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SALARY CAP PIT JUST WAITING FOR JAGUARS TO FALL IN

Thursday night's loss to the Buffalo Bills was a huge disappointment for the Jacksonville Jaguars way beyond the fact it dropped them to 2-3.

The Bills are a team building for the future. The Jaguars are a team constructed to win this year.

But after three straight losses, it's looking like the Jaguars tried to hang onto their success of recent years one season too long.

Now the Jaguars are in a salary cap mess that will be bigger than that of San Francisco a few years ago and bigger than that of the Bills this year.

Jacksonville found itself an NFL-record $37 million over the salary cap when the 2000 season ended. But it got under the cap largely by restructuring the deals of 18 players. A total of 16 players were released, but only two were starters and only one of them was considered a key guy -- tackle Leon Searcy.

So basically the Jaguars put off their cap problem by pushing bonus money into the future. The contract of quarterback Mark Brunell was restructured twice, in fact.

The Jaguars' depth was sorely depleted in the process, but coach Tom Coughlin hoped he had enough stars among his starters to make another serious playoff run. Sure, they were only 7-9 last year, but injuries were to blame, according to conventional wisdom in Jacksonville.

It's more evident now that the Jaguars' window of Super Bowl opportunity lasted four years, from '96 to '99. Now they don't have the offensive line or the defense to seriously contend.

The Jaguars are about $23 million over the cap for next year, and that's with only 28 players under contract. (The top 51 will count against the cap). They will get under by cutting veterans, such as linebacker Kevin Hardy, who has a $10 million cap figure. But they are going to have a ton of dead money devoted to the cap next year, and it's going to take them a good two years to solve the situation, if not longer (since Coughlin's drafts have not been great successes).

The Bills, of course, bit the bullet on the cap this year, and still will be restricted in terms of chasing free agents next year. But then they will have a clean cap slate. (The Bills are about $11 million under next year's cap, by News estimates. But that's a misleading figure, since they will want to re-sign a bunch of their unrestricted and restricted free agents, and a number of other players' cap figures -- like Rob Johnson's -- are subject to major changes.)

The Jacksonville front office won't admit it, but the reason the Jaguars were hesitant to start rebuilding this year was they were worried about their fan base. They have doubts about whether the Jacksonville fans have patience with a rebuilding franchise.

The Jaguars have fallen 16,000 short of selling out their last two games. And one of those came when they were 2-0 and on the heels of a win over Tennessee. That's despite the fact the team hasn't had a real bad year since its inaugural expansion season of 1995.

He doesn't do windows

A tight end who is both a great blocker and a great receiver might be one of the hardest packages to find in all of sports.

Baltimore's Shannon Sharpe, who broke Ozzie Newsome's career record for receiving yards by a tight end this season, is not shy at all about his disdain for blocking.

"All the tight ends that have 500 catches -- me, Kellen (Winslow), Ozzie -- we didn't do any blocking," Sharpe said this week.

"You don't get credit for blocking. They consider you an offensive lineman if you block. They don't throw you any passes if you block. You don't make any money if you block. You don't set any records if you block. They call you a servant if you block -- you make minimum, plus tips.

"No thank you. I'd rather own my restaurant."

Given that Sharpe is a sure-fire Hall-of-Famer, you wish he'd have an attitude more consistent with the tough spirit of the game.

The Bills' Larry Centers, the career receptions leader among running backs, would never make a statement like that. Centers never has been a Sam Gash-caliber blocker, but he always has been willing and gives everything he's got.

Ode to Raymond Berry

Sharpe this month moved into the Top 20 all-time receiving list, bumping out the Baltimore Colts' Raymond Berry.

But it's a testament to Berry's greatness that he lasted so long in the Top 20.

In an era when the NFL played games on the ground instead of the air, Berry still caught 631 passes. He retired in 1968 as the game's all-time leading receiver -- and it still has taken NFL passing offenses 34 years to finally push him to 21st.

In the Colts' '59 championship season, Johnny Unitas only threw 367 passes. The league average last year was 526 attempts per team.

Thank you, Dan

Brett Favre perfectly executed the way to beat the Ravens' defense last week by spreading the Ravens out, throwing on first downs and running draw plays on third downs. Ex-Bills coordinator Dan Henning deserves some credit for first laying out that plan of attack against the Ravens. Henning did it for the Jets in December, and Vinny Testaverde threw for 481 yards. Testaverde also threw three interceptions, and the Jets lost via some bad special teams. But the blueprint was drawn. Of course, it takes a great quarterback to make the tough throws to the outside against Ravens corners Chris McAlister and Duane Starks. The Ravens' third corner is 34-year-old Carnell Lake. Also, Favre was in the shotgun 38 snaps and under center only 26.

Onside kicks

Favre has a 62-11 record as a starter in home games. . . . Kurt Warner has never lost a regular-season start in St. Louis. Warner is 15-0 in the Dome at America's Center, dating to the start of the 1999 season. Since 1980, the only quarterback to start his career with more victories than Warner was the Cowboys' Danny White, who won his first 16 starts in Texas Stadium. . . . The Rams are the third team in history to start 5-0 in three consecutive seasons. . . . Vinny Testaverde led the NFL with 25 INTs last year. In five games in the Jets new West Coast offense, he has not thrown an INT. . . . The sprained shoulder of Redskins' Bruce Smith probably will keep him out until next Sunday's game against the Giants. . . . John Randle has been dominating at age 33 for the Seahawks. He has 4 1/2 sacks in five games, and the Seahawks rank sixth against the run, the first time they've ranked that high at any point of any season since 1994. Free-agent pickups Chad Eaton and Levon Kirkland also have bolstered the run defense. . . . The Miami Hurricanes are a great team to watch for offensive line draft prospects. Left tackle Brian McKinnie is 6-foot-7, 338 pounds and projected as a high first-rounder. The early line on right tackle Joaquin Gonzalez (6-4, 290) is he may be a middle-round pick.

Nice work if you can get it: The Bears released former starting quarterback Shane Matthews last week in order to sign long-snapper Ryan Benjamin for one game. After the game, they released Benjamin and re-signed Matthews. For his two days of practice and eight snaps Sunday against Arizona, Benjamin was paid $11,600, 1/1 8th of the rookie minimum salary of $209,000.

Of the 16 teams with winning records, only four have starting quarterbacks who were drafted in the first round -- Seattle (Trent Dilfer), Cleveland (Tim Couch), the New York Giants (Kerry Collins), and the New York Jets (Vinny Testaverde). . . . Art Modell will not be making the trip with his Ravens to face the Browns today. Modell has not returned for any of the Ravens' trips to Cleveland.

e-mail: mgaughan@buffnews.com

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