Training Camp is about to start and excitement around the Jacksonville Jaguars is obvious. Players are excited about the direction of the team under new owner Shahid Khan and new Head Coach Mike Mularkey. Ticket sales are outpacing last year's totals and there is a feeling of hopefulness among the fans.
I don't want to ruin all the fun, but I have a spoiler for you: Some bad things are going to happen with the team.
Bad things happen every year. As training camp opens with ninety players on the Jaguars roster, it's silly to think that everything will be perfect for Jaguars fans. Somebody is going to be injured, possibly sending them out for the year. Some players we hoped would develop are just not going to show the progress we wanted to see. Some older players we love may get sent packing.
Often when fans are handed lemons their first impulse is to bail on their hopes for the season instead of making lemonade. However, the thing to remember is that these bumps in the road do not necessarily mean the year is going down the tubes. Sometimes disappointments really do have a silver lining. It's hard to see when they happen, but sometimes events that we think are bad luck turn out to be opportunities for good fortune to develop. Don't believe it? Let's go back and look at the Jaguars in their "Glory Years" of 1996 - 1999 and see that the magic that seemed to develop came out of some tough circumstances.
1. The Carolina Panthers were awarded first pick in the 1995 draft instead of the Jaguars.
This might not seem like a big deal. The Panthers clearly had their sights set on drafting Kerry Collins and the Jaguars had targeted Tony Boselli. In fact, the Panthers traded the first overall pick to Cincinnati, who drafted RB Ki-Jana Carter, and moved down to the fifth overall pick to grab Collins. Chances are that if the two expansion teams had swapped positions their first round picks would have been the same. However, the order for the rest of the draft was set from here, alternating back-and-forth at the top of each round from the Panthers to the Jaguars. This gave the Jaguars the first pick in the fourth round. Why is that important? The Jaguars selected QB Rob Johnson with that pick, a player that many believed to be the top player available on the second day of the draft. He most certainly would not have made it past that first spot in the fourth. If the Panthers didn't pick him they would have traded the pick. Johnson only started one game for the Jaguars, so why is it such a big deal? We'll talk more about that later.
2. Jaguars miss out on several free agents in 1996.
Tom Coughlin and the jaguars tried to make a huge splash in free agency after their inaugural season. Being a young team without large veteran contracts, the Jaguars had a lot of cap space available, about $11 million which was a lot back then, and they tried to use it to target the top free agents of the summer.
- Alonzo Spellman - Spellman was a defensive end from the Chicago Bears. He was the first free agent to sign a contract with any team in the 1996 free agency period. The Jaguars signed him to a 4-year, $12 million offer sheet. Being a transition free agent, the Bears had a week to match the offer. The Bears decided to match the offer and the Jaguars missed out. What did they miss out on? He only played 2 years of that contract with the Bears and missed 9 games in 1997. He had a well publicized breakdown in a doctor's office where he pulled a telephone off the wall and threatened suicide because of his frustration that his doctor was late to the appointment. Reportedly he was under the influence of alcohol and had possession of a firearm during this incident. He refused to take medication for his bipolar disorder, refused to get treatment for an injured shoulder, and had a problem with illegal drugs, so the Bears released him.
- Quentin Coryatt - Coryatt was a transition free agent linebacker from the Indianapolis Colts. Coryatt had been the second overall pick in the 1992 NFL draft. He had not lived up to the expectations of a high pick but Coughlin was hoping that he would continue to develop and be the blitzing linebacker the Jaguars needed. Signed to another multi-million dollar offer sheet, the Colts had one week to decide if they wanted to keep him or let him go to the Jaguars. In the end, the Jaguars missed out. What did they miss out on? Coryatt played for the Colts 2 more years. He missed 9 games during that time and only registered 2 sacks. He spent the entire 1998 season on injured reserve and then was let go by the Colts.
- Aeneas Williams - The Jaguars negotiated with the Arizona Cardinals cornerback and were offering over $3 million a year. They lost out to the Cardinals in this bidding war. What did they miss out on? They missed out on a really good player. Williams made the Pro Bowl the next 4 years and made it 2 more times after that in his career.
- Todd Lyght - Lyght was another transition free agent that the jaguars signed to an offer sheet. As with the others, the Rams matched the offer and retained Lyght. The Jaguars missed out again.
The Jaguars did actually sign several free agents that year. On the second day of free agency, Leon Searcy signed a 5-year $17 million contract with the team, obviously a good signing. But what if the other contracts they missed on actually went through? Would the team have been able to sign Eddie Robinson and WR Keenan McCardell with so much money already committed to other free agents? Would they have been able to claim Natrone Means and his contract off waivers like they did? These players made significant contributions to their 1996 playoff run. How much different would a team with Spellman, Coryatt, and Lyght have been?
3. Mark Brunell is injured in the 1997 preseason.
This play made me sick. Giants LB Jesse Armistead came in and hit Brunell low, tearing his ACL. Brunell was out and my hopes for the season were gone. In steps Rob Johnson for week 1. He turned in a fantastic performance completing 20 of 24 pass attempts, throwing for 294 yards and 2 TDs leading the Jaguars to a 28 - 27 win against the Ravens. He was injured during this game so Steve Matthews started week 2 and Brunell made a dramatic return in week 3. Brunell led the Jaguars to the playoffs for the second straight season. If Brunell had not been injured he would have probably retained his running ability and elusiveness that he had in the magical 1996 season. However, some say he became a better passer because of his diminished running ability. It is also probable that without this injury Rob Johnson would not have started in 1997 and the Jaguars would not have received a first round pick from the Bills for his services. That pick from the Bills was used to draft Fred Taylor.
4. James Stewart sustains a season-ending injury.
I was watching this game from the North end zone and clearly saw James Sterwart's knee turn in a horrible way under the tackle of Ravens linebacker Peter Boulware. The drunken fan beside me, not paying attention to the game but reacting to the noise of the crowd, initially cheered in response to the collective groan that went up on this play. I wanted to punch that idiot, I was so upset. As Stewart was carted off the field I knew the running game was in the hands of rookie Fred Taylor who had shown next to nothing in the preseason. I was not a fan. A few seconds later when Taylor was running 52 yards for a touchdown, I had changed my mind about him. Taylor finished the season with 1223 yards rushing, 421 yards receiving, and 17 TDs.
So as training camp begins, I'm going to try to watch what develops with an open mind. Maybe when things seem bad, something good is about to develop. Maybe some of the things that happened in a disappointing year in 2011 are setting up some really good things going forward. You never can tell until it happens. Maybe this year instead of griping and worrying I'll be able to sit back and wait for the magic...but probably not.