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From Jags to riches

Looking for a surprise Super Bowl team? Jacksonville could fit the bill

Posted: Thursday July 22, 2004 12:04PM; Updated: Thursday July 22, 2004 2:13PM
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Wednesday we tackled five questions from around the NFL as teams prepare to open camp. Today we answer five more.

1. Which 2003 non-winner will be this year's out-of-nowhere Super Bowl participant?

Byron Leftwich
Byron Leftwich threw 14 TD passes and 16 INTs last season.
Eliot J. Schechter/Getty Images

Trying to predict the unpredictable is a silly and senseless exercise, but there's now enough data to suggest that this trend has had some staying power. Nowhere is the NFL's current state of parity quite highlighted as it is by the past 10 Super Bowls, seven of which have featured a team that didn't have a winning record or make the playoffs the year before it's Super run.

All told, nine of the past 20 Super Bowl qualifiers (or 45 percent) made the big game the year after going 8-8 or worse, missing the postseason in the process. Twice in that span, the game featured a pair of teams in that position: In the 1999 season, when both St. Louis and Tennessee made it, and the following year, when Baltimore and the Giants qualified. The other five recent Super Bowl teams that turned that trick were the 1994 Chargers, 1996 and 2001 Patriots, 1998 Falcons and 2003 Panthers.

Who will be this year's Cinderella? Let's put our dollar on Jacksonville, which went 5-11 under first-year head coach Jack Del Rio in 2003. The Jaguars finished strong, winning three of their last five games, with a defense that was clearly on the rise. In the season's final seven games, Del Rio's D surrendered just 100 points, or 14.3 per week.

Second-year quarterback Byron Leftwich would have to grow up in a hurry to make the Jags the first team to ever play a Super Bowl on its home field. But, c'mon, Leftwich is not a longer shot to make the big game than Kurt Warner was in 1999, Tom Brady was in 2001 or Jake Delhomme was last year.

2. Who's going to win that (wink, wink) quarterback competition in Miami?

To the casual observer, the battle between incumbent Jay Fiedler and the newly acquired A.J. Feeley appears to be a legitimate may-the-best-man-win jump ball. But unless Feeley, the former Eagles third-stringer, comes in and looks like a fish out of water, he's the guy to look for under center when Tennessee comes to town for the Sept. 12 season opener.

Let's face facts: Head coach Dave Wannstedt and general manager Rick Spielman would not have authorized trading a conditional second-round pick for Feeley if they didn't have faith that he was an upgrade over the maddeningly streaky Fiedler. Watch and see if Feeley doesn't get the better opportunities this preseason, playing behind the No. 1 offensive line and taking the reps that matter most.

No one's going to call it a set-up job, of course, because the Dolphins may need Fiedler at some point and don't want him going into the tank. But rest assured that Miami's braintrust believes it knows just how far Fiedler can take this team -- a good, but never great season. That's why it's Feeley's turn, Feeley's time, and Feeley's team -- no matter what the depth chart says right now.

3. Is the situation in Cleveland as chaotic as it appears?

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For his sake, Butch Davis better hope not. Never before in NFL history has a head coach coming off a 5-11 season been able to consolidate power quite like Davis has. In a string of stunning departures, the Browns this year have bid farewell to team president Carmen Policy, personnel consultant Ron Wolf, V.P. of business Kofi Bonner, lead negotiator Lal Heneghan, and this week fired their top public relations official, the capable Todd Stewart. Little wonder the shell-shocked folks remaining in the organization are thrilled to see this offseason end.

Of course, if the Browns turn it around and win some games in 2004, none of those front-office moves will matter to Cleveland fans. You just wonder if Davis has been careful for what he wished for. With all the added authority comes added accountability. Sitting 21-27 entering his fourth season with the Browns, the autocratic head coach has no one left to share the blame with if things again turn sour. Team owner Randy Lerner has handed Davis everything he has asked for, including just enough rope to hang himself.

Seemingly uninterested in winning popularity contests, Davis doesn't have a deep reservoir of goodwill to draw from, in either the community or his own locker room, meaning that his Browns better start producing if he wants to avoid serious heat. A good place to begin would be the regular-season opener against visiting Baltimore. If the Browns drop that one to their hated rivals, with a tough schedule to follow, things could quickly snowball against the guy who now runs the whole show.  

4. Are the talent-laden Saints finally poised to live up to all that potential?

Since going 10-6 and securing the franchise's first playoff victory in his rookie season of 2000, New Orleans head coach Jim Haslett and his underachieving bunch has treaded water to a perfectly mediocre 24-24 record (7-9 in 2001, 9-7 in 2002, 8-8 in 2003), missing the postseason each year. In that span, the Saints have proven they can beat anyone, anywhere, and also lose to anyone at any time.

Haslett tried to address his perplexing team's schizophrenic nature this offseason, cracking the whip with a few time-tested coaching decrees. Banned from the locker room this year will be all card games and video games, and the flat-screen TVs in the team cafeteria will feature only game video of the Saints' upcoming opponent, not an endless cycle of SportsCenter highlights.

Haslett also has been more willing to call out players who are not getting with his program (for example, he sent cornerback Keyuo Craver home from a June minicamp for being overweight) and openly admits he cares less than ever about whether his players like him. Training camp should be pivotal in regards to the tone Haslett is attempting to set.

Time will tell if his moves turn out to be desperate ploys or legitimate methods of motivating some of his younger players to approach their jobs more professionally. But what is clear is that the Saints can't take that quantum leap forward to Super Bowl contender in the evenly stacked NFC South unless third-year cornerstones such as defensive end Charles Grant and receiver Donte' Stallworth keep maturing and stepping up their production. And it wouldn't hurt if quarterback Aaron Brooks climbs off the roller-coaster ride that his Saints tenure has been and makes his fourth full season as a starter his finest.

5. As camp opens, is it Rich Gannon or Kerry Collins' job in Oakland?

As camp opens, and we stress those three words, new Raiders head coach Norv Turner is all but convinced that the 38-year-old Gannon will be his starting quarterback, with the ex-Giant Collins providing a wealth of experience at backup. But a lot could still unfold between now and the season opener.

Like what? Well, for one, maybe Gannon's surgically repaired throwing shoulder won't be able to handle the load of being the No. 1 quarterback this preseason. For another, maybe the Raiders will get some tempting offer from a quarterback-needy team in August and be convinced that carrying Gannon and Collins is a luxury they can't afford. Lastly, Collins could always just settle the QB question by clearly outperforming Gannon in the preseason, making Turner's decision a no-brainer.

But until any of that transpires, don't discount the guy who led the Raiders into the Super Bowl just 18 months ago. Gannon plays with a chip on his shoulder and has been marginalized many times in his 17-year NFL career. The guy revels in proving the skeptics wrong, and he's convinced he has another last laugh coming. Until further notice, Gannon remains the man in Oakland.

Don Banks covers pro football for SI.com.

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