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Jaguars coach Del Rio appears safe, despite empty seats, late slide

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- The Jaguars lost their final four games, faded from playoff contention and finished last in the AFC South for the second consecutive season.

It was a significant setback for a small-market franchise known more for empty seats than postseason prowess. It also will lead to change, but nothing like last year's team-wide makeover that resulted in 33 new players, 16 rookies, several new coaches and a new general manager.

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Coach Jack Del Rio appears safe. So does quarterback David Garrard.

"If you start jumping around and changing plans and all that, then you find yourself far worse that where we are," Del Rio said Monday. "We're a young team that fought its way into contention. Another strong offseason, we ought to be knocking the door down. That's the way I'm looking at it."

Does team owner Wayne Weaver feel the same way? That's the most pressing question facing the Jaguars (7-9). Weaver was unavailable for comment Monday, but all signs point to Del Rio having at least another year.

The Jaguars are 57-55 in Del Rio's seven seasons, have been to the playoffs twice and boast only one postseason win. But Del Rio also just completed the first year of a contract extension and would be owed more than $15 million if the team fired him -- a huge payout for a franchise that blacked out nine of 10 home games (including the preseason) because of slumping ticket sales.

Weaver also recently extended the contracts of Del Rio's assistant coaches, a strong indication that he plans to stick with this staff.

"I'm going to continue to control the things that I control and worry about those things and let Wayne worry about those other factors," said Del Rio, who plans to take a week off before sitting down with Weaver, general manager Gene Smith and the rest of the staff to evaluate the roster.

Del Rio's biggest concern is receiving more production from a defense that allowed the second-most points (380) in team history and finished with a franchise-low 14 sacks. The sack total is the fifth-lowest in NFL history.

Defensive ends Derrick Harvey and Quentin Groves, the team's top two draft picks in 2008, have been huge disappointments. And although defensive linemen Rob Meier and Reggie Hayward should return from injuries, both are in the late stages of their careers.

"I'm pretty sure they're going to bring in guys, draft guys," rookie defensive tackle Terrance Knighton said. "You don't want to be known as a defensive line that can't get to the quarterback. A lot of guys are going to go into the offseason with that chip on their shoulder."

Offensively, the Jaguars need to improve a line that failed to consistently open holes for running back Maurice Jones-Drew and also allowed Garrard to be sacked 42 times and knocked down more than any other quarterback in the league.

Del Rio is counting on rookie tackles Eugene Monroe and Eben Britton to improve, but the coach also wants more from the interior linemen.

"He cannot take these shots," Del Rio said of Garrard. "That's going to be a driving, hard-charging theme of mine going into this offseason. We've got to do a better job of that. He's a tough guy, he's strong, he gets up, but I don't like seeing my quarterback hit that much."

Under constant pressure, Garrard finished with 15 touchdown passes, 10 interceptions and 14 fumbles (eight lost). Del Rio believes Garrard, if surrounded with a little more talent, will play at a higher level -- much like he did in 2007.

"He's probably in the middle tier of quarterbacks in the league," Del Rio said. "You can be doing a whole lot worse. But he's not in that elite -- (Drew) Brees, (Peyton) Manning, (Tom) Brady -- category. We need to do all we can to be strong around him."


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Garrard is due to make about $8 million next season, a stout salary for a middle-tier quarterback. But the Jaguars have so many other holes that they're unlikely to draft a franchise quarterback in 2010.

Del Rio and Smith revamped the roster last spring following a 5-11 season, parting ways with more than a dozen veterans and taking an aggressive approach to rebuilding. Four rookies started regularly this season and several more played significant snaps.

The result was a 7-5 start that had Jacksonville in line for an AFC wild-card spot. The four-game losing streak ended all those thoughts.

So how close are the Jaguars to turning things around and making the playoffs?

"We almost snuck our way in this year," Del Rio said. "You can accomplish things in this league if you're willing to stay the course."

Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press

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