Posted by ESPN.com's Paul Kuharsky
To any Jacksonville Jaguar who might have been a bit reserved in 2008, who deferred to leaders like Fred Taylor and Mike Peterson, who thought it better to fit in and follow than to try to help set a tone, general manager Gene Smith and coach Jack Del Rio have a message:
"When you look at things with a league with great parity, I do think team chemistry is a direct factor, a big reason why some teams win at a higher level than other teams," Smith said. "I am a firm believer, and I say this all the time, that good players that play great together win championships.
"In order to play together you've got to have people that are unselfish, that are very disciplined, that put team first and where you have great peer leadership. That's where you develop that core team chemistry that enables you to succeed at a higher level."
Smith has been with the organization since 1994 and was elevated to GM after the 2008 season, taking over for vice president of player personnel James "Shack" Harris, who had resigned. With the new post came more power than Harris had -- Smith has control of all personnel decisions. As the Jaguars headed into the 2009 season and Smith sorted through the roster he inherited, the team appeared to believe in addition by subtraction:
It let several free agents go without any effort to retain them: Peterson, a linebacker, landed in Atlanta; safety Gerald Sensabaugh in Dallas; left tackle Khalif Barnes in Oakland and Pierson Prioleau in New Orleans. Receiver Reggie Williams is unsigned.
It parted ways with some older guys who were looked to as leaders and spokesmen: Taylor (now a Patriots running back) and defensive end Paul Spicer (now with the Saints).
Peterson's relationship with Del Rio soured and came to a head after a well-publicized incident last year in which Peterson chafed over criticism from his coach. It was not a good development in a locker room that was already decimated by injuries, filled with underperformers and fracturing because of how some guys who'd been paid (like Porter and Florence) or wanted to be paid (like Peterson and Williams) were acting or being treated.
"The leaders, the veterans of the team, the true guys that were part of the team last year and will be part of the team going forward, all came and said, 'Coach, you did the right thing,'" Del Rio said of the Peterson developments. "That was important. It was something that needed to be done.
"Again, that's a situation where a guy was putting selfish interests ahead of the team, and then bucked up when challenged about it. It's been portrayed a certain way, and that's OK, because I'm not really concerned with it. But I know, and everybody that was a part of that understands that there's a way to do it that's right and there's a way to do it that's wrong, and there's going to be accountability in our organization."
How did a team that had great chemistry and success in 2007 lose so much of it in a year's time?
This was a big part of Del Rio's explanation at the owners' meetings:
"The thing that stood out in my mind was that we did pay a couple of guys a lot and elected not to -- for whatever reasons internally, and I'm not saying I didn't support it -- but when you don't pay a handful of guys whose contracts are expiring, and you are paying a couple that come in and don't prove to be the right kind of guys, it disrupts things. I think that was part of it."
That shouldn't be an issue going forward.
After conceding mistakes with Porter and Florence, the Jaguars have sworn off high-priced free agents. The two outsiders brought in -- tackle Tra Thomas and safety Sean Considine -- were inexpensive. The free agents they've re-signed were role players who didn't get much, either -- veteran center Brad Meester and special-teamers and backups Montell Owens, Brian Iwuh and Scott Starks.
The one guy who's in line for a pricey extension, running back Maurice Jones-Drew, might be the team's most important player. It would be hard for anyone to grumble legitimately if MJD gets his new deal.
With or without a new package, Jones-Drew will be looked to by the post-Taylor Jags to lead more.
"Certainly, Maurice Drew is one of the electrifying guys in the league," Del Rio said. "We're going to get him more opportunities. I think yo
u'll see some of his leadership skills emerge with the void created. He never really wanted to step on Fred's toes. And I think now that Fred's not there, it's going to open up the door for Maurice to be more assertive."
He and the rest of the Jaguars' vets will be joined by Smith's first draft class -- currently nine picks deep. Smith has said he plans to build through the draft, and that he plans to place a premium on character in his selections.
"We want to add good teammates to this football team," he said.
Del Rio emphasized that the franchise hardly feels the cupboard is bare. Smith pointed to players he expects to take on larger leadership roles in the new environment.
"We have a good core of what I would call emerging leaders, we have some young ascending players from Rashean Mathis, Daryl Smith, David Garrard, Marcedes Lewis, Brad Meester, Greg Jones, Maurice Jones-Drew. We go down the list, we have a number of players.
"Montell Owens is an outstanding leader on special teams. We have a good core and we have other guys that are emerging as well. As you build a team chemistry and you get people believing in 'we,' you have a chance to compete at a high level."
It's an age-old debate: Does chemistry beget winning or does winning beget chemistry?
Del Rio said he played on teams that had great chemistry but didn't win, that the 1989 Dallas Cowboys developed respect for each other even as they finished 1-15. The Cowboys of the early 90s, the Ravens of 2000 (for whom he was an assistant coach) and the 2007 Jaguars all had great chemistry, he said.
"It was as unselfish, team-first, egos-really-checked-at-the-door as it could be," Del Rio said of his group two years ago. "The same combination of guys for the most part kind of soured the following year. As coaches, we'd like to get our hands on it, whatever that magic formula is, and sprinkle it on all of our players. But it doesn't work that way. You have to work at it ....
"It's not automatic. I think there's a common respect needed. Last year -- again, I hate to continue to go back talking about it -- but one of the things that was clear early on was that this time of year we had a lot of talk about, 'Boy, my contract's not getting done, I need this.' There was a lot of 'I, I, I' and not enough 'We, We, We.' So we just need to get back to that commitment of doing things for the good of the team, and putting team first. That's going to be an emphasis."