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Even as they were eliminated from the playoffs in the divisional round in January, the Jacksonville Jaguars were showing signs of turning into a legitimate AFC power.
They’re hoping a tumultuous preseason doesn’t stunt their progress.
With some off-the-field transgressions casting a pall over their opener, the Jaguars will try to take a small step toward what they hope will be their first AFC South title Sunday when they visit the division rival Tennessee Titans.
All of the positive momentum the Jaguars (11-5) generated with their 2007 season and by locking up quarterback David Garrard to a long-term deal in April has been threatened by some off-the-field episodes.
The most serious incident was also the most recent. Backup offensive tackle Richard Collier was shot outside an apartment building early Tuesday morning in Jacksonville, and is in critical condition at a local hospital.
“Right now, he’s battling for his life,” coach Jack Del Rio said on his weekly radio show Tuesday night. “All we can do right now is pray for healing.
“We’re going to play football. But this is not about football. This is about life.”
The shooting took place just two days after Fred Taylor, the franchise’s all-time leading rusher, was arrested outside a Miami Beach nightclub. He was charged with disorderly conduct after getting into a verbal altercation with police.
Jacksonville has had 11 players arrested in the last two years, including receiver Matt Jones, who was booked in July when a police officer saw him cutting up cocaine with a credit card in his vehicle.
Now the Jaguars (11-5) must put aside the distractions and refocus for a season which many believe could be the one in which they finally wrestle away the AFC South crown from Indianapolis, which has won five straight division titles.
Jacksonville seemed on its way to a playoff berth in 2006, but faltered down the stretch, dropping its final three games and ending the season with a .500 record. That finish prompted changes, primarily the release of quarterback Byron Leftwich, the much-maligned, oft-injured former No. 1 draft pick.
Del Rio handed the offense to Garrard, and the longtime backup responded with a brilliant season. He threw 18 touchdown passes against only three interceptions, compiling a 102.2 quarterback rating to rank third in the league behind Tom Brady and Ben Roethlisberger.
Garrard didn’t have his best game in the team’s wild-card playoff win in Pittsburgh, but in the divisional round against New England he completed 22 of 33 passes for 278 yards and two touchdowns despite the Jaguars’ 31-20 loss.
The 30-year-old Garrard was rewarded with the richest contract in team history, a six-year, $60 million extension.
“To have David lead this team for the next seven years, it really gives us the stability and the continuity that we need to compete at the highest level and bring a championship to Jacksonville,” owner Wayne Weaver said. “David has earned this.”
Garrard’s progress along with the running back tandem of Maurice Jones-Drew and Taylor give the Jaguars a potentially potent offense, though the wide receiver position remains a question mark.
Ernest Wilford, who led the team with 45 receptions last season, left as a free agent. Reggie Williams, who had a team-high 629 yards and 10 touchdowns, had arthroscopic knee surgery in the offseason and might miss the season opener.
Jerry Porter, who signed a six-year, $30 million deal in February, had surgery to repair a torn hamstring in July and missed all of the preseason, meaning it’s unlikely he’ll play Sunday.
None of that has diminished Taylor’s confidence.
“It’s almost Super Bowl or bust,” Taylor said. “We got an opportunity to make the playoffs and we got a taste. It tasted pretty good and then we got beat. … I’m glad we had a chance last year, or got a little taste.”
The Titans (10-6) also have high hopes for 2008 after earning the AFC’s second wild card berth last season.
Tennessee’s chances to make a return appearance to the postseason are unquestionably tied to quarterback Vince Young, who proved in his second NFL season that he’s still a work in progress.
Young improved his completion percentage by more than 10 percent from his rookie season, hitting 62.3 percent of his throws in 2007, but he threw 17 interceptions against only nine touchdowns. He also didn’t fare as well with his legs as he did as a rookie. Young ran for 552 yards and seven scores in 83 attempts in 2006, but dipped to 395 yards and three touchdowns last season despite having 10 more carries.
“He’s improving. He’s progressing. He is learning the position, he wins games,” coach Jeff Fisher said of Young. “We got to the playoffs last year, and we’re a better team so we expect to do better. People that we surround him with will allow him to be better.”
Young should have a solid set of running backs to take the load off the passing game. LenDale White had 1,110 yards in his second season, and his size will be complemented by speedy rookie Chris Johnson. A first-round pick out of East Carolina, Johnson impressed scouts by running the 40-yard dash in 4.24 seconds prior to the draft, and he’s expected to get plenty of touches.
The defense, led by All-Pro tackle Albert Haynesworth, should be good again. Tennessee returns 10 starters from a unit that was fifth in total defense a year ago, allowing 291.6 yards per game. The Titans tied for second in the league with 22 interceptions, led by five from star linebacker Keith Bulluck.
“I think this team is just as good as any team in the league,” Bulluck said.
They’ll get a good barometer with a visit from the Jaguars. Tennessee and Jacksonville split two meetings last season, with each winning on the road.
The Jaguars have won four of the last six matchups overall.