More Jaguars: Observations from Jacksonville, Fla.
Highlight reels: Marcedes Lewis Maurice Jones-Drew
JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – An oddly uncomfortable look comes across the face of Jacksonville Jaguars coach Jack Del Rio as he issues the following statement.
"This is the best two days we've had passing the ball in training camp since I got here," Del Rio said Sunday night on the second day of his fourth training camp steering the Jaguars.
So what's so wrong with that? As a former linebacker by trade and defensive devotee by current profession, Del Rio still doesn't look completely comfortable embracing the offense. Particularly an offense that appears loaded with the greatest coach-killing factor of all time.
Yes, everywhere you look at Jaguars camp, there is some stunning athlete. Reggie Williams, Matt Jones and Ernest Wilford are running around the perimeter at wide receiver. Then there's 6-foot-6 rookie tight end Marcedes Lewis, who looks every bit as sleek as his first name would portend.
In the backfield, there's the aging-but-talented Fred Taylor and the bullish Greg Jones. Then there's second-round pick Maurice Jones-Drew, a 5-foot-7, 208-pound ball of quickness. Jones-Drew put on a stunning show Sunday night, darting and slashing like, dare we say it …
"A little like Barry," Wilford said admiringly. Yes, Barry Sanders.
He said it, not me.
Finally, there is quarterback Byron Leftwich, who looks downright smooth. An admitted "fat boy," Leftwich took his conditioning extremely serious this offseason and came back looking more like a basketball player than a passer who more than fills the pocket.
"We might even run the option a little this year," Leftwich said with a sly smile.
The real question comes back to what Del Rio is willing to embrace. As a player, Del Rio watched another team build an offense that was a perfect complement to a stunningly quick defense.
In Dallas in the early 1990s, Del Rio was there while Jimmy Johnson assembled an offense around Troy Aikman, Emmitt Smith and Michael Irvin. Johnson, like Del Rio, was a disciple of defense, which was the key that helped Johnson lead the Cowboys to back-to-back titles (and a third two years after he left).
As a reminder of that, former Dallas assistant Dave Campo has been in Del Rio's ear about taking a more aggressive role in understanding the offense – to understand when it is the right time to strike. Based on last season's results, the answer to that is early.
Here are some critical facts to consider from 2005, when the Jaguars were 12-4 but were bounced in the first round of the playoffs 28-3 by New England.
The Jaguars were 8-0 when leading after the first quarter last year in the regular season. They were 2-0 when they were tied. That's a combined 10-0. Included in that record are victories over Seattle and at Pittsburgh, the Super Bowl teams from last season.
They were 2-4 when they were behind after one quarter.
In other words, if Del Rio and the Jaguars are going to get to where they hope to be, the offense will have to live up to the potential that is obvious to even the amateur observer. Del Rio then needs to learn to trust the modern football adage: You throw to score and run to win.
"There's some truth to that, but you have to earn that," Del Rio said.
Or you have to trust it. In Del Rio's case, he has an established history on defense. In his seven years as a head coach or assistant, the defenses he has overseen or worked with have finished in the top seven of fewest points allowed six times. They have finished among the top six in fewest yards allowed six of seven times as well.
But on Sunday and Monday, Del Rio spent much of his time watching the offense. He stayed out of the way of offensive coordinator Carl Smith, but he observed and studied.
There were some spectacular moments, such as a diving catch on a deep pass by Jones, a frighteningly gifted athlete. There was a smooth curl pattern run by Williams against a zone coverage. Wilford made catch after catch. Lewis was open at will. Then there was Jones-Drew, the kind of talent coaches stay up late drawing plays for.
At the same time, there were moments that looked questionable. Such as the time Jones didn't adjust well on a pass to the wrong side of his body and flailed at the ball with one arm. Or there was the 40-yard pass that Williams dropped in traffic on a pretty throw from Leftwich.
"That's one I have to go get," Williams said.
Jaguars vice president James Harris put it another way. "That's the money catch," he said.
Still, even without retired veteran wide receiver Jimmy Smith, the team's all-time leader in receptions, the Jaguars look scary if just a couple of those young guys can come through with a good performance.
In fact, Smith's absence could be just the thing to motivate some of those guys.
"We all know there are 70 catches that Jimmy got last year that are there for guys to get if they want them," Jones said. "I don't think any one guy has to get them. You're talking about replacing a Hall of Famer in Jimmy and we're all still working on it. But there's opportunity and we all realize it."