Squeeze Play
The Jaguars must cut $40 million in payroll to get under the
2001 cap

The euphoria of playing in two AFC Championship games in four
years has worn off in Jacksonville, and Jaguars owner Wayne
Weaver can clearly see the mess his franchise has gotten itself
into in an attempt to win an NFL title. "The lure of the Super
Bowl is a powerful intoxicant," a chastened Weaver said last
Friday in the conference room that adjoins his office. "We've
made a few decisions that have come back to bite us in the butt.
The model we set for our franchise in 1995 is still the right
one, but we've wavered, and we have to get back on track."

Easier said than done. The basic model--building through the draft
and re-signing your own free agents--may indeed be sound, but
Jacksonville, its Super Bowl hopes laid waste by injuries during
a star-crossed 7-7 season, now faces the most bloated payroll in
the eight-year history of the salary-cap system. With a projected
NFL cap number of $68 million per team in 2001 (up from $62.2
million this season), the Jaguars will have to slash $34.9
million from theirs, which stands at $102.9 million. To free
space for the signing of minimum-salary veterans and the players
it selects in the April draft, Jacksonville will need an
additional $5 million or more with which to work. That means the
club must lop $40 million off its payroll in the off-season to
field a team, competitive or otherwise, for 2001.

One of the real headaches will be hammering out a new contract
for quarterback Mark Brunell, whose cap number in 2001 is set to
be an NFL-record $13.35 million. "I definitely want to stay, and
I'm confident a new deal will get done," Brunell said on Friday.
"Even with all the cuts we have to make, there will still be a
core group of guys I know we can win a championship with."

How did Jacksonville get into this mess? Over the past three
off-seasons the Jaguars handed out $17 million in signing bonuses
to three aging defenders--linebackers Bryce Paup and Hardy
Nickerson and safety Carnell Lake--who since signing have been
plagued by injuries. Paup, 32, was waived last June. Lake, 33,
went on injured reserve with an ailing foot before this season.
The 35-year-old Nickerson, slowed by a bad knee that limited him
to six games this year, was put on injured reserve last week.
Lake and Nickerson will probably be released in the off-season.
If that happens, the prorated signing bonuses of those three
players combined will count $9.7 million against the 2001 cap.

"We've learned, painfully, that the value you get from free
agency is overblown," Weaver says. Coach Tom Coughlin isn't as
blunt. "We left our original model for two superbly conditioned
athletes who had never gotten hurt," he says of Lake and
Nickerson, "and they both got hurt." Now the Jaguars realize that
they would be foolish to project that Nickerson (2001 cap cost:
$4.8 million), coming off knee surgery, will be in the lineup
next season ahead of rising rookie linebacker T.J. Slaughter (cap
cost: $393,333).

Other cuts will also be easy, such as the release of defensive
end Joel Smeenge, which would save $4.7 million. "The first $20
million in cuts are no-brainers," says Weaver. "It's the next $20
million that will be difficult."

For example, 30-year-old wide receiver Keenan McCardell, 11th in
the NFL with 79 receptions, is due to count $4.2 million against
the cap next year, but cutting him would save Jacksonville $2.1
million. Third-year wideout Alvis Whitted (2001 cap value:
$471,350) has played well, but the Jaguars don't know what to
make of rookie first-round pick R. Jay Soward, who has only 14
receptions. He's also been in Coughlin's doghouse for most of the
season and was suspended for Sunday's game against the Cardinals
after showing up late for a team meeting. "I'd love to come
back," McCardell said on Friday, "but it's a crazy business."

Very much so. In the early years Coughlin's masterly personnel
moves netted impact players at four vital positions--quarterback
(Brunell), left tackle (Tony Boselli), pass-rushing linebacker
(Kevin Hardy) and running back (Fred Taylor)--and even with their
struggles this season, the Jaguars are 56-38 in their six-year
history. "I think people on the outside wonder if it's over for
the Jaguars," says Brunell. "Time will tell, but by no means are
we done. Back in 1995, '96, we were a bunch of young guys who
came together. We can do it again."

Coaching Candidates
Add McCarthy To the Mix

Ask around the league, and the list of NFL assistants most likely
to get interviews for head coaching jobs come January includes
defensive coordinators Marvin Lewis (Ravens), John Fox (Giants),
Emmitt Thomas (Vikings) and Gregg Williams (Titans); Bucs
assistant head coach Herman Edwards; and offensive coordinators
Chan Gailey (Dolphins) and Mike McCarthy (Saints). The biggest
surprise is McCarthy, a first-year coordinator who has impressed
many around the league. A devotee of the West Coast offense who
coached Green Bay's quarterbacks in 1999, McCarthy went to New
Orleans and turned Jeff Blake, a 56% passer who threw deep every
chance he got, into a more efficient quarterback who completed
61% of his throws. When Blake suffered a season-ending foot
injury against the Raiders on Nov. 19, McCarthy didn't pull back
with second-year man Aaron Brooks. McCarthy handed him the same
type of 120-play game plan that Blake regularly received.

Brooks, whom McCarthy had persuaded the Saints to acquire in an
off-season trade with the Packers, beat the Rams 31-24 on Nov. 26
by passing for 190 yards and a touchdown and running for two
other scores. Even in a 38-23 loss to Denver on Dec. 3, Brooks
completed 30 passes in 48 attempts for 441 yards and two
touchdowns. On Sunday he passed for 203 yards and two scores and
ran for 108 yards as the Saints rallied from a 10-point deficit
in the final eight minutes to beat the 49ers 31-27.

