Eleven months ago, the Jacksonville Jaguars' season ended with a loss to the New England Patriots in an AFC divisional playoff game, but prospects of another successful season - and maybe even a berth in the Super Bowl -weren't far-fetched.
That memory seems eons ago now.
The Jaguars are limping to the new year with one win in their past six games and a 5-10 record. A victory against the Ravens on Sunday at M&T Bank Stadium might be a salve for a team frustrated by the season's disappointments.
"It's been a tough year," Jacksonville coach Jack Del Rio acknowledged during a conference call with Baltimore media Tuesday. "The team's got one more opportunity left. I expect us to compete with the kind of energy we brought the last few times out. Guys have been hungry for a win. We got one in Green Bay, we were close against Indy, but didn't quite get it. We want to finish strong."
The struggles of Del Rio, who coached the Ravens' linebackers from 1999 to 2001, including the Super Bowl season of 2000, illustrate what has been an up-and-down season for former Ravens assistant coaches who have become NFL head coaches.
There are success stories in Atlanta Falcons coach Mike Smith (the Ravens' linebackers coach from 1999 to 2002), Arizona Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt (tight ends coach in 1997 and 1998) and New York Jets coach Eric Mangini (quality control on offense in 1996).
Then there's Mike Nolan, the former Ravens defensive coordinator who was fired as the San Francisco 49ers' coach after a 2-5 start this season. The future of Cincinnati Bengals coach Marvin Lewis is in jeopardy as the team labors with a 3-11-1 record and Lewis is signed only through the 2009 season.
Del Rio signed a five-year extension after last year's run to the franchise's second playoff berth in three seasons, but whispers about his security have begun to swirl. However, Del Rio, who has a 50-45 record in six years in Jacksonville, said he has ignored the critics.
"Don't pay a lot of attention to that type of talk," said Del Rio, who would be owed a $20 million buyout if he were fired. "Guys like [the Carolina Panthers'] John Fox were hearing that kind of talk and now he's the toast of the town. John Fox and [the New York Giants'] Tom Coughlin didn't listen to that kind of stuff last year, and now they're the top two seeds in the NFC and one of them has a Super Bowl ring on. It's the nature of this business that people try to get ahead of stories and speculate, but I don't get too caught up in that."
Injuries and off-field issues have hindered the Jaguars. A franchise-record 16 players sit on injured reserve; the list includes seven starters, such as guards Vince Manuwai and Maurice Williams, running back Fred Taylor and cornerback Rashean Mathis.
Offensive tackle Richard Collier was shot 14 times and paralyzed from the waist down days before the season opener. Receiver Matt Jones was arrested and charged with a count of cocaine possession in July before the NFL suspended him for the final three games.
Ravens linebacker Nick Greisen, who started 10 games in 2006 in Jacksonville, said Del Rio is not the type to make excuses.
"I don't see where if things aren't going that well, he's bitching or moaning or saying, 'Why aren't things going right?' " Greisen said. "He's the type of man who will make sure that you don't see that, so that it doesn't affect his team."
Aside from reversing course on wins and losses, Del Rio has some work to do inside the team's locker room. He sent linebacker Mike Peterson home after a confrontation during a team meeting last month, and the third-leading tackler in club history had been benched until Daryl Smith (groin) was placed on IR.
Taylor questioned the team's chemistry during an interview last month, saying, "In my 11 years, this is probably the worst team - emphasize the word 'team' - that I've been on."
Still, quarterback David Garrard said he can't envision playing for a coach other than Del Rio.
"It's a shame when you have one bad, tough year that people are going to start getting fired over it, that it can't just be the circumstances that happened during the season," Garrard said. "... I like Jack as a head coach, and I definitely want him to be here."
JAGUARS (5-10) @RAVENS (10-5)
Sunday, 4:15 p.m.
TV: Chs. 13, 9
Radio: 1090 AM, 97.9 FM
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