Having overhauled their look and their roster this off-season, the Jacksonville Jaguars are entering what I consider the franchise's fourth era.
From giant-killers in their early years to cocky underachievers as an adolescent franchise, to under-talented bullies after the turn-of-the-century salary cap purge, the franchise has been through a few major personality changes in its 15 years of existence.
But the Jaguars' mentality, up until this past season, had been consistent: beat 'em up or show 'em up.
This timeline tracks the beatdown mentality that's kept me a fan of the Jaguars for all their years. They're re-dedicating to the kind of physicality that's the calling card of a perennial winner; the swagger will come with time. Here's to that.
They started out as the "Jagwads"—upstart, irreverent punks who posted a winning record in their second season and picked off AFC powerhouses Buffalo and Denver on their way to the conference championship game in 1996.
(Credit to Woody Paige of the Denver Post for that moniker, and for its motivational value in the playoff run).
Rooting for those Jaguars in their first few seasons was very much a roller-coaster ride; their opportunities to take the upper hand in a game always seemed to come from the strangest plays.
DE Clyde Simmons became one of my favorite players because of two such plays he made that stuck out.
In the first quarter of the '96 wild-card game against the Bills, Simmons stepped in front of a shovel pass from future Hall of Famer Jim Kelly to future Hall of Famer Thurman Thomas and took it to the house.
Watching a hum-drum offensive play get blown up like that thrilled me; to take points from such renowned opponents in so bold a fashion felt like stealing, in a good way.
Then, a week later, Simmons stole some sunshine from the Broncos by blocking the extra point after a first-quarter touchdown.
The score was 6-0 instead of 7-0--and 12-0 instead of 14-0, after Denver tried and failed to make up for the miss—and it felt, again, like we'd pranked the big boys.
To me, Simmons represented the gritty little things that the Jaguars would do to win. They were winning in a unique way that was fun to watch.
While Mark Brunell's star was rising, the Jaguars were short on big names in their first few seasons.
Sure there was Andre "Bad Moon" Rison, and LB Kevin Hardy made a splash as the second overall pick in '96, but they weren't packing star power like the Cowboys, 49ers, or Packers in those years.
What they did do, though, was invest in their offensive line. Tony Boselli, a tackle out of USC, was the first draft pick in Jaguars history, which gave him a degree of recognition that linemen weren't quite getting then.
(It'd take another few years, with Jonathan Ogden and Orlando Pace following Boselli as top-five draft picks and free agency showing how much teams coveted good bigs, before linemen would start to become really visible as individuals.)
They also signed tackle Leon Searcy before the '96 season. Without a real big-time star to follow, I started to think of Boselli and Searcy as our stars.
Linemen as stars. Weird kid, right? But that was how I saw my team: tough.
Searcy also got his name out over the airwaves. The Jaguars' taste of early success near the turn of the century had the whole organization hooked, and some of the players put out a rap song in '99 during their 14-2 season entitled "Uh-Oh: The Jaguars Super Bowl Song."
Star receivers Jimmy Smith and Keenan McCardell, rookie corner Fernando Bryant and big free agent DE Gary Walker also contributed verses, and "Big Searcy" did the first:
"I'm Big Searcy, off the chain-- / Super Bowl thirsty, you know what I'm sayin? / You wanna shake me? I rip aside a player, / Don't make me--you can't ride a lineman. / I eat them for lunch, hit 'em up with the one-two punch. / Searcy takes 'em down. ATL-bound, Super Bowl bound. / All about that Super Bowl ring, / Hit 'em up with the bling-bling-bling."
As it happened, the Tennessee Titans were listening. They beat Jacksonville 33-14 in that year's conference championship game; there were only three losses that season, and all of them were to Tennessee.
Walker reportedly blew up in the locker room at halftime, starting a finger-pointing fuss that spilled into the second half. Yuck.
After the loss, most fans looked back on the rap song as a cocky mistake. I still loved it.
Yeah, we had lost, but I liked hearing the players rap and talk big. It had backfired, but the Jaguars had broadcast their confidence to the rest of the league. They had some swagger.
The Super Bowl rap had been a lot more believable a week before that loss to Tennessee, when the Jaguars had smashed the Dolphins 62-7 in the last game of Dan Marino's career.
Fred Taylor beat Miami corner Patrick Surtain to the corner, then blew past the Dolphins' defense for a 90-yard touchdown that broke the game open early, 17-0.
That run would be my favorite memory of those Jaguars, were it not for Jacksonville's next score.
On defense, end Tony Brackens shot past his blocker on the edge and slammed into Marino, knocking the ball loose and recovering it for the turnover.
Brackens was busy celebrating (and I was celebrating with him, from my living room) when one of his teammates started shoving him toward the end zone.
Turned out he hadn't been touched down; the turnover turned into a score, and I was giddy.
Watching that game was too easy. Everything was going right, and even though the Jags lost the next week, they had still been dominant during the regular season. They needed to enjoy it while they could.
After getting bounced unceremoniously from the '99 playoffs by Tennessee, Jacksonville crashed hard.
They had spent freely to bring in players like DE Gary Walker and LB Bryce Paup--spending for a Super Bowl, they figured.
