Jags keep filling gaps 8-4 record despite long list of injuries testament to depth

November 27, 1997|By Peter Zellen | Peter Zellen,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- The Jacksonville Jaguars know how to take a punch.

The Jaguars have suffered injuries to more than a dozen key players this season; that group has missed nearly four seasons' worth of games. However, though they haven't gone more than two consecutive weeks without losing a starter to injury, when they play host to the Ravens Sunday, they will do so as a team tied for first in the AFC Central with an 8-4 record.

"There have been a lot of starters -- a lot of people that we count on -- who have been injured or out, and I guess you just go on," said offensive guard Ben Coleman, who was moved to left tackle after Tony Boselli suffered a high-ankle sprain more than two weeks ago.

"But we have a lot of depth and character on this ballclub. Every time the No. 2 guy gets in there, or when you have to make a change in the offensive line, we don't want to be the reason the team is not successful. We're going to continue the things we need to do to win and we've been able to do that."

The injury toll began in a preseason scrimmage against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on July 26 when linebacker Tom McManus tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee, requiring reconstructive surgery which knocked him out for the season.

Then came Jacksonville's most crucial, most publicized injury.

During a preseason game against the New York Giants, quarterback Mark Brunell's right knee was hit by Jesse Armstead's helmet. Brunell, who led the NFL in passing (4,367) and quarterback rushing yards (396) last season, suffered a torn medial collateral ligament, a partially torn posterior cruciate ligament and a stretched ACL. Many feared Brunell would miss the season, effectively ending the Jaguars' chances for success.

Things looked even bleaker when backup Rob Johnson, thrust into the starting role, sprained his ankle during a season-opening, 28-27 victory in Baltimore. That made newly-signed Steve Matthews the starter against the Giants the following week. The Jaguars won that game, 40-13, showing Jacksonville's depth.

"I guess you have to take your hats off to the organization," said cornerback Dave Thomas, who missed seven games last season with a fractured leg. "They bring guys in here who are capable of stepping in. And if you don't fill the void, I'm sure they can bring someone else in."

Because surgery wasn't required on Brunell's knee and because the Jaguars had a bye in Week 3, the quarterback missed only the first two games of the season and returned to help the team to victories in three of the next four games.

Quarterback, though, wasn't even the hardest-hit position for Jacksonville. Over the course of the season, the team has lost three starters at defensive tackle.

John Jurkovic, a seven-year veteran who started 14 games last year, was lost for the season when he fractured his right tibia in the third game. Then Kelvin Pritchett sprained his right knee in practice almost six weeks later. He was later diagnosed with a torn ACL and was placed on injured reserve. Two games later, Don Davey went down, also suffering from a torn right ACL.

Rookies Seth Payne and Renaldo Wynn were forced to play more than expected and even started several games.

"I think injuries at this time of the year for an NFL team are typical, but to have three defensive tackles out is unusual. You've got to realize these things happen," said Payne, a fourth-round pick out of Cornell.

"Renaldo and I aren't in on that many more plays, so it wasn't that big of an adjustment. It's that I'm going in on more crucial situations now.

"If you look at the character on this team, everybody is very responsible and everybody is pretty prepared if the situation [injury] does arrive."

The constant injuries have led the the Jaguars to adopt the credo, "Be Prepared." One thing they haven't done is sow doubt.

"You never want to do that," Thomas said. "You just want to go in there with a full head of steam and say these are the guys that are going to take you there. If there is going to be an injury out there, you just hope it's nothing serious."

Next for Ravens

Opponent: Jacksonville Jaguars

Site: Alltel Stadium, Jacksonville, Fla.

When: Sunday, 1 p.m.

TV/Radio: Ch. 11/WJFK (1300 AM), WLIF (101.9 FM)

Line: Jaguars by 8

Series: Jaguars lead, 3-0

Last meeting: Jaguars won, 28-27, on Aug. 31 at Memorial Stadium

Jags at a glance

Last game: Lost to Cincinnati Bengals, 31-26, Sunday.

Last game with Ravens: Jacksonville won, 27-26, on Aug. 31 at Memorial Stadium. Quarterback Rob Johnson, making his first NFL start, brought the Jaguars back from a 14-0 deficit to win late in the fourth quarter.

Who's hot: Jacksonville's wide-receiver pair of Keenan McCardell and Jimmy Smith is the NFL's fourth-most productive, behind only Herman Moore-Johnnie Morton (Detroit), Rob Moore-Frank Sanders (Arizona) and Cris Carter-Jake Reed (Minnesota). McCardell and Smith have combined for 119 receptions, 1,741 yards and six touchdowns. Smith (66 catches) leads the AFC with 1,036 yards and is tied for second in the league.

Who's not: The defense allowed the team to fall behind, 28-7, in the first half last week as Boomer Esiason replaced Jeff Blake at quarterback for the Bengals and completed 26 of 36 passes for 211 yards and two touchdowns.

Pub Date: 11/27/97

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