As the Jacksonville Jaguars lined up to kick off to the Carolina
Panthers last Saturday at the Hall of Fame game in Canton, Ohio,
Jaguar linebacker and captain Jeff Lageman noticed that
something was amiss. The Panthers had won the toss and had
elected to receive, and following coach Tom Coughlin's orders,
Lageman had chosen to have Jacksonville defend the west goal.
But there was Jacksonville kicker Scott Sisson lining up to kick
from the east side of the field.
"Wait a minute!" Lageman yelled at an official, sprinting onto
the field seconds before the kickoff. He informed the zebra that
someone had screwed up and that the teams should change ends,
which they did. Said Lageman later, "That's not something
Coughlin would have tolerated--a mistake on the coin flip."
Coughlin's fanatical attention to detail was a topic of
discussion at this year's Hall of Fame game, which ushered in
not only the NFL's season-before-the-season but also its two
newest teams. In the weeks leading up to this meeting, the
curiosity that surrounds the birth of any expansion team had
focused largely on Coughlin's camp in Stevens Point, Wis., where
players were said to be chafing under the coach's capricious
rules and collegiate-style intensity. By comparison the Panthers
had had a harmonious camp in Spartanburg, S.C., working quietly
under coach Dom Capers.
But by last Saturday morning the game itself was consuming the
attention of football fans from Roanoke, Va., south to Palatka,
Fla. Every motel in and around Canton seemed to have a
television truck from Florida or the Carolinas in the parking
lot, poised to beam live the first NFL game between brand-new
teams in 19 years. "Back in Jacksonville this is like the Super
Bowl," Jaguar owner Wayne Weaver said over breakfast on Saturday
As it turned out, the new kids on the block put on a pretty good
show as Carolina won 20-14, stopping the Jaguars with a
last-minute goal line stand. And the two teams demonstrated that
expansion ball 1995-style won't descend to the level of
ineptitude that attended the debuts of the Seattle Seahawks and
the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 1976. Because the Panthers and the
Jaguars were able to plunge into the free-agent pool this
off-season along with the other 28 teams, they are not like
previous NFL beginners, and they showed it in Canton. Carolina's
starting units, including punter and kicker, featured 12
veterans who had been bought on the open NFL market, an option
unavailable to previous expansion teams. The Jaguars could well
start an all-free-agent defensive line, and they have a
quarterback, Mark Brunell, a backup for the Green Bay Packers
for the past two years, who should take his place just below the
New England Patriots' Drew Bledsoe this year or next. Seattle
and Tampa Bay were a combined 2-26 in 1976; Jacksonville and
Carolina should quadruple that win total this fall.
Beyond the close score on Saturday, which gave Carolina bragging
rights at least until the season begins, the game offered some
The apparent rebirth of Desmond Howard. A three-year bust with
the Washington Redskins after winning the Heisman Trophy at
Michigan, Howard was chosen in the expansion draft by
Jacksonville. In his new uniform Howard zigged, then zagged,
then sprinted 66 yards for the first touchdown in Jaguar
history. He also kept an early drive going with a diving 21-yard
catch of a Steve Beuerlein pass. The Redskins had criticized
Howard for his lukewarm dedication to football, but he won the
Jaguars' conditioning run in training camp. "That told me he was
pretty serious about the game," Coughlin says.
In his own defense Howard says, "I had three coaches and six
quarterbacks in three years at Washington. I never had a
consistent chance to play and prove myself."
Carolina's impressive rookies. Jacksonville won't have its top
pick, offensive tackle Tony Boselli, for at least another month;
he underwent arthroscopic surgery on his left knee on July 21.
But the Panthers' rookie left tackle, Blake Brockermeyer, passed
his first test. Brockermeyer held Lageman to zero tackles and
zero sacks on 33 first-half plays. Two other Carolina draft
picks, projected starting cornerback Tyrone Poole and
quarterback Kerry Collins, performed nicely too, with Poole
scoring on an 85-yard interception return in the second quarter
and Collins completing 5 of 9 passes for 53 yards and no
A looming quarterback controversy in Jacksonville. Beuerlein,
the projected Jaguar starter and the team's first pick in the
expansion draft, had better numbers than Brunell, who was
acquired from the Packers in a trade during the off-season. But
Brunell looked sharper. He has a better fastball, pure and
simple. Beuerlein slightly underthrew a 48-yard completion to
Jimmy Smith, which would have been a touchdown if Smith hadn't
had to wait for the ball, and he telegraphed a pass at the goal
line, which led to a Tim McKyer interception. Even if
Beuerlein--with six years in the league to Brunell's two--wins the
starting job, Coughlin will be tempted to bench him for Brunell
early in the season.