Between those signings and some big contract extensions for their stars, the Jaguars were in a bad place for the salary cap squeeze to come.
The 2002 expansion draft gave Jacksonville a lifeline, allowing them to unceremoniously dump the contracts of Walker, past-his-prime franchise player Tony Boselli, and DT Seth Payne on Houston.
They made some tough roster decisions, cutting Pro Bowl WR Keenan McCardell and several key contributors on defense and restructuring contracts to sneak back under the cap.
Their roster in the years around that cap purge was a shell of the dominant '99 team—a bad mix of some entrenched, overpaid starters and poor depth across the board.
The contributors who stuck around still had some fight: Fred Taylor was one of the league's best backs when healthy, and safety Donovin Darius was earning his reputation as a dangerous presence in the middle of the field.
His clothesline tackle on Packers WR Robert Ferguson in 2004 was a visceral highlight for a career spent wrecking people.
But the Jaguars were only chippy then, not yet the rough-and-tumble team they would become.
"Physical defense. Best in the league."
LB Mike Peterson's team introduction for the 2005 home game against Pittsburgh on Monday Night Football—the "Welcome to Duval, prepare to be hit" speech—was big talk from a team that had been building itself up from scraps.
The Jaguars defense backed him up that night, clamping down on the Steelers' offense to come away with a 9-0 win that I'd love to have on tape, to watch again and again. Gritty stuff, four years in the making.
Before being run out of town as the scapegoat for Jacksonville's post-2000 crash, Tom Coughlin spent his '01 and '02 first-rounders on DTs John Henderson and Marcus Stroud—leaving his successor two huge cogs in the middle of a big, bad defense under construction.
Jack Del Rio came to town hailed as the opposite of the hard-nosed Coughlin: a players' coach, himself a former All-Pro linebacker, who emphasized attitude more than efficiency.
Three yards and a cloud of dust. The team embraced his vision, particularly the defense; in his first five years, Jacksonville was consistently ranked in or near the league's top ten in yards allowed.
They didn't find much playoff success against more-balanced teams, but the Jaguars were the roughest team in the league—a good contrast in the same division as the sophisticated Colts, and a reputation we took pride in as fans.
The Jaguars spent their first round picks from 2003-06 on a quarterback, two receivers, and a pass-catching tight end, but later picks from those drafts ended up carrying a team that ranked second in rushing yards (and 17th in passing) in 2007.
Alongside center Brad Meester and guard Maurice Williams, holdovers from the Coughlin era, Jacksonville added Vince Manuwai (third round, 2003), tackle Tony Pashos (free agency from Baltimore), and fullback Greg Jones (second round, 2004) to clear the way for Fred Taylor, whose mid-career injuries had the one benefit of keeping miles off his tires.
First-round receivers Reggie Williams (2004) and Matt Jones (2005) ended up throwing blocks more often than catching balls--mostly because that was how they ended up being useful.
Between Taylor and Maurice Jones-Drew (second round, 2006), the Jaguars had a two-headed monster backfield to compete with any team in the NFL.
Jacksonville was developing a physical offense, but the once-physical defense was fading.
All 32 NFL teams passed on Maurice Jones-Drew in the 2006 draft, including the Jaguars. (Hence his number, as the story goes.)
Jacksonville chose to take his college teammate at UCLA, tight end Marcedes Lewis, in the first round.
He was almost—gag me—a Colt. Indianapolis was weighing Jones-Drew against LSU's Joseph Addai in the first round, and decided to go with Addai.
Without Jones-Drew--also known as MJD, Mo-Jo (among those unfortunate few of you who enjoy pet-naming grown men), Pocket Hercules, and The Human Bowling Ball--the Jaguars might be up the creek without a paddle.
They'd have no national superstar. David Garrard dresses well for press conferences, Fred Taylor was a respected--if not revered--veteran, and John Henderson got famously slapped across the face before a game.
But none of those guys commands the kind of attention that Jones-Drew has by virtue of his fantasy football fame. Fans across the country will follow the Jaguars, mostly because MJD's a likely first-round fantasy pick this season.
They'd have no running back for their running game. I'll never forget how Taylor burnt the Dolphins on that 90-yard run in the '99 playoffs, but this past season revealed just how dependent he's become on having a clear lane to run through.
Without Vince Manuwai and Mo Williams, Jones-Drew was able to tough out some yards, but Taylor couldn't slash like he had in '07.
Most importantly, they'd have no clear-cut franchise player. When the black-hooded mystery player came out to model Jacksonville's new uniforms at their unveiling in April, we saw his stature and knew who it was.
Even under a helmet, Jones-Drew is distinctive: he's noticeably shorter than most of the league, as muscled up as anyone, and runs like a heat-seeking missile, straight into—and over—defenders.
Pocket Hercules is the face and soul of the new Jaguars: athletic, physical, and polished in front of the cameras.
They're looking to combine the Del Rio "beat 'em up" bully mentality with a rededication to the 60-minute grind that won early Jaguars teams some games they should've lost.
Investing in linemen, making difficult but necessary roster moves, and avoiding rap songs. I think they're on the right track.