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 Tuesday, September 7
Pressure driving Jaguars
By Mark Cannizzaro
Special to

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In the Jacksonville Jaguars' case, all the franchise has done since it entered the league as an expansion team has been win and progress. And all that has done is cause a feeding frenzy of greed. More, more, more. That's what Jaguars' fans want.

Make the playoffs? Great. Now win the division.

Win the division? Great. Now get to the Super Bowl.

This is the state of Jacksonville football. Expectations are at such an all-time high that the pressure on Jags coach Tom Coughlin has caused some discomfort, which has manifested itself in several forms of agitation.

The fact the Jaguars have made the playoffs in each of the last three seasons and the fact that they are the defending AFC Central champions means little as they enter 1999.

A number of slogans have been coined around Jacksonville since last year's bitterly disappointing 34-24 loss to the Jets in the AFC divisional playoff round at Giants Stadium.

Among them: "Super Bowl or Bust" and "Take it to the next level."

When one Jaguars' beat writer recently suggested in a column that winning the division last season was no big deal, and that the team must get to the Super Bowl to define success, the writer drew the wrath of an angry Coughlin. The coach was particularly peeved when the writer called the Jags "Team Marty," referring to the perennially underachieving Chiefs coached by Marty Schottenheimer.

Since then, talk of the Super Bowl has been taboo with Coughlin -- an obvious sore subject.

"What we did last year has nothing to do with this year," Coughlin said. "It's an every year thing. We have talent in place, but it's going to take a lot more than that."

A number of Jaguars' players believe -- if it's possible -- that Coughlin is even tighter and more rigid than before. They attribute that to the added pressure of winning a Super Bowl.

One Jags' player, who asked not to be identified, told the Times-Union in Jacksonville: "(Coughlin) is even tighter because of the pressure to win a Super Bowl. He's driving guys crazy. He has to back off some."

Knowing Coughlin and his stern, military-like approach, that isn't likely.

Even if the coach won't acknowledge the reasons for such lofty expectations, some of the Jaguars players fully understand.

"I think we've got the most talent we've had," quarterback Mark Brunell said. "I'm not one to ever make a prediction, but we have as as good a shot as anybody in the league to go to the Super Bowl."

Added receiver Keenan McCardell, "Why not us in Atlanta being one of the teams in the millennium Super Bowl? Why not the Jacksonville Jaguars? We think we can be there, so why not?"

"What we did last year has nothing to do with this year. It's an every year thing. We have talent in place, but it's going to take a lot more than that."
    -- Jaguars coach Tom Coughlin

The primary changes from 1998 that give the Jaguars such confidence are centered around their defense.

When defensive coordinator Dick Jauron left to coach the Bears, Coughlin immediately hired former Carolina Panthers head coach and Steelers defensive mind Dom Capers to run the Jags defense.

Jauron's philosophy was to read-and-react on defense. Capers is known as an attacking-style coach. The players expressed displeasure with Jauron's way of doing things and seem genuinely excited to execute for Capers.

What happens from here remains to be seen. But the Jags are in need of better defense. In their playoff loss to the Jets, Vinny Testaverde lit up the secondary for 284 passing yards, and Curtis Martin rushed for 124 yards and two touchdowns.

For the season, the Jaguars ranked 25th in total defense and produced the third-fewest sacks in the NFL with 30.

Capers brings with him a 3-4 defensive alignment with a lot of blitzing. Coughlin, however, prefers a 4-3 with four down linemen, so the Jags will use a hybrid, utilizing four down linemen but zone blitzing a lot.

In fact, in getting ready for the season, the Jags blitzed the Chiefs so much in a preseason game, they left Kansas City coach Gunther Cunningham grumbling with complaints afterward.

If there's a singular key to the Jaguars playing better defense, it's getting the most out of defensive end Tony Brackens, whose injury-riddled '98 season left him with only 3½ sacks. Still, in the previous two seasons, Brackens produced a disappointing seven sacks in each of those years.

The Jaguars added veteran free safety Carnell Lake and former Tennessee Oiler Gary Walker at defensive tackle. They're hoping high draft picks -- Florida State defensive tackle Larry Smith and Alabama cornerback Fernando Bryant -- will crack the starting lineup.

As good as Jacksonville has been since its entrance into the league five seasons ago, the Jags have never placed a defensive player in the Pro Bowl.

Perhaps Capers' system will change that. However, there is clearly work to be done for this defense to catch up to the team's potentially prolific offense.

"It would be foolish to think coach Capers is going to come in here and be the panacea for all the problems we've been having," Jaguars defensive tackle Seth Payne said. "No matter what coach Capers can bring to this defense, it's still up to the personnel to carry it out."

The players love Capers' system. Now they have to go out and execute it on the field.

Only when that's accomplished will the Jaguars begin to fulfill their immense potential.

"(Capers' new defense) brings an attitude," cornerback Aaron Beasley. said. "Guys want to be aggressive. That's what defense is all about. This style is becoming contagious."

Lake, who played under Capers in Pittsburgh, said, "With the personnel on this team, and Dom's coaching, we can be very good. Can we be top 10 good? I think so."

The Jaguars' schedule is one that could -- and should -- lead to home-field advantage throughout the playoffs, something they insist cost them in the loss to the Jets last January.

The Jags play only four '98 playoff teams this year, and their overall schedule ranks 22nd in the NFL in terms of difficulty. They'll play the expansion Browns twice, the rudderless Bengals twice and the in-transition Ravens twice. That should be six automatic wins. They also play the Titans and Steelers twice, against whom they should at least split, giving them eight wins in the division.

Meanwhile, the Jags' chief competition for the AFC title, the Jets and Broncos, face tougher schedules and tougher divisions.

So, if there was ever a time for "Super Bowl or Bust" or to "Take it to the Next Level," it's 1999.

Mark Cannizzaro of the New York Post writes a weekly AFC notebook for that appears each Thursday.


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