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Marcus Stroud hangs his head and squints from behind his crown of drooping dreadlocks. It doesn't matter that his Jacksonville Jaguars have just upset the AFC South rival Tennessee Titans 15-12 in Nashville, or that Stroud, the Jaguars' 6'6", 312pound defensive tackle, had what's become a typical Sunday for him: dominating double teams and collapsing pockets while making seven tackles and a sack. He knows better than to get too comfortable. So amid the raucous locker room celebration, when middle linebacker Mike Peterson, in a good-natured jab, loudly proclaims that Stroud is a borderline narcoleptic, the razzing spreads like wildfire. For the first time all day, Stroud is defenseless.
"This is only going to mean trouble for me," he says, to the delight of linemate and good friend John Henderson, standing nearby. "Big John here thinks it's funny, but I can't believe they'd do me like that. I have a sleeping disorder? That's untrue. Hell, Big John falls asleep in meetings too, but he just doesn't get caught."
"You lie!" says a laughing Henderson. "It's you who sleeps in meetings--"
"Not that often, dawg!" Stroud shoots back. "Look, there's a difference between liking one's sleep--which I do--and having a sleeping problem.
"Let's just say," he adds, barely audible above all the laughing, "I'm not much of a 'meeting' person."
Are you looking for this season's Carolina Panthers, perhaps, or just a bandwagon to hop on? Then join the craziness in Jacksonville, where a grim locker room after another mediocre game is a thing of the past, replaced by a dominant defense, an opportunistic offense and a fun-loving atmosphere that have produced three consecutive nail-biting wins. The Jaguars are in first place in the AFC South with a visit from the 2-1 Indianapolis Colts looming this Sunday.
The similarities between this Jacksonville team and last season's heart-stopping NFC-champion Panthers aren't coincidental. The Jags reached the AFC title game in 1996 and '99, but a series of poor drafts and costly free-agent mistakes along with coach Tom Coughlin's grating management style combined to create lousy teams and a disgruntled fan base. Coughlin, the only coach the franchise had known, was fired in December 2002. Eyebrows shot up when owner Wayne Weaver tapped Jack Del Rio, Carolina's defensive coordinator and a former NFL linebacker who had never been a head coach on any level, to make over the team.
The Jaguars started last season 1-7 and seemed destined to be defined by Del Rio's decision to place an ax and a tree stump in the center of the locker room to symbolize his blue-collar philosophy. When Pro Bowl punter Chris Hanson nearly cut off his right foot with one swing of the ax, Del Rio became the butt of jokes around the league. But he maintained his focus on building the defense around Stroud and Henderson and bringing along rookie quarterback Byron Leftwich, who replaced injured mainstay Mark Brunell in Week 4. Leftwich threw for 2,819 yards, the fourth-best rookie total in NFL history, and guided the team to a 4-4 finish. Defensively, the new coach scrapped Coughlin's read-and-react scheme with a release-the-hounds attack; Jacksonville finished second in the NFL against the run and allowed a league-low 3.2 yards per carry.
The improvement on both sides of the ball was so substantial that in the off-season Jacksonville became a trendy dark-horse Super Bowl pick--hype that Del Rio dismisses. "We haven't had a winning season since 1999, so let's just start there," he says. "But I'm excited by how much we've grown, and about where we're headed."
After going winless on the road in 2003, the Jaguars looked right at home in Nashville, as they had in the season-opening 13--10 win in Buffalo. Though the Titans' Chris Brown ran for 101 yards--the first player with 100 yards rushing against Jacksonville in its last 18 games--the Jags' defense never let quarterback Steve McNair (16 for 26, 143 yards, one interception) find his rhythm, ultimately knocking him from the game with a bruised sternum.