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A year later . . .

Posted Feb 14, 2012

Looking forward while looking back on a memorable first year

Among sportswriting’s trickiest tasks is the introductory column, the difficulty lying in the inherently awkward process of telling something about yourself succinctly enough to entertain and inform without being boring. Think of it as journalism’s equivalent of the blind date’s opening, awkward minutes.

Fortunately for all of us, this ain’t that.

We got the intro column out of the way a year ago, with February 14, 2011, being the day I introduced – reintroduced, for some of you – myself to a skeptical jaguars.com readership.

Now, a decidedly strange year in, it’s time for something equally self-serving, and if the one-year anniversary piece lacks the intro’s awkwardness, it has its own challenges. That’s particularly true of this anniversary piece, because in this piece we necessarily look back on a year that was . . .

Well, challenging just begins to describe it.

A lockout. A first-round quarterback. Three starting quarterbacks – in less than three weeks. The firing of a head coach and an ownership change *in the same day.*

Still, as difficult as the season was, there were memorable times:

*Paul Posluszny fitting immediately in the defense, as if born to not only play 4-3 middle linebacker – which he was – but to play in Jacksonville.

*Maurice Jones-Drew carrying himself as a professional the entire year, assuming the role of veteran leader even as playoff hopes faded. Watching MJD run was compelling, but how he handled himself off the field in a difficult circumstance was as impressive.

*Mel Tucker stepping into an impossible situation in December, and carrying himself with class and focus. Tucker squeezed two victories from a five-game stretch as interim coach even as injuries depleted a defense that began the season as a strength, and refused to finish it any other way.

Now, as we begin looking forward rather than back, history suggests the weirdness that was 2011 could lead to something different, something equally memorable but far more pleasant.

The 2011 season was my 17th covering the NFL. I have covered playoff teams and Super Bowl champions, but I, too, have covered weirdness. I was there when Jim Mora – coaching the Colts during a season that fell apart – said, “Play-offs, playoffs? . . .” and I was there during the Jaguars’ 1995 expansion season – a season with the inherent oddness of any season of firsts.

The 2011 Jaguars’ season was strange by any measure – and in the end, there was frustration and disappointment.

But from frustration and disappointment often sprouts success. Months after Mora uttered playoffs, the Colts hired Tony Dungy and began an NFL-record run of nine consecutive playoff appearances. Less than a year after the 1995 expansion season the Jaguars were beginning a memorable, historic run to within a game of the Super Bowl.

I can’t promise what the Jaguars’ future holds. No one can.

But I can tell you what happened late last season – and what has happened since – is real, and that the chance for sprouting is just as real. Shahid Khan’s purchase of the Jaguars was announced November 29, the same day Jack Del Rio was fired as head coach, and since then, change has been high-profile and rapid.

A new owner, Khan. A new coach, Mike Mularkey. A mostly new offensive coaching staff. And on Monday, news that the franchise has hired a new president, Mark Lamping, an executive who not only spent 15 years with the St. Louis Cardinals, but the last four years headed up the construction and operation of MetLife Stadium, the most expensive NFL stadium ever built.

It’s all exciting. It’s all forward-moving. But all of those “news” in that last paragraph? They’re just words, and somehow don’t quite capture the feeling around EverBank Field these days. Khan has spoken often in the last 10 weeks about the Rebirth of the Jaguars, and talk to people around EverBank, and it’s clear quickly it’s more than a slogan – just as it’s clear fans have responded to the energy.

It’s that energy that I think of when I think back to this time last year.

I wrote that first column from my Plainfield, Ind., living room. Snow covered the back deck, the remnants of a paralyzing ice storm that delayed my interview with the Jaguars. I remember wondering as I wrote just what, exactly, I was going back to, a decade after leaving Jacksonville. Communities change, and after a decade, even a place you consider home can feel foreign.

Being away, I had heard the same things anyone outside Jacksonville hears – that the city couldn’t support an NFL team, that the passion that marked the early years had waned, that the fan base perhaps no longer cared.

I had heard wrong.

Jacksonville is indeed different. The neighborhood where I live didn’t exist a decade ago, and the traffic patterns are new, but the passion for the Jaguars?

That remains, in a big way. I saw it midway through last month, when 7,000 people showed up to welcome Khan and Mularkey at EverBank for the Ready to Rise Rally. I saw it again Monday night, when more than 2,000 people showed up at the 2012 Team Teal Kickoff.

Two thousand people in mid-February, and while it wasn’t exactly snow and ice on the back deck, for North Florida, Monday wasn’t exactly warm.

The point is, people in this town care. The fans care. You see it on game day and you see it in Team Teal rallies and you see it in the passion of fans when they speak of their team.

Me? I see it every day in the in-box, which is as good a place as any to close this self-serving reflection.

I was told by my predecessor the in-box could be an angry, irrational place, and that’s true. It’s true on Mondays after games, and it’s true on a daily basis. But what it also is for me is a daily window into the thoughts of fans, for better or worse, in anger or elation. And while you’re often an irrational bunch, at the same time you’re a passionate, loyal, savvy, knowledge-hungry bunch – and, from a personal perspective, a bunch that with a few notable exceptions welcomed me far more readily than I expected and perhaps more than I deserved.

For that, I say a sincere thanks and move ahead to tomorrow – whatever challenges or sprouting it brings.

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