A punishing, risk-taking defense in Carolina. Capers befuddled
the Jaguars with blitz after blitz, which will be the signature
of his defense. That's why veteran outside linebackers Lamar
Lathon and Darion Conner are so excited about playing for
Capers; Pittsburgh Steeler Pro Bowl linebackers Kevin Greene and
Greg Lloyd thrived while Capers was that team's defensive
Capers became known for rushing any player at any time, and on
Saturday he had his cornerbacks blitzing Brunell as late as
midway through the fourth quarter. "I think he forgot to turn in
his Steeler playbook," said Jaguar center Dave Widell.
With this first test behind them, each team returned to camp for
four more weeks of tinkering. There will be little controversy
of note from Camp Capers, but the hubbub surrounding Coughlin's
rules is practically on the Internet.
Rules, rules. Where to start? The coaches can't wear sunglasses
on the practice field. The players can't wear hats in team
meetings, at which they must not slouch and must keep both feet
on the floor. The players must warm up with their helmets on,
and they must not kneel or sit at practice. They must
concentrate solely on football each day at training camp when
they cross what Coughlin calls his Concentration Line, which has
been drawn at the edge of the practice field. After postpractice
wind sprints, players are not supposed to lean over to gasp for
breath. Golf clubs and other recreational gear are verboten.
Coughlin, in his first NFL head coaching job after seven years
as an NFL assistant and three impressive seasons in the top job
at Boston College, is trying to forge in his troops a singleness
of purpose. He might succeed. He also might lose some players
who won't put up with such sophomoric strictures. Asked last
week what he thought of the Concentration Line, Howard turned
giggly. "Heh-heh-heh-heh, uh, well, I don't want to answer
that," he said.
"We earn the right to win. It's not handed to us," Coughlin said
after practice one afternoon last week. "And so we demand that
our players execute. We demand focus. I don't feel good when
players or practices are sloppy, and I don't think players do
either. I'm not doing anything here that other coaches in the
league don't do."
But no team has a rule book quite like Coughlin's. "Let me say
this," he said, pointing an index finger at a camp visitor. "You
only get one time to make a first impression. You can't start
easy and then get strict on players."
Coughlin's growing reputation as a martinet may be a factor in
future free-agent acquisitions. The brightest of the 1996 crop
could be Dallas Cowboy strong safety Darren Woodson, who is
watching Jacksonville closely. "I've played for Jimmy Johnson,
who is a very demanding coach, but he lets you be yourself,"
Woodson says. "I don't understand a coach who, it seems, wants
to take your personality away. [Coughlin] sounds like a Frank
Kush-type coach. They'd probably have to pay me more to play
there, because it's asking a lot of a player to become a
different person when he walks onto the field."
But Widell says that Coughlin is not a personality-squasher.
Widell and Lageman, in fact, cracked Coughlin up last week
during warmups at practice with their Top 10 List of Things We'd
Rather Be Doing Than Practicing at Camp. Lageman's favorite:
"Working in a sweatshop in Queens."
Although Coughlin's rules annoy some of his players, most of
them realize that there is a reason why they are playing for an
expansion team, and they have taken to making light of their
predicament. After one practice, on the football side of the
Concentration Line a group of linemen chanted, "Football,
football, football, football." Once they crossed the line, the
chant became "Beer, beer, beer, beer."
Lageman, a leader in the locker room during his six years with
the New York Jets, rolls his eyes at some of Coughlin's
regulations. But he says that if Coughlin can build a winner,
free agents will come. "Once we build the foundation," Lageman
says, "why wouldn't players want to come here? There's no state
tax. We play on grass. There's die-hard fan support. We have
room under the salary cap. I understand why Coughlin's doing
what he's doing. When I was in New York, we had two rules: Be on
time, and don't be a jerk. Here, what being a jerk means is
spelled out. A little discipline never bothered me."
As for Coughlin's boss, owner Weaver says, "Some of Tom's rules
are too rigid, but some of those controls will disappear over
time. We believe players see that we're committed to winning in
Jacksonville and that the right program is in place to win."
For now Coughlin's fingerprints are all over this camp, even on
the coffeemaker. "I go up to him one day," Lageman recalls, "and
I tell him the coffee here stinks." Lageman snaps his fingers.
"The next day the coffee's great. I mean, the guy's into
As Coughlin sees it, he has one chance to get this thing right.
Capers sees it the same way. They just go about things
differently. Saturday's game showed that the Panthers and the
Jaguars are not far apart in ability. Their camps show that
their coaches are far apart in style.