As the Jacksonville Jaguars lined up to kick off to the Carolina Panthers last Saturday at the Hall of Fame game in Canton, Ohio, Jaguar linebacker and captain Jeff Lageman noticed that something was amiss. The Panthers had won the toss and had elected to receive, and following coach Tom Coughlin's orders, Lageman had chosen to have Jacksonville defend the west goal. But there was Jacksonville kicker Scott Sisson lining up to kick from the east side of the field.
"Wait a minute!" Lageman yelled at an official, sprinting onto the field seconds before the kickoff. He informed the zebra that someone had screwed up and that the teams should change ends, which they did. Said Lageman later, "That's not something Coughlin would have tolerated—a mistake on the coin flip."
Coughlin's fanatical attention to detail was a topic of discussion at this year's Hall of Fame game, which ushered in not only the NFL's season-before-the-season but also its two newest teams. In the weeks leading up to this meeting, the curiosity that surrounds the birth of any expansion team had focused largely on Coughlin's camp in Stevens Point, Wis., where players were said to be chafing under the coach's capricious rules and collegiate-style intensity. By comparison the Panthers had had a harmonious camp in Spartanburg, S.C., working quietly under coach Dom Capers.
But by last Saturday morning the game itself was consuming the attention of football fans from Roanoke, Va., south to Palatka, Fla. Every motel in and around Canton seemed to have a television truck from Florida or the Carolinas in the parking lot, poised to beam live the first NFL game between brand-new teams in 19 years. "Back in Jacksonville this is like the Super Bowl," Jaguar owner Wayne Weaver said over breakfast on Saturday morning.
As it turned out, the new kids on the block put on a pretty good show as Carolina won 20-14, stopping the Jaguars with a last-minute goal line stand. And the two teams demonstrated that expansion ball 1995-style won't descend to the level of ineptitude that attended the debuts of the Seattle Seahawks and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 1976. Because the Panthers and the Jaguars were able to plunge into the free-agent pool this off-season along with the other 28 teams, they are not like previous NFL beginners, and they showed it in Canton. Carolina's starting units, including punter and kicker, featured 12 veterans who had been bought on the open NFL market, an option unavailable to previous expansion teams. The Jaguars could well start an all-free-agent defensive line, and they have a quarterback, Mark Brunell, a backup for the Green Bay Packers for the past two years, who should take his place just below the New England Patriots' Drew Bledsoe this year or next. Seattle and Tampa Bay were a combined 2-26 in 1976; Jacksonville and Carolina should quadruple that win total this fall.
Beyond the close score on Saturday, which gave Carolina bragging rights at least until the season begins, the game offered some intriguing developments:
?The apparent rebirth of Desmond Howard. A three-year bust with the Washington Redskins after winning the Heisman Trophy at Michigan, Howard was chosen in the expansion draft by Jacksonville. In his new uniform Howard zigged, then zagged, then sprinted 66 yards for the first touchdown in Jaguar history. He also kept an early drive going with a diving 21-yard catch of a Steve Beuerlein pass. The Redskins had criticized Howard for his lukewarm dedication to football, but he won the Jaguars' conditioning run in training camp. "That told me he was pretty serious about the game," Coughlin says.
In his own defense Howard says, "I had three coaches and six quarterbacks in three years at Washington. I never had a consistent chance to play and prove myself."
? Carolina's impressive rookies. Jacksonville won't have its top pick, offensive tackle Tony Boselli, for at least another month; he underwent arthroscopic surgery on his left knee on July 21. But the Panthers' rookie left tackle, Blake Brockermeyer, passed his first test. Brockermeyer held Lageman to zero tackles and zero sacks on 33 first-half plays. Two other Carolina draft picks, projected starting cornerback Tyrone Poole and quarterback Kerry Collins, performed nicely too, with Poole scoring on an 85-yard interception return in the second quarter and Collins completing 5 of 9 passes for 53 yards and no interceptions.
?A looming quarterback controversy in Jacksonville. Beuerlein, the projected Jaguar starter and the team's first pick in the expansion draft, had better numbers than Brunell, who was acquired from the Packers in a trade during the off-season. But Brunell looked sharper. He has a better fastball, pure and simple. Beuerlein slightly under-threw a 48-yard completion to Jimmy Smith, which would have been a touchdown if Smith hadn't had to wait for the ball, and he telegraphed a pass at the goal line, which led to a Tim McKyer interception. Even if Beuerlein—with six years in the league to Brunell's two—wins the starting job, Coughlin will be tempted to bench him for Brunell early in the season.