"I think that I'm ready to be a head coach," McCarthy says. "It
could be three or five years, or it could be tomorrow. If it
happens, I'll be ready."

Leader of the Pack
Favre Getting Older, Wiser

Before a meeting of the offense a couple of weeks ago, Packers
quarterback Brett Favre hid a remote-control device under the
chair of coordinator Tom Rossley. When Rossley began to speak,
Favre hit the remote button, and the staccato sound of flatulence
turned all eyes in the room toward the coach. Rossley did what
all men do when confronted in that situation: He swore he didn't
do it. "It's the video machine!" he said, as the place broke up.

At 31 Favre is still full of boyish mischief that keeps his
teammates loose, but he's tightened up his personal life. As he
chipped golf balls inside the Packers' practice facility last
Saturday, he talked about handling his addictions to alcohol and
the painkiller Vicodin, the latter of which nearly derailed the
three-time league MVP's career in 1996. "I've been dry for two
years, and I don't miss it a bit," he said of drinking. The
Vicodin? Favre said he picked up a prescription for his wife,
Deanna, last Friday after she had had dental work. "The
pharmacist handed it to me, and I looked at it: Vicodin-ES. I got
chills. That was my favorite. I was supposed to take one of those
a day for pain. I was up to 15. I just sat there, thinking how
times have changed.

"A few weeks ago in Tampa, I hurt my foot," Favre added. "It hurt
so bad I thought it was broken. The doctor gave me Darvocet,
which can be addictive. Never took it. Got by on Motrin."

Trying to keep the Pack's playoff hopes alive against the Lions
on Sunday, Favre was suffering in another way. On a bone-chilling
day in Green Bay, he was uncharacteristically inaccurate,
completing 15 passes in 36 attempts for 208 yards, but that
didn't keep him from sticking to his routine. With the Packers
nursing a 12-3 lead early in the fourth quarter, Favre got on the
phone to Rossley, who was up in the coaches' booth. "Hey, Tom,"
Favre said, "I'm struggling with my accuracy, but let's not stop
chuckin' it."

Detroit scored to pull to 12-10, and on Green Bay's ensuing
possession, Favre faced third-and-eight from the Lions' 49. He
made a perfect throw deep down the right sideline to wideout Bill
Schroeder for a 45-yard gain. Two plays later Favre hit running
back Ahman Green for a three-yard score, and the Packers won
26-13 to even their record at 7-7.

"Brett did not have a particularly good day, except with the game
on the line," Green Bay general manager Ron Wolf said. "That's
part of the problem. He's spoiled us so much because of how good
he really is."

Send your pro football questions for Peter King's mailbag and
read more from Paul Zimmerman at cnnsi.com/football.

COLOR PHOTO: BILL FRAKES Low-priced Jaguars veterans like Anthony Johnson may have to take on larger roles in 2001. COLOR PHOTO: BILL FRAKES Brunell's contract is a big concern for Jacksonville.

Caponomics

With a projected $68 million salary cap in 2001, here are the
teams that will be in the best and worst shape heading into the
off-season.

BLOWING THE BUDGET

TEAM 2001 CAP FIGURE OVER CAP

1. Jaguars $102,945,843 $34.9 million
2. Chiefs $97,939,675 $29.9 million
3. Cowboys $82,308,001 $14.3 million
4. Bills $80,238,218 $12.2 million
5. Vikings $78,614,625 $10.6 million

MONEY TO BURN

TEAM 2001 CAP FIGURE UNDER CAP

1. Bengals $48,287,763 $19.7 million
2. Cardinals $48,456,747 $19.5 million
3. Falcons $52,025,025 $16.0 million
4. Eagles $52,787,957 $15.2 million
5. Bears $53,117,400 $14.9 million

Dispatches

Why the spate of big rushing days? "Sloppy tackling," says former
Steelers linebacker Andy Russell. "In the old school you'd put
your face into a guy's knees and hold on. Now they go high and
bump, and you can't bump a guy down. I've seen the worst
tackling. We would have been fined for that. The worst thing that
happened to the game is Deion Sanders, who said, 'I get paid to
cover, I don't get paid to tackle.' That's absurd, but a lot of
guys think that."...

From 1997 through '99 the Eagles were 1-22-1 on the road. This
year they finished 6-2 away from home, closing with a 35-24 win
at Cleveland on Sunday--a victory that clinched Philadelphia's
first playoff berth since 1996....

Before the season many prognosticators thought there was a good
chance an NFC West team would run the table against its division
opponents. But the Saints? Well, New Orleans is 6-0 in the
division with home games left against the Falcons and the
Rams....

Forget the Cris Carter retirement rumors. The 35-year-old
Vikings wideout will play two more seasons....

"We're not against the wall," Lions defensive tackle Luther
Elliss said, after a loss at Green Bay dropped Detroit to 8-6.
"We're in the wall." The most ominous sign for Lions fans is
that their team has lost nine of the last 10 games it has played
in December. Detroit has a road game against the Jets before
returning home to meet the Bears....

Chiefs owner Lamar Hunt says that coach Gunther Cunningham will
return in 2001....

Alvin Harper, the former Cowboys deep threat who failed
miserably in subsequent stops with the Bucs and the Redskins, is
trying to make a comeback with the XFL's Memphis Maniax.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)