Maybe it has something to do with that sports psychologist they have available to players these days, but the Jacksonville Jaguars can now admit that maybe, just maybe, the Tennessee Titans’ 1999 AFC Championship Game upset played some small part in their struggles of the past two seasons.
Oh, sure, most of the Jaguars’ plight over the past two seasons, in which they finished 7-9 and 6-10, came as a result of injuries and being in salary cap purgatory. But with the benefit of hindsight, they can see that perhaps there was a lingering effect to that traumatic loss that day.
“Even now, I think about how close we were,” running back Fred Taylor said. “We were 30 minutes away because we were up at halftime, and we let it slip away in the second half. And to be that close, you never know how close you'll get again in your career.
“To answer that question, it affected a lot of guys. A lot of guys hate Tennessee with all their heart. I don't hate them. I've gotten to respect them more because in the past I would go out and talk all type of trash and let it be bulletin board material. Not now.”
That’s quite a transformation for a man who after each successive loss to the Titans in those days stubbornly clung to his statement that the Jags were a better team.
Another eye-catching transformation in Jacksonville is the way the Jaguars have rediscovered their winning formula, even after having the roster stripped of many key contributors because of the salary cap, the expansion draft and injuries. The Jags, after an opening-week loss to Indianapolis, are 3-1 heading into Sunday’s 3:15 p.m. start against the Titans at The Coliseum.
“It has come together very well, we are a work in progress as I like to say,” Jaguars coach Tom Coughlin said. “We are certainly not there, but we play hard and we give great effort. And with exception of the opener, we haven't hurt ourselves. We haven't made the critical turnover and we have been able to make plays when we have had to make them to stay in and eventually find a way to win games.”
If that sounds familiar to the Titans, that’s because it is exactly the same type of formula they used back when they held serve over the Jaguars in 1999 and 2000.
“I remember my first year in the league, they had the best team in the league, they had the best personnel. They had everything going for them, but they just couldn’t beat us,” defensive tackle John Thornton said. “It was fun for us that knowing that we controlled them like that. And Baltimore did the same thing to us the year after.”
Indeed, perhaps it could be argued that the Titans, though they claim no correlation exists, may now be going through the same type of down period following their 2000-season disappointment in the playoffs against the Ravens.
The players dispute that, however, saying the league is simply unpredictable because of parity and other factors.
“Everybody goes up and everybody goes down. That’s just how the league works, from what I’ve seen,” cornerback Dainon Sidney said.
“You look around the league in general; if you had told me two months ago that the Rams would be 0-5, I’d have looked at you like you were crazy,” added quarterback Neil O’Donnell. “That’s just the league right now. There are so many teams that people had counted out that get hot early on and on a bit of a roll. That’s what we’re trying to do is get on a little roll. You get two or three wins under your belt and anything can happen.”
Whatever the reasons – a healthy Taylor, young players who have jelled together quickly, a veteran playmaking quarterback in Mark Brunell – the Jaguars have certainly caught the Titans’ attention.
In fact, in a twist of irony, Jacksonville’s turnaround might even be a model for the Titans, who are trying to somehow turn the corner on a 2002 season gone awry. The Jags feature core veterans who are playing well combined with a bunch of young players and free-agent newcomers who are filling in the gaps and winning as they learn.
“Everybody has given up on us this year, but that’s not the case,” punter Craig Hentrich said. “We haven’t given up on ourselves and that’s all that matters. We just have to win the next game. You can’t win two in a row until you win one in a row.”
And with their old rivals coming to town for their first division game, the Titans are hopeful that the rivalry could provide an additional spark. With only 17 players remaining for Tennessee and 13 for Jacksonville from that 1999 season, does the game still mean something extra? Just the fact that it is a division game adds some spice, but those who were around then always remember.
“There’s carryover based on the number of players you have left on your roster,” Titans coach Jeff Fisher said. “In ’99, there are 17 players left on our roster. There would be 17 players that understand the intensity of that rivalry. Now it’s up to those players to convey how special this game has been.”
Fisher’s old adversary Coughlin expects nothing less.
“We know exactly what we are getting into and I have very good memory,” he said. “The Titans and the Jaguars, for the most part, very hard hitting, very close, very physical football games. So our expectation is the same.”