NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Jeff Lageman has been here as a player. The Jacksonville Jaguars radio analyst knows the depth of emotion that comes with a life-altering experience, having witnessed former New York Jets teammate Dennis Byrd left paralyzed from a neck injury in 1992.
"No matter what you say, it impacts you," said Lageman, who is now watching the Jaguars deal with the aftermath of teammate Richard Collier being shot last Tuesday. "You can't not think about it. It's there. Now, whether it affects you in a positive way or a negative way remains to be seen. But you're kidding yourself if you say it's not on your mind."
So when you hear Jaguars players say that Collier's condition didn't weigh on them as they lost the season opener 17-10 to Tennessee, it's easy to appreciate the sentiment, but it's hard to ignore the reality.
"That wasn't it," running back Fred Taylor said in a somber voice tinged in defiance. "Give Tennessee credit. They handed it to us."
Likewise, Jacksonville coach Jack Del Rio gave the Titans credit but couldn't ignore what he gingerly referred to as "the whole situation with Richard."
While it's hard to justify that any backup offensive lineman could be the difference in a game, Jacksonville's front unit was in a brutal position from the start. And if the worst-case scenario comes true on the injuries the team sustained Sunday, Collier's misfortune may be a sign of a long year for the Jaguars.
Guard Maurice Williams tore his right biceps in pregame warm ups. Williams tried to play, but he didn't have enough power in his arm to even defend himself from further injury. While Williams seemed optimistic, biceps tears can take weeks to heal, at best, or even be season-ending. Uche Nwaneri, Williams' replacement, also received attention from the trainers during the first quarter.
Later on, starting left guard Vince Manuwai hurt his right knee in a pile up of bodies, injuring at least his medial collateral ligament and perhaps his anterior cruciate ligament. He stood with a large brace on his leg after the game and needed crutches to move, hoping it was only the MCL and not the dreaded ACL. An ACL tear would end his season.
"If it's the MCL, no problem," Manuwai said. "We'll see what the MRI says, but that's what I'm hoping right now. Maybe I miss a little time, but I can probably just brace that up and play."
In the worst-case, of course, Williams and Manuwai could be out for the year, meaning that in the span of a week, the Jaguars may have lost three of their top six linemen. Collier was slated to be a backup at both left and right tackle, but on a day like this …
"Everybody has to be ready to go," Williams said.
On top of all that, the offensive line was the strength of Jacksonville's 11-5 record last season which ended in a tough second-round loss to New England. The Jaguars battered opponents with their beefy line, setting up the run and then eventually setting up Garrard for the high-percentage passing game he likes.
On Sunday, Jacksonville left L.P. Field battered by the fierce Tennessee defensive line. With defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth stirring the drink and just about every other defensive lineman contributing in an obvious way, the Titans limited Jacksonville to 33 yards rushing and turned 2007 mistake-free quarterback David Garrard into a turnover machine. Garrard was sacked seven times, was harassed on nearly every one of his 35 attempts and ultimately finished with two interceptions and one fumble.
So now, the team must sit and wait the test results of Williams and Manuwai. As for Collier, all the team can do is wish and pray for a speedy recovery and try not to let the incident – in which Collier was shot while waiting in a parked car with a former teammate for two female acquaintances in the early hours – become a distraction.
"Guys can say it has no impact, but it does no matter what you say," Lageman said. "Just being at the hospital. Those guys spent hours there, time that most of them would have been off their feet, relaxing. You don't think it's a big deal, but it's all those little things."
In 1992, Byrd's career-ending injury was the topping on an insulting year. The Jets were 3-9 at the time. They won the next week, but finished the season with three listless losses.
Said Lageman: "You just can't block it out. In some way, playing the game is a relief because for that period of time, you have the football blinders on and all you think about is playing the game. There's nothing else in your mind. But the rest of the time, it's there."
- Jeff Lageman