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Wednesday, December 28, 2011

The day the Jaguars made the Colts look human

The 2006 Jacksonville Jaguars season was one of transition.

Yet, with new faces taking over in the lineup and making an impact, the Jaguars were still able to keep it together in Jack Del Rio's fourth season as coach and be 7-5, still remotely in the playoff hunt with four games left in the season.

But the schedule wasn't looking favorably for the Jaguars. The last three games were against the Tennessee Titans, New England Patriots and Kansas City Chiefs and at 5-7, the Titans were the weakest team of the bunch.

And then there was the game on this Sunday, December 10, 2006 against the Indianapolis Colts. The Colts were 10-2 and looking unstoppable toward yet another AFC South championship behind Peyton Manning's right arm and top receivers Marvin Harrison, Ricky Proehl and Reggie Wayne.

A year before, the Jaguars gave the 12-0 Colts everything they could handle on this same Alltel Stadium field before falling to them, 26-18, in a game played just a week before coach Tony Dungy's son sadly took his own life.

That day, all the buzz was in the Colts' locker room afterward. And as Dungy was being asked questions about the possibility of going unbeaten and who he was going to play and not play and how much those players would play the rest of the season, he trying to escape it in a gentlemanly fashion.

In the middle of all that, I asked him, "How do you deal with all this? How do you stay so calm?" throwing that question out there as a little bit of a diversion toward the monotony of being asked the same question over and over and over and over again in different forms by a media that didn't get it.

The composed Dungy was more than glad to answer my question, telling me and others that he never always had this kind of patience and that he was a bit of a hothead in high school. He actually said "his buddies would be shocked if they saw him now."

It helped to write that column about him the Tuesday after the win and sadly a week before his son died. My question -- and Dungy's answers -- were part of the lead Associated Press writer Jim Litke used when writing his column on Dungy after his personal tragedy. You can Google it. It's still there!

But that was soooooooooooooooo 2005.

This was a new season and the Colts had the same expectations of a great fall and maybe finally getting to a Super Bowl. They weren't unbeaten this time around, but 10-2 was still pretty darned gaudy.

Still, one thing the Colts were lacking at this point was a defensive leader. The guy whow was supposed to lead -- strong safety Bob Sanders -- was out with a knee injury. It was during that season Dungy nicknamed Sanders "The Eraser" because he had a tendancy to "erase" the mistakes the defense made.

On this afternoon, we would soon find out why Dungy's nickname for Sanders was oh, so correct.

The one thing I can absolutely say about Colts fans is they travel very, very well. In my nine years of covering Jaguars football games, I've seen a lot of blue, white and horseshoes as I got out of my car, walked through the parking lot and headed to the stadium. And this beautiful December afternoon in the low 70s was no different.

In retrospect, I believe only Steelers fans travel as well if not better than Colts fans.

Anyway, I got my normal grouping of papers and the day's program getting me prepared for this one, went downstairs to have lunch and saw some colleagues, including my good friend John, who did call-ins for the radio network he was working for at the time. John is good people, a die-hard Florida State guy who lives in Tallahassee and who I truly trust and enjoy his friendship.

So John and I are bantering around outcomes for this afternoon's game. I'm pretty sure neither one of us gave the Jaguars a chance to win this one, and I'm pretty sure his margin of victory was much higher than mine.

Unlike the year before, though, I thought this Colts team didn't look like Super Bowl material. The San Diego Chargers of coach Marty Schottenheimer were in my mind the favorites to go to Miami for that year's game. Phillip Rivers had already developed into a top-of-the-line QB, LaDanian Tomlinson was on his way to an MVP season and the Chargers defense, led by Shawne Merriman, was playing lights out.

Still, you'd thought the Colts should have little problem with the Jaguars.

Then the game began. The Jaguars had the ball on their opening possession, starting at their own 6. Just move the ball a little bit and get out of trouble back there, after all the last thing you want to do is give Peyton Manning good field position to start the game.

Del Rio, dressed in a blue suit and tie for the second time in his career (a trend for the time that was set by then-49ers coach Mike Nolan as a tribute to his father Dick, also a former 49ers coach who dressed in a suit and tie), sent the play in with quarterback David Garrard, who had taken over as the starter when Byron Leftwich was injured once again.

