Del Rio: Jaguars closing on NFL elite
Published: Monday, January 9, 2006 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Monday, January 9, 2006 at 12:00 a.m.
JACKSONVILLE - Jaguars coach Jack Del Rio already has a short to-do list for the offseason.
A day after Jacksonville's 28-3 loss at New England in the first round of the playoffs, Del Rio said he plans to talk to team owner Wayne Weaver about a new contract and wants to work with quarterback Byron Leftwich about taking fewer hits.
Both could play big roles in the future of the franchise.
The Jaguars have steadily improved since Del Rio took over in 2003, winning five games in his first season, finishing one victory shy of the playoffs last year and earning a wild-card berth this season. The success likely will land Del Rio a raise from his current five-year deal that averages $1.3 million annually.
"I don't think you can look at what we've done over the last three years and not acknowledge on some level that we have built and we are building and there has been improvement," Del Rio said Sunday. "That's what we want to continue to do."
Del Rio expects to keep most of Jacksonville's playoff team intact for next season and add a few missing pieces in hopes of taking the next step - winning the division and possibly getting a bye in the opening round.
"We're right there with a clump of teams that are on the verge of it," he said. "I think we're a good, solid football team that's capable of beating the elite teams. But we're not at a level yet where if we don't play our best football that some of the not-as-strong teams can't come up and bite us."
Del Rio included the Patriots in that group. The two-time defending Super Bowl champs basically dismantled the Jaguars with four huge plays in an 8-minute span in the second half Saturday night, spoiling Jacksonville's first postseason game since the 1999 season.
Tight end Ben Watson fumbled on New England's first possession of the third quarter, and the Patriots recovered the loose ball to set up first-and-goal. On the next play, Tom Brady threw a touchdown pass to David Givens that gave the Pats a 14-3 lead.
Jacksonville's Jimmy Smith dropped a perfectly thrown third-down pass on the ensuing possession. The Jaguars then looked like they would force the Patriots to punt, but Watson broke three tackles and rambled 63 yards for a score and a 21-3 advantage.
Asante Samuel intercepted Leftwich's pass on fourth down on the next drive and returned it 73 yards for a touchdown.
Just like that, Jacksonville's season was over.
"The third quarter killed us," said Leftwich, who was 18-of-31 for 179 yards. "Within an 8-minute span, the game got out of control."
Playing for the first time since breaking his left ankle Nov. 27, Leftwich was sacked four times and replaced by backup David Garrard midway through the fourth quarter.
Del Rio said he had no regrets about starting the strong-armed Leftwich over the fleet-footed Garrard, who led the team to a 5-1 record down the stretch. But the coach voiced concern about Leftwich's long-term health.
Leftwich missed two games in 2004 because of a sprained knee and sat out the final five games this season following the ankle injury.
"I want him to get rid of the ball sooner and not take shots like that," Del Rio said. "I think what happens with Byron is he is so tough and so determined to make the great throw that he'll sit in there and take shots. He's not afraid of contact at all. That's a good thing because you like having a tough guy on your team, but we need him to protect himself.
"We need him to be healthy for 16 games. That's something we've got to help him improve on. If you continue to take shots like he has, you're going to continue to spend time on the sidelines. He's too valuable to us to have that occur."
Aside from changing Leftwich's mentality, Del Rio has few other personnel issues to handle before next season.
Linebackers coach Brian VanGorder accepted the head coaching job at Georgia Southern, and cornerbacks Kenny Wright and Terry Cousin and linebacker Akin Ayodele are key free agents. But the Jaguars have hardly any health issues.
Linebacker Mike Peterson will have surgery on his injured wrist this week. Left tackle Khalif Barnes broke a bone in his right leg in the first half against the Pats, but stayed in the game and should be fine.
Safety Donovin Darius (knee) and center Brad Meester (biceps) are expected to be back in time for training camp.
"Next year, we'll be better," Smith said. "Anything short of what we did this year will be a major disappointment."
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