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Allure of the Big Game

Remember when Jacksonville hosted the Super Bowl? Seems like it was almost a decade ago — because it was. Paul McCartney was the musical halftime entertainment, and for some, that was the punch line of the joke. For others, it was something far more elemental: the fact that the NFL dared to hold its showcase game — arguably the biggest event in professional sports —i n the Bold New City of the South.

The horror, the horror!

National pundits — such as Tony Kornheiser of ESPN and the Washington Post, Bill "The Sports Guy" Simmons and a cavalcade of media stars — made all of the jokes that you would expect. "In Jacksonville, there are more Waffle Houses than reasons to live" type material. It was great fun to have the national media lay into Jacksonville for its shortcomings when it came to hosting an event like the Super Bowl; primary among them was that the city lacked a centralized entertainment district that one would expect in a major city, and that there were not enough hotel rooms for the influx of visitors.

The entertainment issue was more or less solved, though with Super Bowl parties being held at far-flung venues like Plush/The Edge in Arlington, it was hard to find a cab to get to them. The issue of lodging had a similarly ad hoc solution, in the form of lodging on cruise ships in the St. Johns River. Somehow, we got through the event, albeit with damage to our reputation nationally and even internationally. Or so the narrative goes.

I am reminded of the Super Bowl logistics issues given the recent announcement by Gator Bowl President and CEO Rick Catlett that Jacksonville intends to bid on national championship games in 2016 and 2017.

"We think we're in a really good position," Catlett told The Florida Times-Union in September. "We've got a heckuva offer. We have 84,000 seats and all the hotels that they're asking for. Plus, we've got premium resorts. … We've hosted a Super Bowl [in 2005], so we know …   More


Call the Red Cross …

Perhaps it is just the headcold I have. Or perhaps it is the recent report that the Jaguars are using ball boys as wideouts in practice. Either way, though, a season that started — as they all do for the Jags — with something approaching promise has devolved into an absolute disaster. It seems pointless to speculate on how the team might beat the Indianapolis Colts on Sept. 29. The real question: How bad will the butt whipping be? And how will it proceed?

We can expect to see a couple of less than familiar faces making impacts for the Colts: Coby Fleener — Andrew Luck's college tight end — and Trent Richardson — just acquired from the Browns. A reasonable person might expect both of these guys to score at least once. With Blaine Gabbert back at quarterback, two touchdowns will probably be enough.

Beyond that, though, there are business questions. The closure of the Mathews Bridge and a weather forecast that includes clouds and rain — these may provide impetus for Jags fans to stay home. Things are ugly in the River City — really ugly for Game 4. And everyone knows it.

At the home opener, I listened to the derisive laughter in the press box. Not at all a good look. Did Shad Khan hear it? He was there, at least for the pregame, before he left for Tallahassee to meet with Gov. Rick Scott. The owners may change. The coaches may change. But the fans are not going to show up to see this for much longer. When the big tease is "will they sign Tebow," well, it's easy enough to say this is a lost season already. And it's only September.

Maybe a returning Justin Blackmon will make a difference. But it seems like entropy and apathy have already set in. Network cameras showed the Jaguars' two best running backs — Maurice Jones-Drew and Justin Forsett — laughing at the tail end of that dismal loss in Seattle. And why shouldn't they laugh? The joke's not on them — they are paid no matter what. …   More


Should Jags Trade for Josh Freeman?

With reports that Tampa is benching Josh Freeman effective immediately, the question might as well be raised: should the Jaguars trade for him? And if so, what should they trade?

What is clear about the Tampa situation is that Freeman could no longer coexist with head coach Greg Schiano. Those things happen when new coaches come in. Recall that former Jaguars head coach Jack Del Rio benched Mark Brunell at his first opportunity, went with Leftwich, and never looked back.

Freeman is in the last year of his rookie deal. He has motivation to show and prove somewhere this year for obvious reasons: his next contract will be the one that secures his financial future.

Jaguars head coach Gus Bradley says all the right things about Blaine Gabbert, but when a starting quarterback comes available for what will be a fire sale price, why not at least take a look? A late round draft pick likely would be enough to secure an audition.

