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Fourth and Long in Jacksonville

The last game of the Jaguars’ 2002 season, in Indianapolis, was a dispiriting affair. Aging QB Mark Brunell sidelined by injury, forced to entrust the offense to scrambling upstart David Garrard. Garrard made few mistakes, as the Jags played with what seemed to be a pathological aversion to the forward pass. Despite jumping out to an early lead, the Florida franchise was spent by game’s end, and fell prey to the Colts, who themselves would lose 41-0 to the New York Jets in an AFC Wildcard Game the following week.

The Colts losing to the Jets surprised no serious observers of the game. QB Peyton Manning and Head Coach Tony Dungy have reps for folding in clutch situations. The week before, the Jags’ loss surprised no one either. Backup quarterbacks are usually backups for legitimate reasons, underscored by Coughlin running an offense of Pop Warner league complexity. Try not to lose, the message went. Try not to expose my deficiencies, as a coach or as a man.

But the Jags lost, and the Coach was exposed and summarily dismissed. A Trent Lott situation, except that Coughlin backed out of hosting BET’s Rap City in the end. And that Coughlin, God bless him, was only guilty of making siren noises while on the sideline last year. When asked during a game last year why he made siren noises to the effect of “whoo-whoo-whooooo-whoo-whoo!”, he replied that he was playing policeman, because he was wearing an NYPD hat just like the real policemen wear. A courageous statement, especially since the Jaguars were losing 27-3 and that the Jaguars were rotating quarterbacks in from among the concession staff.

Of course, that last bit’s apocryphal. Which means fake. Kind of like the contract-ploy media play last year given to Jags’ WR Jimmy Smith being pulled over by Jacksonville police on his way home from stylish local nightspot the Voodoo Lounge. Smith, who was returning to the field from three abdominal operations before the 2001 season, was pulled over under suspicion of drunken driving. The Pro Bowler passed two breath tests, but police took a urine sample, which was analyzed by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. The results came back that Smith tested positive for cocaine.

Now, how the hell did they get from drunken driving to a urine test for cocaine? None of the mainstream media addresses this issue. Jacksonville’s long-serving black sheriff notwithstanding, the fact is that in Jacksonville, if you want to escape police harassment as a black man, you had better be in uniform on a football field. Smith ended up negotiating a contract worth approximately three million dollars a year before the beginning of the 2002 season, roughly half of the six million per annum he sought. Perhaps it was no coincidence that his play this year failed to live up to the Pro Bowl standards of recent campaigns. Scouts and sportswriters began to lament his inability to beat single coverage, when only last year he could break through double teams. But never was the piss test mentioned. Smith’s name was “cleared”, but as a player his spirit has been broken and his best years have already happened.

And this is a shame, but no surprise. If former Jags’ WR Keenan McCardell is to be believed, the Jacksonville franchise routinely broke contract-related promises made to players. McCardell was cut loose by the team before the 2002 season. He currently complements WR Keyshawn Johnson in Tampa, host of a playoff game this week. Mike Hollis, former Jags’ kicker, was let go for contract issues before the 2002 season. In 2002, the Jags lost five games by a total of ten points, and their kicking was so horrible that they used four place-kickers over the course of sixteen games. Hollis wanted roughly a million dollars for the 2002 season, but Coughlin felt that was too high a price to pay for one of the most accurate placekickers in the NFL.

Of course, some prices are payable and others simply aren’t. Jeff Novak paid a price, to be sure. The former Jaguars center was found by a jury to have had his career shortened by a team doctor who cut his leg open with a scalpel in a stadium treatment room to remedy his hematoma. This remedy failed, and Novak fell prey to infections, two emergency surgeries, and the premature end to his career. The aforementioned Brunell saw Novak as being able to play for three to five more years, and the jury responded with a five million dollar award in July 2002. This sum was thrown out by a judge a couple of weeks later who claimed that the burden of proof had not been met, in spite of the jury ruling otherwise. Chastened, Novak settled quietly with the team for two million dollars a week before Christmas.

That seems fair. Forty cents on the dollar, roughly the same ratio the British Empire used to compensate its slaveholders for lost property while slavery was being abolished. Because when you’re damaged goods like Novak, you have to take what you can get. Especially if the judge is willing to reverse the decision of a jury trial to serve the interests of a purportedly local business concern.

But what is so local, really, about the Jaguars? In comparison to the Packers of Green Bay, a municipal operation in the purest sense possible in the NFL, the Jags hustle seems designed to take money from the locals and move it elsewhere with the slightest of courtesy for actual Jacksonville residents. During the height of the 90s economic boom, when so many Fortune 500 companies were moving operations to Jacksonville to take advantage of tax incentives and cheap labor — or, as the slave auctioneers might have put it, “likely youth” — the local franchise entered the NFL under the provision that only sold-out home gates could stem the specter of TV blackouts for game telecasts.

The first few years saw Alltel Stadium full week in and out, and everyone was happy. No one was concerned that the Jags were required to sell upwards of 64,000 tickets weekly in a city of one million people. Jacksonville was Fat City, and it seemed like over five percent of the population could be counted upon to attend every game, even though ticket prices were among the highest in the league from the beginning. The talent-pool was rich, as the team hadn’t fallen prey to salary cap concerns and could import select free agents with no fear of immediate reprisal.

Then the cap problems kicked up and all the talk was of rebuilding. Concurrent with this nasty business was the increase in rents and prices that locals faced, as Jacksonville became a “major league city.” The Jaguars have been horrible for three years, with no end in sight as top head coaching candidates avoid the Bold New City of the South as if it were plagued. The Jags routinely drew around 50,000 in the last few games of the season, and will be hard-pressed to remedy that situation, never mind fulfilling promises the franchise made to revitalize the rundown neighborhoods around the stadium. A dead franchise for a town that is dying and only now becoming aware of it; a man larded on sausage gravy choking on his own vomit, for not the first but perhaps the last time.

ANTHONY GANCARSKI, author of Unfortunate Incidents [Diversity Inc, 2001], has followed sports in Jacksonville since the days of weekly professional wrestling and the USFL. He welcomes comments at Anthony.Gancarski@attbi.com.

 

 

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ANTHONY GANCARSKI is a regular CounterPunch columnist. He can be reached at Anthony.Gancarski@attbi.com

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