The play Del Rio called for Garrard to run was called "56 blast." On that play, the Jaguars line blocks defenders out to the right side. From there, Garrard hands the ball off to a running back and that back runs into the hole the line creates.

To this day, it is the single greatest running play I've ever witnessed in person.

Garrard handed off to veteran running back Fred Taylor. Taylor saw the hole opened up for him and zipped through it. Before you knew it, Taylor was streaking down the Jaguars sideline heading for a touchdown. As I said in my story, Taylor "could have been equipped with 18 wheels, a license plate and hauling furniture with him when he zipped through the vacancy."

Taylor outraced every Colts defender with the exception of defensive back Jason David, who got Taylor at the Colts 18. Taylor joked about it and said afterward, "It may be the first time in my career that I'll admit to getting caught."

The 76-yard run was the opening chapter to a long book Colts defenders did not want to read on this day. On the very next play, Taylor went out and rookie Maurice Jones-Drew from UCLA came in. He took Garrard's handoff, busted through a hole in the center of the line and ran untouched the last 18 yards for the score.

Two plays, 94 yards. But was this a fluke? Did the Colts offense want the ball back that badly?

Well maybe not that badly, but the Colts did get an Adam Vinatieri field goal on their next drive and took a 10-7 lead when Dominic Rhodes scored on a 1-yard plunge midway through the second quarter.

Looked like the Colts were gaining control of this game. It was only a matter of time.

But the Jaguars were able to run the ball against what was the worst defense against the rush, averaging 160 yards a game on the ground against it. Turns out the Jaguars were just warming up.

The offensive line of Khalil Barnes, Vince Manuwai, Brad Meester, Chris Naeole, Maurice Williams and tight end and veteran Kyle Brady were having a field day against this sieve-like Colts front.

Taylor scored on a 21-yard run three minutes after the Colts took the lead. Then after a three-and-out, the Jaguars busted it open when Jones-Drew dashed 48 yards for a score to make it 21-10. And just before the half, they got into field goal range and Josh Scobee did the rest with a 48-yarder before halftime to make it 24-10.

I looked at John down the way and he looked back at me. This wasn't really happening, was it? I understood the Colts were missing Sanders, but I couldn't imagine the Colts' defense being this baaaaaaad.

"They look defeated," John said of the Colts.

John was absolutely right. Never have I seen a Peyton Manning-led, Tony Dungy-coached Colts team just look beaten. The defense that Dungy prided himself on had no answers in stopping the dynamic duo of Taylor and Jones-Drew. The Jaguars would run 56 plays from scrimmage that day -- and Garrard only had to throw the ball 14 times.

And all this was happening in front of my own eyes from seat No. 87 in the Jaguars' press box. That's when I said to John the magical words that I thought would turn out to be appropriate sometime during the playoffs.

"No way is this team going to the Super Bowl, not the way that defense looks."

It was only going to get worse in the second half for Indy. Jones-Drew took the kickoff and dashed back 93 yards for a touchdown to make it 31-10. The fans who were there to root the Jaguars on were in an absolute frenzy at this point.

The big, bad Colts were beind dropped like a bad habit. Garrard continued to run the ball-control offense behind Jones-Drew and Taylor and it was working to near-perfection.

Interestingly, the Jaguars barely won the time of possession battle (31:37-28:23), but they were coming away with scores. Scobee added a pair of field goals and Alvin Pearman added a fourth-quarter touchdown run to put the final touches on a 44-17 rout.

Yep, none of us saw this one coming. Taylor rushed for 131 yards on nine carries. Pearman had 71 yards rushing in backup duty.

And Jones-Drew put his name on the NFL map for years to come in this one, rushing for 166 yards on 15 carries, while collecting 15 yards on pass catches and 122 yards in returns. His 303 yards broke Jimmy Smith's all-purpose yards mark of 291 he set in a 2000 game against the future Super Bowl champion Baltimore Ravens.

