the weak at the end of last season, they had it rough to begin the year, when they beat the Seahawks, Bengals, and Steelers (on the road) and lost to the Broncos and Colts among their first six.

Jacksonville gets a rematch with Pittsburgh next Monday night in what could be Ben Roethlisberger's '06 debut, so they get an opportunity to once again shine in the spotlight. Then the Jags go to rival Indianapolis, which they always play tough. Then they're at the Redskins, who were more of a pre-preseason chic pick. So the nation will get to know these Jags and find out what they're about and what they're made of over the next month. If Jacksonville comes out of the first month 3-1 or 4-0 there shouldn't be much doubt about whether the Jags deserve mention among the league's elite.

But we're getting ahead of ourselves, which is exactly what Jack Del Rio doesn't want his players to do. To help keep them focused on just the next opponent and not any stretch of games, Del Rio came up with the idea to have the other team's logo painted on the front wall of the team's meeting room. So all week there was a huge Dallas Cowboys star staring at the Jags players. This week it's the Steelers' emblem. And so on. For training camp it was the Jags' logo, with the message being to focus on themselves.

"We love it," Leftwich said. "If you forget who you're playing during the week we can always look up."

Not even 10 minutes into this one the Jags looked up and found themselves down 10-0, and it would have been 17-0 had Terrell Owens and Jason Witten not collided on an early second-quarter play, knocking Owens off his route. Drew Bledsoe subsequently overshot Owens deep down the middle near the goal line. But the Jags heeded Del Rio's last words to them before the game.

"When we left the locker room," Del Rio said, "I talked about our need in a game like this to stick together. And that the team that stuck together and fought for 60 minutes would be the team to win this game, and I thought they did that and that's what I'm most proud of."

Added veteran defensive end Marcellus Wiley, who will be asked to replace Reggie Hayward (ruptured left Achilles, lost for the season) in the starting lineup: "We always talk about family, and I've been on more than a few teams, and I can tell you it's more than words. It doesn't mean wins and losses but it sure makes for a good setup.

"We don't ride the waves as much as other teams I've been on."

Jacksonville stuck together, got it together, and proceeded to string together 24 unanswered points. After a shaky start, Leftwich finished 23-of-34. Although the running game wasn't spectacular (Dallas has a pretty good front seven, you know) the Jags ran it 32 times, with Fred Taylor gaining "a hard 74 yards," Del Rio said, to go with a team-high six catches and a key block on Leftwich's go-ahead, 3-yard touchdown run on third-and-goal early in the fourth quarter. Taylor later completed the Jags' scoring with a 5-yard touchdown run.

Leftwich, often criticized locally and within the organization for his immobility, had a great line regarding his touchdown run, which came on a called QB draw:

"I'm not a slow quarterback. I'm just the slowest black quarterback. I'm in the middle of the pack with everyone else."

With Jimmy Smith retired, the passing game is going to need some time to find itself, but in the second half Leftwich, with the benefit of better protection, really started finding Matt Jones, the two connecting on back-to-back plays of 25 and 22 yards, both times Leftwich threading the needle and trusting Jones to make the play at the other end. Jones finished with five catches, Ernest Wilford with three, and to-this-point-first-round-disappointment Reggie Williams with six and the tying touchdown catch with 12 seconds left in the first half.

Del Rio said of Leftwich, the fourth-year pro, "He was very efficient. He looked like a veteran quarterback."

It's only one victory over a team we only think is going to be good in Dallas, but the Jags look like a team that's not only going to give its more high-profile opponents problems but put itself on the map in the coming weeks. More often than not it's going to be ugly, and that's fine when you play the kind of tough, physical style of ball Jacksonville plays. The Jags are going to ride their defense, which got a huge lift from Marcus Stroud and Mike Peterson playing Sunday despite injuries. Dallas' offense looked like what everyone expects early but the Jags clamped down and kept the Cowboys out of the end zone until it really didn't matter much. The Jags picked Bledsoe three times.

Jacksonville has the look of a team that's going to win quite a few more than it loses, even if very few experts and fans take notice or give it much props along the way.

"In order to beat us you're going to have to be ready to play four quarters," Leftwich said. "I think the teams we play know that. We just don't give up."

Michael Smith is a senior writer for ESPN.com.