This franchise needs to stop pretending that Blaine Gabbert is a franchise quarterback. The fans don't buy it, and won't, pending him winning multiple games in a row. Seems simple enough for a top 10 pick, but as I type it, it sounds utterly implausible.

An alternative take here from Alfie Crow at Big Cat Country:




All Apologies

Before this column goes any further, an apology for the subject matter:

I'd like to apologize to all readers for writing about the Jacksonville Jaguars. Undoubtedly, you'd like to read about a better pro football team. Undoubtedly, I'd prefer to write about quarterbacks who throw seven touchdown passes in a game or who, even as opposed to Chad Henne against the Raiders, got more than 13 out of 40 passes to go more than 5 yards, as The Florida Times-Union Jaguars writer Ryan O'Halloran tweeted.

It would be great if I were writing about a team that fulfilled my preseason hopes — one which the defense catalyzed changes in game momentum, one which the quarterback took advantage of his top-of-the-first-round tackles to make reads of the defense and to spread the ball around to receivers, one which the running backs hit holes hard and broke free into the secondary with reckless abandon, one which fans hoped would bring it for 60 minutes every week.

If that were the case, I'd be writing about the Jacksonville Sharks or the Jacksonville Dixie Blues. I'm writing about the Jaguars, however, and apologizing, much like the Orlando CBS affiliate did for showing Jaguars vs. Raiders instead of the Manning Bowl (Eli's New York Giants vs. Peyton's Denver Broncos).

Apologizing. Like the Jags should, for drafting a punter instead of Russell Wilson, the Seattle signal-caller who was still on the board when punter Bryan Anger was picked in 2012. And how did you like that Seattle game, by the way (Seahawks 29, 49ers 3)?

Apologizing. Like Shad Khan should, for putting this pitiful product on display in Jacksonville. Jack Del Rio, Mike Mularkey, Gene Smith and the rest of the gang are gone like the wind; but frankly, we don't give a damn, since the product looks the same.

The team looks like an expansion team. Like they're Happy To Be There. Like they expect fans to derive some psychic benefit at this late date, almost two decades into the franchise's existence, …   More


Wrestling with Shadows

Being in a position of authority regarding the Olympics can be a thankless job. Imagine being Mitt Romney, for example, who was instrumental in ensuring the Salt Lake City Olympics did well, but who wasn't really able to translate that into political capital. Or the Russians, preparing for the Sochi Olympics and facing international criticism for that nation's laws repressing homosexuality.

Most decisions made on the Olympic level are going to attract more criticism than compliments. In part, it's because the Olympic Games serve as an effective microcosm of global relations themselves — fractious, driven by sophistry and national self-interest. Despite these issues, sometimes the International Olympic Committee gets it right.

One example: The IOC reinstated wrestling as an official Olympic sport — provisionally, at least — reversing its plans to drop grappling as of the 2020 games. In a century that so far has been less than hospitable to amateur wrestling, this is a much-needed move that could, if not save the sport, at least buy it a little bit of time and perhaps give it a platform to gain some forward momentum after suffering more setbacks than Blaine Gabbert.

Advocates for the sport with Florida connections are enthusiastic about the IOC decision. Gerald Brisco, a former mainstay of Championship Wrestling from Florida during the 1970s, who also played a pivotal role with World Wrestling Entertainment for many years thereafter, commented on his Facebook page in the wake of the IOC's historic reversal.

"[This] shows that wrestlers never give up. The wrestling world came together worldwide to work to save our great sport," Brisco wrote. "[You] can't keep a wrestler on his back for long."

David Williams, longtime wrestling coach at Bishop Kenny High School, had this to add on the importance of wrestling in the Olympics.

"I'm very pleased that wrestling has been reinstated. For many minor sports like wrestling the pinnacle of …   More


Tale of Two Cities

For years now, at least since Tim Tebow made every Florida Gators game must-see TV, even for people who weren't self-identified Gator Nation members, there has been a hierarchy of college football teams in the state.

