Bobby Shaw should not be this happy. Not after signing a one-year, $550,000 contract with the salary-cap-strung Jaguars, who lost 10 starters in the off-season and figure to struggle this year. So why-after turning down a three-year, $2.1 million offer to stay with the AFC Central champion Steelers—is the 27-year-old wideout smiling? "I didn't want to look back on my career and wonder if I could've done more," says Shaw, who caught 92 passes but made only one start in three seasons with Pittsburgh. "Coming here, I knew I'd get a real opportunity to start, and let's face it, who dreams of being a backup? I'd maxed out my upward mobility in Pittsburgh. Yeah, times are tough right now, but I like this challenge. Money and comfort zones aren't everything."
That's music to the ears of Jaguar's coach Tom Coughlin. The team's chief architect since its 1995 inception, Coughlin spent freely to build Jacksonville into the most successful expansion franchise in NFL history (four playoff berths in its first five seasons). But with the team $23 million over the salary cap at the end of last season, Coughlin was forced to rebuild with inexpensive veterans.
"In our situation," says Coughlin, "we need people like Bobby, who're hungry for the chance to play and willing to accept the responsibility of setting an example for our young guys. I never thought we'd have to let so many guys go, but we still can't lower our expectations. We'll struggle at times because we're unpolished. I just have to be more patient."
That's an understatement given the gaping holes in the roster. Among the missing are five-time Pro Bowl tackle Tony Boselli, stalwart receiver Keenan McCardell and steady linebackers Kevin Hardy and Hardy Nickerson (who led the club with 88 tackles last season). What's more, injury-prone tailback Fred Taylor is coming back from a torn groin muscle that caused him to miss all but the first two games last season, and wideout Jimmy Smith—the team's best playmaker after Taylor—missed training camp as a holdout after Jacksonville refused to meet his contract demands. When SI went to press, Taylor seemed to be back to full strength and playing well, and Smith was still a holdout.
Smith's absence, coupled with the poor play of free-agent wideout Darnay Scott, makes Shaw an even more valuable addition to the offense. ( Scott, whom Coughlin criticized for a sluggish effort in camp and demoted to the second team, suffered a sprained right shoulder and has been in and out of practice since.) Signed as a replacement for McCardell (a cap casualty who will start for the Buccaneers), Shaw is fearless and excels in third-down situations. Ever the optimist, he refuses to think about a season without Smith, who last year returned from major abdominal surgery to catch 112 passes for 1,373 yards and eight touchdowns. "I came here not just to play, but to play opposite Jimmy," Shaw says. "I don't even want to consider what it would be like without him."
Nor does quarterback Mark Brunell, who was already disappointed that the Jaguars had lost injury-plagued Boselli, his good friend and protector, in the expansion draft. Brunell was sacked a whopping 57 times last season, and with a newly assembled starting line, it seemingly will be even harder for him to remain upright. "We're young in a lot of places, so we can't think about rebuilding and then go out and try to win," Brunell says. "It's hard, but we have to fight off those thoughts. I've pulled some of the guys aside and told them to ignore all the talk. If they don't, we're in trouble."
On defense Jacksonville is in even more trouble. The best players among the front seven are the ends. Former Redskins end Marco Coleman is another veteran signee being counted on for leadership, but Tony Brackens's status is in question because of his injured left knee. The linebacker corps and the secondary—with the exception of hard-hitting strong safety Donovin Darius—lack the depth and playmaking ability needed to keep games close.
Call this season what you want, as long as you don't use the r word around the Jaguars. Rebuilding, as Shaw points out, "means accepting defeat, and no one here will do that. Trust me. We'll get through this."
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