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SI FOR KIDS
1 - Jacksonville Jaguars
Enough with all the expansion-team talk. The linebacking corps is strong, and so, rightfully, are the team's Super Bowl aspirations
Broncos 7-0. Broncos 14-0. Broncos 21-0. Finally, Broncos 42-17.
When all was said and done, when the brutal fate was sealed, mother and son got up, shook off the potato-chip crumbs and left Joan's Jacksonville home. The Jaguars had been obliterated in last December's AFC wild-card playoff game, run over by a Denver offense that rushed for 310 yards and passed for another 201. There was one place Tom, Jacksonville's injured middle linebacker, and his mom needed to go. The nearest barand step on it.
"I wanted to forget that game as quickly as possible," says McManus, who missed all of last season with a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee. "Just the year before, we had played Denver in the playoffs and beaten them. I was in that game. Watching it this time on TV was the most miserable experience of my life. Mom's too."
McManus didn't forget. He clutched the pain of that horrible winter night, and he has refused to let go. So, for that matter, have most of his teammates. "We just got it handed to us," says defensive tackle John Jurkovic. "Sometimes that can make you stronger." The Jaguars are stronger, much stronger. With the return of McManus and a healthy Kevin Hardy, plus the signing of free agent Bryce Paup, Jacksonville has transformed its glaring Achilles' heelconsistent linebacker playinto a strength. The upgrade is a final step in completing the organization's rapid-fire boost from fuzzy little expansion club to feared Super Bowl contender. "If we just make the playoffs again," says tight end Pete Mitchell, "most guys here will be let down. Our aspirations are extremely high."
Everyone knows that coach Tom Coughlin's offense, seventh in the league last season, can blow up scoreboards. Mark Brunell is one of the game's top quarterbacks. Keenan McCardell and Jimmy Smith are a dynamic duo of pass catchers. The line consists of five oxen. If James Stewart does most of the running, he will gain 1,000 yards. If rookie Fred Taylor does most of the running, he will gain 1,000 yards.
The defense, on the other hand....
Coughlin plays a swarming, ball-hawking, blitzing 4-3 that requires linebackers to attack on first instinct. With great athletes there should be mass chaos near the line of scrimmage. As last season wore on, the Jaguars had neither great athletes nor mass chaos. Hardy, the team's defensive cornerstone, sprained the medial collateral ligament in his left knee on Oct. 19 against the Cowboys. He missed the next three games and didn't play well after that. The other starters, Bryan Schwartz and Eddie Robinson, were blah. Jacksonville was adequate against the run but 24th in the NFL in pass defense. Super Bowl teams don't rank 24th against the pass.
Paup didn't see what Hardy saw last season, which was rip after rip in the newspapers. When he was taken out of Illinois with the second pick in the '96 draft, Hardy was hyped as a Lawrence Taylor in teal. In his first season he didn't disappoint; he had 5 1/2 sacks and 130 tackles and was named to the All-Rookie team. Then came the injury and his subpar return. "Watching myself on game tape, I could tell I wasn't myself," Hardy says. "I was dragging my leg. I didn't have that full range of motion. That was a problem."
Now, he says, it is not. Hardy has been switched from the strong side to the weak side, which will allow him more freedom. Paup, playing both linebacker and defensive end, will rush the quarterback nonstop. Schwartz, McManus and Robinson will all play multiple minutes. "In college I always took pride in being part of the country's best linebacking unit," says Hardy. "I'm getting the same feeling here."
Maybe that's overstating things. But McManusand his momwill happily drink to the idea.
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