The Gators stood atop the landscape. The Seminoles: second best. And below them, a series of programs with fortunes that shifted from year to year — Miami, University of South Florida, University of Central Florida and all the rest.

The Gators were all anyone really wanted to talk about, with names like Tebow, Percy Harvin, Riley Cooper and Aaron Hernandez. The 'Noles? Not so much.

Even during the just-concluded E.J. Manuel era, which was more successful than not, there was a distinct feeling of frustrated climax. As I noticed last year when I was in Tallahassee for the Florida game — sitting in the student section, no less — there was no real expectation of victory for the home team.

Even though last year's Gators squad wasn't especially compelling, and even though Manuel was arguably the best ACC quarterback (especially if you ask the Buffalo Bills, who drafted him in the first round this year), it somehow wasn't surprising that Manuel struggled against the Seminoles' in-state rivals.

Last year's Florida game was a struggle for Manuel for the second consecutive year. He was intercepted three times in last year's game, in addition to coughing up the ball in the fourth quarter. If you had only seen Manuel in those games against Florida, there's no way you'd call him a first-round pick who could immediately start in the NFL — or at least the approximation thereof that's showcased in Buffalo these days. In part, that perception stemmed from a gulf between the two programs. Indications are that gulf is about to be bridged — courtesy of a redshirt freshman quarterback, one "Famous" Jameis Winston.

Winston's legend began before he took his first snap for the 'Noles in Pittsburgh — a tough place to win …   More


Reset Button

In recent years, it's been hard to muster up real enthusiasm for the on-field prospects of the Jacksonville Jaguars. That's not to say fans have not been loyal; even through seasons with many more losses than wins, the team has drawn at the box office, by and large avoiding blackouts. The same will hold true this year for all seven of the team's home games in Jacksonville.

Despite this, the national media has routinely lambasted Jacksonville and its fans. The team is subpar, they say, and the town isn't worthy of being an NFL city. And every time Shad Khan looks at a road atlas, someone seems to have a blog post or a column saying he's going to move the team. We saw it most recently when Khan bought the Fulham club in the English Premier League; certainly, went the logic, he's going to move the Jaguars to London.

How stale is that line of thought in 2013? How broken is that logic? Given that Khan in his short tenure has seemed more involved with the franchise than Wayne Weaver ever was, and that he's gone to great lengths to improve the stadium — everything from the public-private partnership for the scoreboards to the locker room and training facility upgrades — it seems ridiculous to play the "Jags Are Moving" card at this late date. Not to mention Khan's interest in The Shipyards and other Downtown properties similarly belies that meme.

The fact is, Khan didn't buy an NFL team so that it would lose 10 games a year for the next decade. Maybe change isn't coming quickly enough for some Jags fans, but what we are seeing is a concerted effort to remove the stench of defeat from EverBank Field and replace it with something we haven't whiffed in a long time: the sweet smell of success.

There are many reasons for optimism as the team enters the regular season.

Improved offensive line: It's been a long time since the Jaguars have had two tackles as good as Eugene Monroe and Luke Joeckel. We have to go back to the old days, when Coughlin …   More


Sinners and Scrums

With summer's heat finally beginning 
to abate, fall sports are on everyone's mind.
In Northeast Florida, pro and college football take pride of place. But as Jacksonville becomes more cosmopolitan, we're seeing other sports emerge — one of them being women's rugby, courtesy of the Jacksonville Women's Rugby Club.

Practices began Aug. 20 for the JWRC — whose team nickname is the Sinners — and this should be an exciting campaign for these lady ruggers. This season, they have coaches from South Africa who have 40 years of combined experience.

Team President Melissa Newkirk, who played college rugby at University of Central Florida, talked about the challenges of playing rugby on the club level in an email interview. She said the squad has 20 players but would like to have 30 to 45.

"We do not have tryouts and take anyone who wants to play, so we will take on all that are willing!"

Players come from all backgrounds — some with intense rugby backgrounds, 
others without.

"About half of our players did play in college, but we get lots who have never played before, and we teach them the game," Newkirk said. New players can learn the basics in about a month, but it takes three to six months to really feel confident, she said.