Jones-Drew and Taylor became the first running back pairing to each rush for 100 yards in the same game since Buffalo's Thurman Thomas and Kenneth Davis did so against Atlanta in 1992, three years before the Jaguars came into play. And the 375 yards rushing by the Jaguars were the most for a game since Cincinnati had put 407 up against Denver in 2000.

Needless to say, all was jovial in the press conference afterward. I asked Jones-Drew if he felt as if he were "in the zone" that day.

"It really wasn't a zone," he said. "I didn't have to do much. If you watch the tape, the holes to run through were pretty big. You have to give credit to the offensive line. They did a great job."

And it cemented my point about the Colts' defense. No defense that bad deserved to play in the Super Bowl.

You'd think momentum would be great for the Jaguars to get after that postseason berth with a huge win, right? Think again. As would be a trend under Del Rio with the exception of the 2007 season, the Jaguars folded like a house of cards in December, losing their last three games and watching the playoffs from home.

As for the Colts -- the team I said looked nothing like a Super Bowl hopeful -- all they did was get Sanders back, beat the Chiefs and Ravens, then stop the Patriots in the AFC Championship game. Two weeks later, they beat the Chicago Bears in Super Bowl XLI in Miami.

Anytime you beat a Peyton Manning-quarterbacked Colts team is special. The Jaguars have done it through the years in dramatic fashion.

But on this particuar December afternoon in 2006, they did it in surprisingly easy fashion.

During a season of transition when it was least expected, no less.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Starting a story over again ... on Chrstimas Day

Christmas Day, 1988. A Sunday. A rare holiday off from work at the Ocean County Observer.

Back in the day, there was no Christmas Day newspaper, so that meant I didn't have to work that Saturday like I normally did. However, to compensate for not working and producing a Sunday paper, management had us instead work on the Friday night before.

We had no Saturday paper at that time, so Fridays were free days for us. Well, we at least had something to cover at the Observer on that December 23, 1988. It was called the WOBM Christmas Classic at Ocean County College. And my game was Pinelands Regional against Toms River North. North was pretty decent. Pinelands was not so good. The final score was 77-23.

As a matter of fact, it was the first round of the event and the difference between the very good teams and the not-so-good teams was pretty radical in all the games that day. It prompted me to write the original lead of my story -- "The WOBM in the WOBM Christmas Classic took on new meaning last night ... We Only Book Mismatches."

Funny, I struck that lead out. Didn't think tournament director Kevin Williams would be all that hot with that lead or the story for that matter. But working that rare Friday and getting a newspaper out was quite a bit different. No work on Saturday, and that meant the last-minute shopping was not going to be interrupted. All was fine that day.

Well, all except one thing. I had put off doing the Ocean's Own feature for that week. I figured I'd get to it in the office Saturday night. Well for some reason, the procrastinator in me just didn't feel like going into work. Beside, the notes in our old One-System computers were pretty secure as long as the printer worked.

Cut to 6 a.m. Christmas Day. I got out of bed, got dressed on a cold morning and headed to the office, the 1977 Dodge Aspen getting me there to the Observer parking lot. From there, it was up the stairs and to the second floor. It was dark and quiet. Much to my liking, the only light was the sun starting to peak through the windows next to where the news reporters normally worked.

I turned on the one light at the sports desk. That was enough for me.

As I turned on my computer, I planned out how I wanted to get through the hour or two I was going to be there, then turn around, head back home and prepare for my Sunday ritual of "American Top 40" on WPLJ-FM, which started at 9 a.m. Sundays and was hosted by Shadoe Stevens, who had taken over the show from Casey Kasem that August. I knew the debuts I was going to hear that morning, starting with the Art of Noise and Tom Jones' version of "Kiss," which debuted at No. 40.

He had already been host of the show for four months and yet, Shadoe Stevens was already irritating my ears. But that's getting off on a tangent.

The computer was on and all I needed to do was look for my notes that read "oceansownnotes goodale." This Monday's story was on standout Jackson Memorial High School wrestler Scott Goodale, who I knew from playing Little League ball and knowing his parents Jim and Karen from their time at Holbrook Little League. Little League was my beat from 1984-99 at the Observer and yes, I pretty much knew just about everyone there.

So I go into whatever queue these old One-Systems had my notes. And I thought maybe I put my notes in a different spot. No notes. Nothing.

