JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Sometimes, growing up can entail the difficult lesson of a child learning to deal with the slow death of his father.
Other times, it's as simple as a grown man putting down the peanut butter and jelly.
Ultimately, the Jacksonville Jaguars want to benefit from the aforementioned circumstances and become a more mature team capable of handling the travails they have faced the past four years.
There was no greater sign of that than last month's NFL draft, when Jacksonville opted to take offensive tackle Eugene Monroe over wide receiver Michael Crabtree with the No. 8 overall pick. While Monroe was considered the best athlete among a strong group of left tackles in this year's draft, he may not be an immediate starter with veterans Tra Thomas and Tony Pashos on the roster.
Meanwhile, Crabtree could have been a significant upgrade to a team that has cut ties with its leading receiver from last season (Matt Jones) and two others (Reggie Williams and Jerry Porter) who were supposed to headline the receiving corps last season. While the team has signed veteran Torry Holt, Crabtree would have made the corps dangerous.
"Did we need a receiver? No question," one team source said. "We have Holt, but we definitely could have used Crabtree, if you're just talking about football. But that's not what we're talking about. We're talking about changing the culture of the team. We have to get the locker room settled before we can bring in another guy with a big ego like that."
Monroe is anything but a diva in the making. As he walked from the practice field Saturday, he carried his veteran teammates' helmets with him, a small bit of initiation to the group. As a five- and six-year-old, Monroe carried drywall and buckets of paint for his father, John, a mason who worked construction.
"My father was stern, very direct," said Monroe, his head perched high as he stood up straight even with five helmets in hand, sweat pouring off his forehead after practicing on a warm day in football gear. "I'd go out to a worksite with him and help. The job had to be done a certain way, and he made sure you knew that. … That's how both my parents were about what my brother and I did. We went home and did our homework before we did anything else.
"That's why I got straight A's throughout school."
The lesson stuck even after John Monroe died following a seven-year battle with bone marrow cancer. Monroe and his brother Willie were 11 and 15 at the time.
"One day they were little boys and the next they were grown, mature men," said Stephanie Green, Monroe's mother.
"I just figured I needed to be as responsible as I could to help my mother out after my father died … Where I grew up, there wasn't time for being sad and upset," said Monroe, referring to his hometown of Plainfield, N.J.
The Jaguars could use that type of maturity. Over the past four seasons, the Jags have demonstrated the focus of a squirrel in the road, alternating between searching for food while freaking out about the tiniest vibration in the ground.
Jacksonville has gone 12-4, 8-8, 11-5 and 5-11 from 2005-08. That stretch was topped by a second-round playoff loss to the New England Patriots in the 2007 season, a 31-20 game that was tantalizingly close. The downside has been tragedy, some embarrassments and an overall failure to get to the Super Bowl despite obvious physical talent.
The '08 season had a somber introduction when offensive lineman Richard Collier was shot just days before the opener, an incident that led to him losing a leg. The embarrassments have been frequent. According to research and various published reports, 10 players have been arrested since January 2006, including former first-round picks Jones and Williams getting busted for drugs.
Coach Jack Del Rio has feuded with players such as quarterback Byron Leftwich, defensive tackle Marcus Stroud and linebacker Mike Peterson. Del Rio has churned the coaching staff, reportedly forced out personnel men Charles Bailey and James "Shack" Harris and parted company with former team captains Peterson, Fred Taylor and Paul Spicer.
And on top of that, the team dumped its two biggest free-agent acquisitions of 2008 (Porter and cornerback Drayton Florence) after only one season. Throw in the regular rumors about owner Wayne Weaver selling the team and you have a picture of chaos on a team that at one time had one of the most talented rosters in the NFL.
"I don't want to call them bad apples," said Jaguars quarterback David Garrard. "I'll just say that some guys have made some mistakes, and I'm pretty sure right now they're regretting making those mistakes. But definitely [we're] bringing guys in that you don't see making those same mistakes, guys that are going to be here day in and day out, guys you can count on. I think that's the No. 1 thing. We just want guys that we know are not going to be in the headlines for the wrong reason."
Garrard has set the most obvious physical example by shedding more than 20 pounds this offseason. At the team's mini-camp last weekend, the 6-foot-1 Garrard weighed in at 231 pounds, well below the 254 he played at last season.
"Everybody has definitely been complimentary, and they have definitely told me that, 'You look good now, you actually look like a quarterback, not a fullback playing quarterback.' ," Garrard acknowledged.
Garrard dropped the weight in a little more than a month after borrowing a diet idea his wife had used. The plan called for him to stop eating carbohydrates for 21 days. For a man who has feasted on peanut butter-and-jelly sandwiches since he was toddler, that was much harder than he anticipated.
"I figured, it's just three weeks. But by about day three or four, I just wanted some type of carbs: a piece of bread, a cracker, some crumbs, anything," Garrard said. "I would fix my [19-month-old] son a peanut butter-and-jelly and I'd want to lick my fingers, but I'd just wash them off instead.
"It was hard, but it's about retraining your body to digest food a different way. Now, I'll have a plate of spaghetti, but I'm full after half a plate where I used to have the first plate and then a second."
Like Monroe, Garrard's efforts are emblematic of what the Jaguars need if they are to take advantage of their talent and ignore the issues that have distracted them. Of course, Monroe's most important task, along with vet Thomas and second-round pick Eben Britton, will be solidifying an offensive line that was wrecked last season. Not only was there the emotional upheaval of Collier's shooting, but starting guards Mike Williams and Vince Manuwai were knocked out for the season by injury and left tackle Khalif Barnes was a disappointment.
But that's just the X's and O's of the situation. The deeper task is for Del Rio and the Jaguars to become something more than a collection of talented guys who show up occasionally. If not, Del Rio may be the next person fingered for the failure.
"Obviously, some things happened last year that [Del Rio] felt he needed a fresh start," budding star running back Maurice Jones-Drew said. "There were guys in the organization he felt he had to get rid of. Everything now is about fresh start … We have the new uniforms, a new GM, everything is like turning over. What he wants is hard-working guys who want to make plays, work hard and do it the right way … do all the little things right.
"You shouldn't have to say anything, we're all adults. Granted, there are some situations where you have to. But now that we're starting over, hopefully I don't have to say anything. If I don't have to say anything, I'll see you in [the Super Bowl]."