Newkirk played three years as an undergraduate — an experience that led directly to starting up this team.

"I started playing rugby in college. When I moved back home, there was not a team," she said. "I loved playing and wanted to share my passion for the sport with others. We also have an amazing local men's team that was and still is very supportive of our team; without their help, the women's team would not have been possible."

Many in our area might notice similarities with other more familiar sports; indeed, there are analogues to football and especially soccer.

"Rugby is a constantly moving game, like soccer; there are no downs or stoppage as in football," Newkirk said. "The main …   More


Performance Anxiety

Let's go ahead and blame (or thank) Alex Rodriguez. It seems to work for everything else.

The former Jacksonville Sun, Miami native and high school state championship baseball player has had a rough time of it lately. Rodriguez's link to Biogenesis of America, a Miami firm in the business of "enhancing" the performance of athletes, has been all over the news this summer — and the bulk of the coverage has been negative.

At this writing, Rodriguez is back playing for the Yankees. This quite likely might be his last stint.

With the threat of suspension from Major League Baseball for 211 games looming over his head pending an appeal from the union, any suspension would be a career-ender for the embattled 38-year-old third baseman and three-time Most Valuable Player.

Rodriguez once was widely heralded as one of the game's greats. Before the PED scandals hit, smarter minds than mine had him on the fast track to Cooperstown. Now? He gets booed. At home. Unless he's hitting home runs.

See, that's the paradox about performance-enhancing drugs. Everyone's against them — in theory. In theory, we all have unwavering moral codes, and we'd rather play fair and lose than cheat and win. Trouble is, for athletes, there's a limited window during which one can succeed. Success means many things — winning, cashing in, earning individual accolades. But if someone is giving his life to a sport, racing against time and attendant deterioration, it's rational to wonder, regarding cheating: Why not?

No one these days admits that Rodriguez is his favorite athlete. However, he's still influential — at least the much-lambasted mindset that drove him to performance enhancement is.

In July, a former Biogenesis employee, Porter Fischer, told ESPN's "Outside the Lines" that teen boys — high school athletes — would visit the clinic looking for that extra edge that included "[s]ports performance packages, which would include HGH, …   More


From Gator to Hater

For Gator Nation, it's been a Bummer Summer. On the heels of the PR nightmare of Aaron Hernandez (one of the best tight ends of the Urban Meyer era) facing murder charges in New England comes the recent embarrassment presented by Riley Cooper, former Gators wide receiver, who got liquored up at a Kenny Chesney concert and torpedoed his career by tossing a racial slur at a security guard.

As with Hernandez — whom Tim Tebow accompanied to a bar at least once when both were Gators — there's a Tebow connection to Cooper: They were college roommates. It makes you wonder what Tebow's take on all this might be. However, the Patriots quarterback has yet to offer a response at press time; it's likely he never will.

In the hours after Cooper's drunken "I will jump that fence and fight every n***** here, bro" comment, there was no shortage of instant analysis. There were some who felt Cooper's unfortunate incident signified a larger sense of entitlement, as a reasonably prominent member of the Philadelphia Eagles wide receiver corps.

"According to a number of sources, Riley Cooper wanted to be treated as if he was Bradley Cooper at the Chesney concert," Joseph Santoliquito wrote on the Philadelphia CBS affiliate's website. "He was an unruly ‘drunk who wanted the red-carpet treatment and security to basically kiss his ass, because he was "Riley Cooper, an Eagle," from what I saw,' said someone close to what happened that night. Apparently, when Cooper pulled out the ‘Don't-you-know-who-I-am' card, it wasn't acknowledged. ‘Security wasn't having it,' and Cooper apparently had a snit-fit."

While he's not the first white guy to get drunk and go atavistic and hateful with ill-considered rhetoric, Cooper faces a problem that is specific to his line of work.

Former NFL tight end Shannon Sharpe talked about it on "The Norris & Davis Show" on Baltimore radio station 105.7 The Fan.

"What he did open was a can of worms for everybody …   More