JUST AFTER the Jaguars released Fred Taylor, their alltime rushing leader, in February, Maurice Jones-Drew's cellphone rang. The voice on the other end was delivering the news of Taylor's release and offering some advice to Jones-Drew about becoming an NFL starter.
The caller was Taylor.
"Fred and I talked for like an hour," says Jones-Drew of his mentor, who's now with the Patriots. "He talked about his career and how he felt that he had to change and do something different when he became a starter. He said, 'In actuality, I should have just done what I was doing and worked harder at it.' Instead of working out one time a day, he said to do that and then do something else to keep your stamina up. So that's what I did."
The whole team might want to heed Taylor's counsel and work harder. A year after going 11--5, eliminating the Steelers in the AFC wild-card round and pressing the Patriots before losing in the divisional playoffs, Jacksonville fell to 5--11 last season, dropping six of its final seven games.
The uncertainties surrounding this team are many. The coach, Jack Del Rio, has only one playoff victory in six seasons. The quarterback, David Garrard, threw 13 interceptions last year after tossing just three in 2007. The new No. 1 receiver, Torry Holt, is 33 and was released by St. Louis in March.
"There's a lot out there about, Do I still have it? I lost this, I lost that," says Holt, who caught 64 passes in 2008, down from 93 in both '06 and '07. "Ten years into it, who hasn't lost something? In terms of being passionate, the work ethic, the training, focus—I still have it. There is [motivation] to just show people that I can still play at a high level."
Garrard can certainly use some help. Among the hodgepodge of receivers he threw to last season, none caught more than three touchdown passes. The Jaguars gutted the unit in the off-season, releasing Matt Jones and Reggie Williams, two former first-round picks who had run afoul of the law, plus unproductive Jerry Porter and Dennis Northcutt. But Garrard, entering his eighth season, acknowledges he has shortcomings of his own. "I'm looking at my game, things that I think could be better—the incompletions, not trying to win the game on every throw," he says. "That's what I'm doing now, fine-tuning my craft and building chemistry with my teammates."
Del Rio, always a taskmaster, held an even tougher, more physical training camp this summer. "I've heard some people characterize our camp last year as not very difficult," Del Rio says. He had about 40 new players to look at after the teamwide housecleaning in the off-season, and the best way to sort them was through competition. There was more hitting in camp, more nine-on-seven drills and even the infamous Oklahoma drill, a head-knocking exercise that pits a blocker against a defender who is trying to stop a running back from getting past him in a narrowly confined space.
Jones-Drew, 24, who rushed for a total of 2,533 yards in his first three seasons despite only four starts, doesn't seem concerned about the pounding he'll take once summertime drills give way to the regular season. Though diminutive compared to his peers, at 5'7" and 208 pounds, Jones-Drew says he is ready for the extra workload. He heeded Taylor's advice, ramping up his off-season training program. He also doesn't plan on being hit squarely too often.
"A lot of running backs take too many flush hits," says Jones-Drew. "When you watch and read and see, you learn that, instead of taking a guy head-on, you give him a little wiggle. Or if you're trapped, you pick a guy and go at him—you don't take two or three guys on."