Share this article

print logo

JAGUARS ARE TEAM TO BEAT -- IF COUGHLIN LETS THEM PLAY

Is Jacksonville ready for the AFC Championship Game? It's the biggest event to hit town since Michael Jackson began his "Thriller Tour" going on 20 years ago. The locals may be a little rusty.

To begin with, they didn't block out the necessary amount of hotel rooms. NFL officials had to scramble to house the visiting Tennessee Titans out on the beach near the famed Tournament Players Course at Sawgrass, at least an hour from Alltel Stadium. The downtown rooms went to a convention of cheerleaders.

An even larger question is whether the Jaguars are ready for the big game, even though it will be played in their own park.

The reason is that the Titans get into their heads. That anything might spook the Jaguars seems strange. After flogging Miami, 62-7, in last week's playoff game, they have won 38 games in the last three seasons.

The one stain on their record is Tennessee. The Titans, whether based in Houston or Tennessee, won four of the five games they played in Jacksonville. The Jags lost just two games this season, both to the Titans.

Considering all the explosion in the Jacksonville offense and the improvement in the defense, why shouldn't the Jaguars put the past losses behind them, relax and focus on getting to Super Bowl XXXIV?

It isn't that easy when you have the most uptight coach-quarterback combination in the NFL. Tom Coughlin, the coach, appears as if he hasn't enjoyed a minute of all his team's victories. Quarterback Mark Brunell isn't a box of giggles either, and if he did take a stab at loosening up Coughlin would probably toss a wet blanket over him.

Coughlin has been Mr. Intensity since his first college head coaching job back in 1970 at Rochester Institute of Technology. The intensity ratcheted up after he spent three seasons as an assistant to Bill Parcells with the Giants.

"The Jaguars locker room is filled with the same sort of signs Parcells put up in his locker rooms," says an NFL official.

Add the unnecessary tensions to the normal tightness of Coughlin and Brunell and it produces some unnecessary problems.

Take the first loss to Tennessee this season back in Week Three. Brunell threw two fourth-quarter interceptions, including one in the end zone with 57 seconds left in a 20-19 game. During the next week, instead of the usual "forget about it; we'll get 'em next time" speech, Coughlin twice summoned Brunell to his office to chastise him about poor decisions he made in that game. Some of Brunell's teammates were stunned at the coach's fixation on a game that was long over.

Coughlin's insensitivity was magnified this season when he became his own offensive coordinator. Not only was he following some tough acts -- Kevin Gilbride and Chris Palmer, now the head coach of the Cleveland Browns -- but Coughlin is a man who has his finger deep into everyone's pie to begin with and didn't have enough hours available to serve as both head coach and designer and play-caller for the offense.

It wore on Brunell's nerves, too. After the first loss to Tennessee he began throwing the ball out of bounds or dumping it short after deciding his first receiver was covered. It detracted from the big-play personality of the offense.

As the season went on, the breach seemed healed. "We had to grow together," says Brunell. "It was all of us learning some new things. It took time."

The repaired relationship also suffered some recidivism when the Jags met the Titans in the Nashville rematch. On Jacksonville's first possession of the game, Brunell was intercepted in the end zone. His team fell apart after that, losing, 41-14.

It says here that Tennessee's luck in the playoffs will run out today, that the Jaguars will win by something like 24-14. But don't discount what the combination of overwrought coach and quarterback may spoil.

There are no comments - be the first to comment