JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Perhaps we don't really know Jack.
The perception of the Jaguars' Jack Del Rio as a head coach has always been that of a conservative, defense-first leader. In fact, that would be defense first, second and all the way to 541st.
Somewhere on the way to a 4-1 start, including a 37-17 victory Sunday here against Houston – and with a showdown looming a week from Monday against 5-0 Indianapolis – Del Rio has begun to shed that image.
Want to gamble on your season? Cut starting quarterback Byron Leftwich a week before the season begins. Want to gamble on a key game against an upstart Texans team that has given you problems in the past? Sandwich a pair of fourth-down gambles around an onside kick over a critical stretch that bridged halftime and turned a 6-0 deficit into a 16-6 lead and control of the game.
Suddenly, Del Rio went from Reagan Jack to Riverboat Jack.
"It's just how I saw this game playing out when we talked about it earlier this season," said Del Rio, who was widely considered to be on the hot seat coming into this season. His move on Leftwich only amped that talk.
Now, Del Rio has seen quarterback David Garrard go five games without throwing an interception. Del Rio's decision to gamble against Houston on Sunday turned out to be just as prescient.
"Jack said this week, 'Don't flinch if we throw it all out there,' " said running back Fred Taylor, Jacksonville's elder statesman who has seen everything from the days of pass-happy Tom Coughlin to pass-hating Del Rio. "He showed a lot of trust in us (Sunday). … You can see that this is becoming his team, the way he sees it being and now he's giving us that chance."
The payoff for those gambles was a dominating run that began midway through the second quarter and ended in the third quarter. In the process, Del Rio not only helped the Jags turn the game but also learned he could help his beloved defense in the process.
Jacksonville was down 6-0 in the second quarter and easily could have been down more if not for Houston wide receiver Andre Davis fumbling away a touchdown in the first quarter. The Jags were making one mistake after another, including a pair of ugly fumbles for wide receiver Reggie Williams.
"It started off as the worst day of my life, ever," said Williams, who made up for it with a touchdown later in the game. " … All I wanted to do the rest of the game was do something to make up for it."
Del Rio didn't let the mistakes hinder his plan.
With 9:38 remaining in the second quarter, the Jags got the ball. They eventually drove to the Houston 8-yard line and faced a fourth-and-1. Conventional wisdom by a coach with a good defense would be to take the field goal. Del Rio went for it, and Garrard converted a sneak. Three plays later, Garrard hit tight end George Wrighster for a 1-yard touchdown and a 7-6 lead.
Del Rio then took the next throw of the dice, calling for John Carney to go for the onside kick. It was the last thing Houston expected, as the Texans front line was peeling back to set up the return before Carney touched the ball. The kicker dribbled the ball ahead and recovered it himself.
Jacksonville converted a field goal on that possession and took a 10-6 lead late in the first half before receiving the kickoff to open the second half, which the Jags opened with a 14-play, 81-yard drive – including a fourth-and-4 conversion from the Houston 28. Del Rio, who is known to belabor his decisions in critical moments, never flinched in this situation, and that set the stage for Williams' makeup touchdown and a 16-6 lead after the extra point was blocked.
Beyond the net result on the scoreboard, there was a deeper impact on the game and Del Rio's beloved defense. Del Rio's moves had allowed Jacksonville to hold the ball for 34 of 37 plays from scrimmage and for 15:23 of a 16:22 stretch. Throw in a 12-minute halftime and the Jacksonville defense was plenty rested by the time it came back on the field in the second half.
"You love that when you can sit over there and just watch the offense and sip some Gatorade," said Jaguars defensive end Paul Spicer, who forced a fumble by Houston quarterback Matt Schaub that was returned for a clinching touchdown in the second half.
Moreover, the small mistakes that continued to plague the Jags in the second half had little impact. Jacksonville muffed a punt midway through the third quarter, but the defense allowed only a field goal out of it.
By the end, Jacksonville's offense was coming up with all the big plays, overwhelming the small mistakes. Second-year running back Maurice Jones-Drew finished with 12 carries for 125 yards, including a 57-yard touchdown, and added another four catches for 59 yards. The offense produced five plays of 20 yards or longer, including two of 50 or more as the Jaguars had 244 yards rushing.
The 37 points were a season high and the kind of total the Jaguars might need Monday night when the defending Super Bowl champs come to town.
"It's going to be (a black-tie) affair," Taylor said.
Del Rio's moves on Sunday certainly helped set the stage.
Or as Jones-Drew said: "It's the extra things you do that gets the team going."
- Jack Del Rio