In search of a Super Bowl ring Jaguars: An aspiring young Jacksonville team hopes veteran defender Bryce Paup can push its quest a step further.

August 13, 1998|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,SUN STAFF

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- Bryce Paup has felt the sting of giddy expectation before.

In 1995, fresh from signing a three-year, $7.6 million contract with the Buffalo Bills, the veteran linebacker was stopped in the airport by an ardent Bills fan.

"Are you going to take us to the Super Bowl?" the fan wanted to know.

When Paup made no promises, she issued this warning: "Well, you better if you're getting that much."

The stakes -- and expectations -- have only gone up since then.

When Paup signed a five-year, $21.875 million free-agent deal last February with the Jacksonville Jaguars, it was for the explicit purpose of chasing down the Super Bowl he never found in Buffalo.

"At this point in my career, if I don't win a Super Bowl in the next couple of years, I may never do it," said Paup, 30.

The Jaguars have a similar urgency. After a near-miss in 1996 and a first-round playoff loss last season, they believe they are Super Bowl-primed. While the players don't publicly pin their Super Bowl aspirations on Paup, the implications are clear.

"We have a good [defensive] unit," said linebacker Tom McManus. "Adding Bryce Paup helps us a ton. He's a leader, and our team needs another leader. He's going to help us big time."

The Jaguars are the only NFL expansion team to reach the playoffs in two of their first three seasons. But when they got trampled by the Denver Broncos for 310 rushing yards in the wild-card round last season, the injury-depleted Jaguars needed retooling. They started with Paup.

On a team that lost the AFC Central title to the Pittsburgh Steelers on the fifth tiebreaker -- best net points in division games -- Paup is viewed as the man who could push the Jaguars over the top. He figures to enhance the defense in any number of ways:

He is a premier pass rusher at outside linebacker with 33 sacks in the last three seasons, including 17 1/2 in 1995 when he was the NFL's Defensive Player of the Year, and four straight Pro Bowl appearances.

His arrival at strong-side linebacker bumped Kevin Hardy to the weak side, where Hardy's speed can be better used and where he won't have to face tight ends very often.

Paup's presence also should free up defensive end Tony Brackens from double teams. Brackens takes over at right end after the release of sack leader Clyde Simmons, a salary cap casualty.

"I think teams will be keying more toward what he [Paup] does," said Brackens, who had 14 sacks in his first two seasons. "The defense is set up for him to move around a lot."

The Jaguars will also look for leadership from Paup. Simmons was the closest thing the team had to an enforcer the past two seasons.

"Bryce is a natural leader," said Jaguars defensive tackle John Jurkovic, who played with Paup on the Green Bay Packers. "He inspires people the way he plays.

"He's not afraid to speak up, and he's not afraid to be wrong."

Nevertheless, Paup has been a reluctant speaker through the early stages of training camp, in part because of a groin strain that kept him out of the team's preseason opener last week. (It was a severe groin injury that dropped Paup's NFL-high sack total in 1995 to six in 1996.)

"I haven't made a conscious effort of it," Paup said of the leadership role. "Being out there making the [defensive] calls, players look to me. [But] it's hard to say, 'Do this, do that,' when I haven't done anything here yet."

Some of Paup's best seasons were spent in the Bills' 3-4 defense, where he was turned loose in the pass rush. But he insists switching to the Jaguars' 4-3 scheme does not negate his ability to rush the passer.

"I played the 4-3 in Green Bay," he said. "They find a way to rush you if they want you to rush. Green Bay used me as a rover."

The Jaguars will try to find a way; they'll use Paup at strong-side linebacker in their base defense, at left end in their nickel, and rush him from other spots in different schemes.

Until they signed Paup in the off-season, the biggest splash the Jaguars made in free agency was their near-miss of Green Bay nose tackle Gilbert Brown a year ago. Coach Tom Coughlin prefers home-grown to high cost. Still, this was the year to add a high-profile veteran.

"Perhaps we wouldn't have done this a couple of years ago," Coughlin said shortly after signing Paup, "but at this stage of our development, we know we're playoff contenders. So the question is, what's the difference between being in the playoffs and moving on to the Super Bowl? It's a few quality players like Bryce Paup."

Paup has been all around the Super Bowl in his eight-year career. At Green Bay, he left too early to play in the Packers' two recent appearances. At Buffalo, he arrived too late after the Bills' AFC dynasty already had decayed.

With expectations soaring all around him, he can only hope the time is right in Jacksonville.

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