Marcus Stroud hangs his head and squints from behind his crown of drooping dreadlocks. It doesn't matter that his Jacksonville Jaguars have just upset the AFC South rival Tennessee Titans 15-12 in Nashville, or that Stroud, the Jaguars' 6'6", 312pound defensive tackle, had what's become a typical Sunday for him: dominating double teams and collapsing pockets while making seven tackles and a sack. He knows better than to get too comfortable. So amid the raucous locker room celebration, when middle linebacker Mike Peterson, in a good-natured jab, loudly proclaims that Stroud is a borderline narcoleptic, the razzing spreads like wildfire. For the first time all day, Stroud is defenseless.
"This is only going to mean trouble for me," he says, to the delight of linemate and good friend John Henderson, standing nearby. "Big John here thinks it's funny, but I can't believe they'd do me like that. I have a sleeping disorder? That's untrue. Hell, Big John falls asleep in meetings too, but he just doesn't get caught."
"You lie!" says a laughing Henderson. "It's you who sleeps in meetings--"
"Not that often, dawg!" Stroud shoots back. "Look, there's a difference between liking one's sleep--which I do--and having a sleeping problem.
"Let's just say," he adds, barely audible above all the laughing, "I'm not much of a 'meeting' person."
Are you looking for this season's Carolina Panthers, perhaps, or just a bandwagon to hop on? Then join the craziness in Jacksonville, where a grim locker room after another mediocre game is a thing of the past, replaced by a dominant defense, an opportunistic offense and a fun-loving atmosphere that have produced three consecutive nail-biting wins. The Jaguars are in first place in the AFC South with a visit from the 2-1 Indianapolis Colts looming this Sunday.
The similarities between this Jacksonville team and last season's heart-stopping NFC-champion Panthers aren't coincidental. The Jags reached the AFC title game in 1996 and '99, but a series of poor drafts and costly free-agent mistakes along with coach Tom Coughlin's grating management style combined to create lousy teams and a disgruntled fan base. Coughlin, the only coach the franchise had known, was fired in December 2002. Eyebrows shot up when owner Wayne Weaver tapped Jack Del Rio, Carolina's defensive coordinator and a former NFL linebacker who had never been a head coach on any level, to make over the team.
The Jaguars started last season 1-7 and seemed destined to be defined by Del Rio's decision to place an ax and a tree stump in the center of the locker room to symbolize his blue-collar philosophy. When Pro Bowl punter Chris Hanson nearly cut off his right foot with one swing of the ax, Del Rio became the butt of jokes around the league. But he maintained his focus on building the defense around Stroud and Henderson and bringing along rookie quarterback Byron Leftwich, who replaced injured mainstay Mark Brunell in Week 4. Leftwich threw for 2,819 yards, the fourth-best rookie total in NFL history, and guided the team to a 4-4 finish. Defensively, the new coach scrapped Coughlin's read-and-react scheme with a release-the-hounds attack; Jacksonville finished second in the NFL against the run and allowed a league-low 3.2 yards per carry.
The improvement on both sides of the ball was so substantial that in the off-season Jacksonville became a trendy dark-horse Super Bowl pick--hype that Del Rio dismisses. "We haven't had a winning season since 1999, so let's just start there," he says. "But I'm excited by how much we've grown, and about where we're headed."
After going winless on the road in 2003, the Jaguars looked right at home in Nashville, as they had in the season-opening 13--10 win in Buffalo. Though the Titans' Chris Brown ran for 101 yards--the first player with 100 yards rushing against Jacksonville in its last 18 games--the Jags' defense never let quarterback Steve McNair (16 for 26, 143 yards, one interception) find his rhythm, ultimately knocking him from the game with a bruised sternum.
In another striking contrast to last season, when the Jaguars lost six games by seven or fewer points, the offense was just good enough to pull out another victory. For the second time Leftwich led a last-minute touchdown drive on the road, this one a 13-play, 69-yard march that culminated in Fred Taylor's one-yard touchdown run with nine seconds left. "We lost too many close games last year," said Stroud. "Now we finish strong; we know how to win."
In his fourth year out of Georgia, Stroud is the team's best all-around defender, a punishing run stopper whose size and speed usually force teams to assign two blockers to stop him. Last year he had 101 tackles and 4 1/2 sacks and was named to his first Pro Bowl. "He understands the game now," says defensive line coach Ray Hamilton. "Everything has slowed for him, which makes him basically unblockable." His combination of strength and quickness (not to mention the number 99 he wears on his jersey) are reminiscent of a young Warren Sapp, and so is his piercing wit, which he unleashes on anyone who even pretends to listen. "I thought I was bad," the chatty Peterson says, "but Marcus is so up in the huddle that sometimes I have to say, 'Gimme a minute, man,' just so I can call the next play."
Apparently all that rambunctiousness is exhausting. Henderson and Peterson have had Stroud in their homes and discovered, while making idle conversation, that he had fallen asleep. Hamilton says he has caught Stroud dozing in meetings and has occasionally resorted to making the big tackle stand during videotape sessions. "But every defense needs a guy like Marcus," Hamilton says, "to keep everyone having fun and, well ... awake."
On the field Stroud has the perfect complement in Henderson, a 6'7" 328pounder in his third year out of Tennessee. Like Stroud, he has overcome coaches' concerns about his upright style of play--which leaves defensive tackles vulnerable--and become a lane-plugging force.
Henderson's on-field intensity is unmatched. In almost every game an official will approach Peterson, asking him to calm down Henderson. "Something happens to me on game day," he says sheepishly. "Something inside takes over, and I just lose it." Drawing that emotion to the surface each week is the job of assistant trainer Joe Sheehan. Just before the team's pregame warmup, Henderson and Sheehan find an empty room, Henderson removes his helmet and Sheehan slaps him across the face. "It is," says Peterson, "the craziest thing I've ever heard of."
"If that's what Big John needs, so be it," Stroud says. "That's what's great about all this. Coach Del Rio lets us be who we are. He puts us in the position to make plays, to be great. We've bought into his system. We have total trust in him."
After his postgame handshake with Titans coach Jeff Fisher--who derided the stump-and-ax stunt last year--the 41-year-old Del Rio trotted off the field, seemingly unmoved by the upset. All that mattered to him was preparing for the Colts. "We can't get caught up in this," Del Rio said. "This was a nice win, but we have to stay focused." Then, pausing to smile ever so slightly, he added, "and keep chopping."