Originally created 01/08/97

NFL knows Jaguars now



JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - The Jacksonville Jaguars had only one player voted to the Pro Bowl - and he is going as a backup. The middle linebacker was tending bar in Chicago two years ago. No one wanted their top receiver.

No wonder so few people have a hard time believing the Jaguars are one game away from the Super Bowl.

"It's obvious that teams are maybe wondering, `Who are these guys?' But I don't think they can do that any more," quarterback Mark Brunell said.

If the Jaguars were lucky to get into the playoffs - consider that Atlanta kicker Morten Andersen had not missed a 30-yard field goal since 1989 until he did on the final play of the final game in regulation with Jacksonville holding a 19-17 lead over the Falcons - they are starting to look like they belong in Sunday's AFC Championship game against New England.

The Buffalo Bills had never lost a playoff game at Rich Stadium before the Jaguars came back from a 27-20 deficit in the fourth quarter to win 30-27. The Denver Broncos had the best record in the AFC and the fourth-ranked defense in the league, but couldn't stop the Jaguars on five straight possessions.

"I played with a lot of guys in New York who played a long time without even sniffing a championship game," said defensive end Jeff Lageman. "So you've got to take advantage of it.

"We earned the right to be here. We beat two good football teams on the road. If that's not earning the right to be here, I don't know what is."

When the Jaguars returned home late Saturday night, the 5,000 fans who had come to Jacksonville Municipal Stadium to watch the 30-27 victory over the Broncos had turned into a welcoming party of close to 40,000.

It was the wildest celebration coach Tom Coughlin had seen since fans rocked his car at Boston College after its upset of Notre Dame in 1993. And to think that only 57,000 showed up to see a real game one month ago when the playoffs seemed unfathomable.

"It's pretty incredible, from where we were in the middle of the season," Brunell said.

The Jaguars were 3-6 going into their open date, and Brunell was largely known as the quarterback of an expansion team who wore the same jersey number as Steve Young and scrambled like him, too.

He wasn't the only unknown. Just three years ago, Keenan McCardell was cut by the Cleveland Browns, signed to the Chicago Bears' practice squad and then picked up again by the Browns. He was leading the AFC in receptions at one point this year and will be going to the Pro Bowl.

And he's not even the Jaguars' most productive receiver. That distinction goes to Jimmy Smith, who couldn't even find work in the NFL until the expansion Jaguars signed him prior to their inaugural season.

Carolina, the other expansion team, built its defense around veteran stars like Sam Mills, Lamar Lathon and Kevin Greene. The Jaguars have three rookies who figure prominently on defense - outside linebacker Kevin Hardy, defensive end Tony Brackens and cornerback Aaron Beasley.

And then there's middle linebacker Tom McManus, who played for coach Tom Coughlin at Boston College but couldn't even make a practice squad for two years and was tending bar before he talked his old coach into giving him a chance.

Coughlin gave him a game ball after he knocked down two passes and had five tackles in the win over Denver.

"All he does his play," Coughlin said. "He works hard and he's real smart. He's certainly not foreign to contact."

And if it wasn't no-names on the Jaguars, it was the where-have-you-beens?

Natrone Means, who led the San Diego Chargers to the Super Bowl two years ago, couldn't even crack the starting lineup until James Stewart injured his toe. With three straight 100-yard games, he has given the Jaguars the balance they had been missing all year.

The no-name players like McManus and Smith, forgotten stars like Means and rising stars like Brunell and Tony Boselli, rookies like Clyde Simmons and veterans like John Jurkovic, make the amazing playoff run even more special to Coughlin.

"To go through this with a new team, an expansion team or whatever you want to call it, and to have the success that they've had ... some of these guys have not been bona fide starters," Coughlin said. "It's a great experience."