IT IS midmorning at training camp, and the offense is working on post routes. Flashing from the right side, second-year receiver Reggie Williams splits two defenders and snares a looping 40-yard pass from quarterback Byron Leftwich. After high-stepping into the end zone, Williams discards the ball and launches himself at the goal post, clutching the padding like a giant, helmeted koala bear. If Williams is unduly excited about reaching the end zone--later he dances after scoring a second touchdown--it is understandable considering the novelty of the act, for him and his team.
In 2004 the offense-starved Jaguars averaged a franchise-record-low 16.3 points per game and ranked 31st in the NFL in red-zone efficiency. The last time Jacksonville scored as many as 30 points in a game was Dec. 23, 2001, or 50 games ago. Likewise Williams, the ninth pick in the '04 draft, was a disappointment, catching 27 passes with only one touchdown. "I hope he dances about 15 times this year," says Leftwich. "Reggie's confident now because he knows what he's doing and he loves the [new] system."
Williams is not the only one. First-year offensive coordinator Carl Smith, most recently quarterbacks coach at USC, is revamping the offense--he estimates that 85% of the playbook is new--by emphasizing a vertical game. So instead of throwing to receivers on short routes, the big, rangy Leftwich will be making deep play-action passes and going for the home run. "Very seldom are you going to see us on those 13-, 14-play drives we had last year," says Leftwich. "Either we're going to punt, or we're going to score a touchdown."
Whether they do more of the former or the latter will depend in part on the durability of running back Fred Taylor, who is recovering from off-season knee surgery and has to keep defenses honest. Then the success of the season will be determined by Leftwich and his receivers. Inconsistent in '04, his second year in the league, Leftwich reported to camp looking noticeably more fit, having paid closer attention to his diet in the off-season. "I'm trying to get rid of the fat-boy thing," he explains. "I learned this is a 365-day-a-year job." Leftwich even worked out on all of his vacations. "I hit the spa in L.A., in Puerto Rico, in the Dominican Republic, in Cabo," he says. "The only place I didn't jump in the spa was Rio de Janeiro."
The well-tanned Leftwich should have an easier time finding an open target. While 13-year vet Jimmy Smith was as steady as ever last season, grabbing 74 balls for 1,172 yards, defenses could key on him because of the absence of a second deep threat. Williams was drafted to fill that role, but he never got his bearings; he had to study a cheat sheet before games to help him remember plays and averaged fewer than two catches in his 15 starts. Ten pounds lighter and better prepared, Williams has impressed the Jaguars with his breakaway speed and big-play ability. "He's more sudden off the line and more sudden off his breaks," says an approving coach Jack Del Rio.
In case Williams reverts to 2004 form, however, Jacksonville has another option in '05 first-round pick Matt Jones, a towering, blond-tressed freak of nature who, though he measures 6'6" and 242 pounds, is the fastest wide receiver on the team (4.39 in the 40) and certainly the biggest target. Jones played quarterback at Arkansas, but the team is clearly ready to experiment by playing him at a number of other spots: On his second day in camp Jones was returning punts.
All of this has Jimmy Smith, the only remaining member of the Jaguars' 1995 expansion team, feeling optimistic. "We were shackled last year," he says. "That offense--the little five-, 10-yard routes--didn't fit what we could do. I'm a vertical guy. Reggie Williams is a vertical guy. Matt Jones is a little vertical and could be an intermediate guy. It will be hard for teams to keep up with us as far as scoring points."
That may be an overly optimistic forecast, but the Jags don't need to turn into the Colts to win more games, merely Colts Lite. The reason: Jacksonville has something Indianapolis doesn't--a powerful defense, led by Pro Bowl tackles John Henderson and Marcus Stroud, that ranked seventh in the NFL in fewest points allowed (17.5). "Our attitude on offense is to help our defense out," says Jimmy Smith. "I feel like this year we can do that. We're loaded across the board." --C.B.
At 5'7" Chad Owens is one of the shortest players in the league, but he could also turn out to be one of the hardest to cover. A rookie out of Hawaii, Owens is the school's alltime leader in receptions (239) and kickoff-return average (29.4 yards), and he set NCAA single-game records for kickoff-return yards (249) and combined return yards (342). After impressing Jaguars coaches with his speed and explosiveness, Owens is likely to see action as a receiver and a kick returner.