JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Former NFL coach Jimmy Johnson, who majored in psychology in college, used to talk about the mental ebbs and flows of a game. He maintained that if one team got up by 10 points even as early as the first quarter, the other team was likely to panic and do wild things to catch up quickly.
Or as Johnson liked to say, "People are greedy and coaches are people." That greed to catch up quickly would often backfire in a series of mistakes.
On Sunday at EverBank Stadium, greed, panic and all sorts of other emotions played out on both sides of the Jacksonville Jaguars' 38-31 victory over the Oakland Raiders in a game that had playoff implications for both sides.
For the Raiders, who had already broken a record string of seven consecutive seasons with 11 losses or more, the loss will likely cost them a shot at the playoffs. They fell to 6-7 in the AFC West, behind both Kansas City and San Diego. Even worse, the modest bit of success experienced this season is already at risk of being torn apart.
In the backdrop of this season for the Raiders has been tension. Head coach Tom Cable was angered when owner Al Davis brought in Hue Jackson to be the offensive coordinator in January, according to a team source. Since then, people close to Jackson have privately accused Cable of trying to undercut the coordinator. Jackson has been so unhappy with the situation that associates have been pushing him for a number of openings in the pro and college ranks, including for the University of Miami job.
As a matter of fact, when asked why the Raiders, who entered the game averaging 149 yards rushing and tacked on another 153 against Jacksonville, passed on both third-and-3 and fourth-and-3 midway through the fourth quarter with Kyle Boller(notes) in the game for injured starter Jason Campbell(notes) and trailing 31-24, Cable basically disavowed himself of any responsibility.
"I don't know. That is not for me to decide right now," Cable said.
No, it is not. When Jackson was hired, he took over all offensive play-calling duties. While Jackson's decision to throw twice with Boller rather than run with emerging star back Darren McFadden(notes) was highly questionable, that's not something that should be aired publicly if a team wants to hang together.
Then again, that's how an organization falls into a rut and stays there so long. Bailing at the first sign of difficulty is losing behavior, particularly in the aftermath of a game Oakland controlled for the better part of three quarters (the Raiders were up by 10 points midway through the third quarter). Or as one of the aforementioned sources said, "The plane ride back is going to be interesting."
"We put ourselves in position to make this game meaningful and then we do this," said Oakland guard Robert Gallery(notes), who has been a part of all but one of the 11-loss seasons. "The big plays on offense and defense just killed us. This [crap] is just frustrating."
By contrast, the Jaguars continued their magical ride atop the AFC South, improving to 8-5 and staying a game ahead of Indianapolis as they get set to play at Indy next Sunday.
What the Jaguars did best in this game was not panic in the face of ample opportunity. In the first half, Jacksonville's pass defense was shredded by Campbell, who completed 11 of 14 for 204 yards and two touchdowns on the way to his best game (21-of-30, 324 yards, no INTs) as a Raider. That gave Oakland a 17-7 lead at half. Jacksonville closed to within three points with a 48-yard touchdown pass from David Garrard(notes) to Jason Hill(notes) during its opening drive of the first half.
Back came the Raiders, in a hurry, using a 29-yard toss from Campbell to tight end Zach Miller to set up a 51-yard run by McFadden (209 total yards, 3 TDs) through the heart of the Jacksonville defense for a 24-14 lead. The Jags failed to score on their next possession, but still avoided the panic button.
"We have a head coach who just keeps talking about staying positive, staying positive," said wide receiver Mike Sims-Walker(notes), who would make one of the many pivotal third-quarter plays for Jacksonville. "Yeah, you see the other part all the time, teams panicking and throwing it all over the field when they get down like that."
Jones-Drew had his 6th straight 100-yard rushing day.
(Stephen Morton/AP Photo)
Instead, the Jaguars kept to the plan. Starting out at their own 18-yard line with 8:17 left in the third quarter, they ran Maurice Jones-Drew(notes) for six and then two yards. Facing third-and-2, which is increasingly a passing down in the NFL, the Jaguars ran a draw with Rashad Jennings(notes). He broke to the left, tap-danced the sideline and then broke back right for a 74-yard score.
On the ensuing kickoff, the Raiders fumbled and Jacksonville patiently set up a 10-yard touchdown pass to Mike Sims-Walker, who did a good job to get his feet down and give Jacksonville its first lead, 28-24. In the span of four minutes, the game completely turned. While the Raiders hung in long enough to tie the game at 31-31 in the fourth quarter, the Jaguars again responded with a 65-yard kickoff return that was followed up by a 30-yard touchdown run by Jones-Drew.
That outcome had coach Jack Del Rio walking up to each of his players some 30 minutes after the game, shaking their hands and holding a light-hearted exchange.
"You get a lot of guys who go red button in that situation," Jacksonville running backs coach Earnest Byner said. "I was listening on the headset and standing on the sideline all game and I never heard any type of panic. That's a reflection of our coach and the offensive coordinator [Dirk Koetter] sticking to the plan. That's hard to do in this league."
Del Rio, a former linebacker in the NFL who played for four teams over 11 years, smiled about that. One of his stops along the way was in Dallas, where he played three years for a coach with a degree in psychology.
"Maybe it's because I played for Jimmy," he said.
Whatever the reason, it worked just fine Sunday.