JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- James Stewart slung a teal trash bag full of clothes over his shoulder as he exited the Jacksonville Jaguars' complex Monday, maybe for the final time.
As a cold rain pelted him in the parking lot, the fifth-year veteran, who officially became an unrestricted free agent when Jacksonville's season ended, summed up what will go down as a disappointing season for the Jaguars (15-3).
"Our ultimate goal was to go to the Super Bowl and win the Super Bowl," he said. "Yes, we won a lot of games. But when it comes down to it, to not get to the Super Bowl and win it, it slights the whole year."
Indeed, the 15 victories, the AFC Central title and the best regular-season record in the league were little more than consolation prizes for a franchise that expected more this season. Making things worse was that not a single regular-season victory came against a team with a winning record.
The season-ending 33-14 loss to Tennessee was still fresh in their minds as they cleared their lockers.
"I cried all last night," receiver Jimmy Smith said. "I'm sure I'm not the only one who cried. This was devastating. The only thing that will heal this is time."
After coming up one game short of their ultimate destination, the Jaguars were left with this sobering thought: by improving their defense and winning home-field advantage through the playoffs, they accomplished two primary goals, but even that wasn't good enough to make the Super Bowl.
"We got two out of three, but we didn't get the third and that's what we were after," coach Tom Coughlin said. "So what are you going to do? Are you going to lay down? Are you not going to compete to get it? That's what it's all about is chasing that goal. You're never going to be satisfied until you get it, at least that's what the attitude is going to be around here."
When training camp rolls around come July, it seems likely the Jaguars will be without defensive lineman Tony Brackens.
The fourth-year player finished the season with a team-leading 12.5 sacks, but may have been too inconsistent for Coughlin's taste. It will be interesting to see if the Jaguars will offer the $7 million-per-year Brackens could fetch in the free-agent market.
Stewart also is likely to leave. In five years, he stands as Jacksonville's career leading rusher. Playing in place of the injured Fred Taylor, he led the team this season with 931 yards to help the Jaguars lead the league in rushing.
"I'm going to take some time off, just think about everything that's going to be upcoming," Stewart said "I'll try to be levelheaded about everything that's going to be thrown at me."
Stewart could get up to $3.5 million for next season, a figure the Jaguars probably can't afford for a backup running back.
Senior vice president Michael Huyghue says the team probably will have to restructure the contracts of every player with cap figures over $1.5 million.
That includes players such as Mark Brunell, Smith, Keenan McCardell and Fred Taylor, who represent the core of an offense still young enough to compete for Super Bowls, but not yet seasoned enough to get there.
Defense will continue to be an issue. In three losses to Tennessee this season, Coughlin saw a lack of physical play that raised red flags and helped contribute to Jacksonville's downfall.
"Obviously, you need a player or two defensively," Coughlin said. "We're not as good as we should be. We've got to go find some formula to be better. The guys we count on all the time to make the plays, they have to make plays in big games."
Before Coughlin goes about analyzing his roster, he has one other task he'd rather avoid. As loser of the AFC title game, he has to prepare to coach the AFC in the Pro Bowl.
A league-high seven Jaguars were voted to the team, a telling sign of the abundance of talent Coughlin has amassed.
But the coach knows that talent is no longer enough. The Jaguars can't be considered a legitimate success story until they win a Super Bowl.
"If you don't get the one goal you want, you are disappointed and you are upset," he said. "This is not a great day for me. I'm not going to say it is. But it will get better."
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