It's 7:15 a.m. I really don't want to be at work for more than another hour. I'm there for one purpose -- get this damned feature done! After all, this is the highlight locally of our Monday paper, the weekly feature on high school students at the 15 Ocean County high schools, the junior college (Ocean County College) and four-year university (all-girl Georgian Court) as well as the local everyday people who excelled in athletics.

By this time, I had taken a good amount of Ocean's Own features from Chris Christopher when Chris couldn't do them, and back in that day, it was an honor to do those stories.

And I really was looking forward to banging out this feature story on young Scott Goodale, a junior who was in the beginning of carving out his legacy as a state-caliber wrestler for coach Al Aires at JMHS, then going on to a fabulous college career.

But try writing the story without quotes. I was faced with that daunting task. Maybe I had printed the notes out from my interview with Scott and placed them somewhere in a folder that I normally work with. I tore open the folders I had. Nothing. I'd have recognized the notes on the sheets we used to print out that literally looked like print-out paper from some Stock Market report, the ones with the perforated lines and the holes on the side that you easily tore off.

Oh, those were the days.

Maybe I had misplaced them under some papers near the boss' work station. Nope. I had torn through all the folders and the work stations. Nothing. I had my notes from talking with coach Aires stored, but not from my interview with his wrestler.

It's 7:45 now and AT40 is starting at 9. So I had to bide the little time I had.

First, I grabbed whatever information I had on young Scott -- the factual stuff about his 1986-87 and '87-88 seasons and whatever he opened his 1988-89 season doing. And then I combed through other sports to get whatever he did there.

As I've always said, as long as the factual information is documented and found, half the battle is done. The only part of the job I had left was to re-interview him.

And I was very lucky to have Scott Goodale as my feature story for the week for I knew Jim and I knew Karen. It was just after 8 a.m. Kids are normally sleeping at this hour of the morning, especially on a Sunday ... strike that, Christmas Day Sunday!

I picked up the phone and called the Goodale household. I got Karen. I do believe if it were anyone else, I may have been slighly lectured on calling early. Once I explained what happened -- and sadly with the old One-System computers, that was occasionally -- Karen was understanding. It also didn't hurt that Scott was awake.

"Hi, Scott. It's Mark. How'd you like to do the interview again?" was what I said.

Once he understood what happened, then we went to work again. It was about 15 minutes and I got what I wanted out of him ... again. Those notes got printed up quickly and by 8:45 a.m., the final version was ready to be edited by Dave, my assistant boss, and placed on our sports front that night for Monday's edition.

Closed out the computer, the one light I had on and by the time I got into my car and headed back home, it was bright sunshine. Not a car on the road but mine at that hour and that made it easier to speed down Hooper Avenue at nearly 55 mph to get back, turn on the radio and hear the AT40 intro and that Art of Noise/Tom Jones debut of "Kiss" at No. 40. As a matter of fact, that was a big week for debuts -- Tone Loc's "Wild Thing" debuted at No. 37, Sheena Easton's "The Lover In Me" came in at No. 34 and the very first Top 40 hit for a dancer-turned-actor named Paula Abdul called "Straight Up" came in at No. 35.

I got home in time. I didn't have to see the office again until Monday.

Scott Goodale is now Rutgers University's head wrestling coach. It's been about two or thre years since I last saw Scott in the last 2000s. He has a family of his own and he's doing well.

I'm thankful to have had Scott Goodale as Ocean's Own that Chrstimas weekend.

Actually, I was thankful I had Karen and Jim Goodale as Scott's parents. Most parents would've frowned on that Christmas morning 8 a.m. phone call. But they were very supportive of all the sporting activities their kids did.

It also reminded me to never forget to properly save notes or print them out and keep them in a safe place so I don't have to go through that Christmas Day drama again.

On this Christmas day, I am thankful to remember all the parents who allowed me the time to make their children stars, no matter how big they were, and especially the parents who allowed me to talk to their kids at odd hours like 8 a.m.

I don't make it a habit now. Heck, I'm fast asleep at 8 a.m. normally. But every now and then, there's a late-night phone call to someone.

I'm glad you parents are understanding.