What…Me Worry? Not Jack Del Rio

Posted: April 13, 2011 in Jacksonville Jaguars, NFL teams, sports, sports teams
Tags: , , , , , , ,

His shoulders are wrapped in ice to the extent it looks like he’s wearing shoulder pads. It’s the price he pays for playing linebacker in the NFL for 11 years.

“Arthritis,” says Jack Del Rio. “I just turned 48 (April 4).”

If there’s pain the Jaguars head coach for the last eight years doesn’t show it. It’s early on an April Monday afternoon and he’s just finished getting physical therapy but he looks as happy as a man sitting on top of the world. He may not feel it, but he looks younger than he is and seldom is he seen not wearing a Hollywood smile.

Nor does he shows signs of a man on the coaching hotseat, a man who can’t turn on sports talk radio and not hear “Joe from the westside” screaming that Del Rio should be fired or “Don from Arlington” saying, “I ain’t renewing my season tickets as long as Del Rio’s coaching the Jags.” More than one commentator and columnist, including yours truly, called for Del Rio’s dismissal last season when Jacksonville’s season started badly — including an embarrassing blowout loss to rival Tennessee in a Monday night home game. After the Jaguars regrouped and actually took the division lead, the Del Rio Jaguars repeated an old bad habit: they collapsed in December, losing their last four games, finishing 8-8 and missing the playoffs — again.

In fact, in Del Rio’s eight seasons the Jaguars have made the playoffs only twice and have exactly one post-season victory. Few NFL coaches have survived such a stretch, much less received a contract extension and a generous raise. At $5 million a year and two years remaining on his contract, Del Rio is well paid even by NFL standards. His overal record: 57-54.

When the subject of criticism comes up, Del Rio almost acts surprised.

“Not really, ” he says when asked about he and his family hearing negative comments. “You’re always under pressure and there’s some criticism in this job, but I love what I do. Our fans have been very good to me and my family. Everything’s good.”

He says his children haven’t experienced problems, but admits his wife, Linda, has had some minor issues.

“Probably the hardest on her,” he says. “She’ll be in a checkout line and hear some off-handed remarks.”

The most pressure came after the 2009 season when team owner Wayne Weaver all but said Del Rio would be fired if the Jaguars didn’t make the playoffs. After last season Weaver considerably soften his stance and earlier this week even said on the Jaguars.COM website that the team might need “one or two years” to become a championship-caliber team. That had to be music to Del Rio’s years.

Not that Del Rio would ever admit as much. He doesn’t lack in confidence. The word arrogant is often used when describing Del Rio. Instead of stewing about last season’s December swoon, he says he thought he and his staff got everything possible out of a young team that has added 38 new players in the last two years.

He does admit, however, he’s a better coach now than when he was in ’03 when Weaver surprised a lot of NFL people by hiring a 39-year-old with only six years of NFL coaching experience, and only one as a coordinator.

“There’s no questioned I’ve improved as a coach,” he says. “For one thing, I’m better at handling things with the media and the fans. I’ve matured. I’m 48.”

When asked about how his coaching philosophy has changed, Del Rio quickly says, “Pretty much the same.” But there is a bit of a hesitation in his voice, a rarity when talking with him.

After a short pause, he adds, “I have a greater appreciation for the quarterback position and the value of special quarterbacks. I saw how it was done when we won a Super Bowl in Baltimore and didn’t truly appreciate the value of a truly gifted quarterback. We did it with Trent Dilfer at quarterback. Trent was a good quarterback, probably better than he was given credit for, but . . .”

But he certainly wasn’t special. Neither is Jaguars quarterback David Garrard.

“I’m not slighting David,” insists Del Rio. “He does better than given credit for.”

It isn’t difficult to read between the lines.

On the day I visited with Del Rio it seemed to be business as usual around the Jaguars offices even though the NFL owners have locked out the players in a labor dispute.

“Not a whole different,” says Del Rio. “We finished our free agent evaluations and are continuing to work on the draft. The biggest difference is I like to spend this time working on player relationships. I like to spend time with players, building relations about things other than football.”

But, Del Rio admits, the longer the lockout continues the more it will hurt. After the draft is when the players start mini-camps and meetings with coaches.

“That’s when we put a shine on things,” he says. “It does become a problem then if something isn’t settled.”

Del Rio was a player the last time the NFL when through a major labor problem, the 1987 strike. He has undertstands points on both sides, but he isn’t about to reveal them.

“I have lots of strong opinions but I can’t share them,” he says.

He also has strong opinions about how the NFL is changing, especially in the area of player safety, but again he’s hesitant to express them.

“I do believe the NFL is at the crossroads,” he says. “We shouldn’t take too many liberties under the heading of player safety.”

Del Rio, of course, is all for player safety, but he cautions the league needs to make certain the rule changes are about player safety and not some other reasons. Football is a violent game. It is a game for big, strong, fast, hard-hitting men. He worries about how the game is perceived by the fans. Indeed, the linebacker mentality lives in Del Rio.

Finally, I asked Del Rio about how he and his family enjoy living in Jacksonville. I has been widely believed the Del Rios, particularly Linda, did not consider North Florida as home. Several rumors have floated about Del Rio being interested in other jobs, particularly college jobs.

Del Rio insists he has no desire to live anywhere else.

“These are good people,” he says.”It’s a good place to live. I love it here.”

He enjoys the fishing and particularly the golf. Last week he had a hole-in-one at his home course, Glen Kernan. Hit a 5-iron on the 175-yard No. 6. “Normally a 6-iron, but there was some wind,” he points out with pride.

Could he see himself still here in, says, 20 years?

“Absolutely,” he answers.

As the Jaguars coach?

He smiles.

The Del Rios do have a full life away from football. Two of their four children still live at home. Daughter Aubrey is a junior at The Bolles School. Son Luke is a sophomore, having transferred from Bolles to Episcopal. Both are fine athletes. Aubrey plays volleyball and hopes to earn a scholarship to play in college. Some smaller school have shown interest. Luke is a 6-1, 185-pound quarterback. Del Rio admits his changing schools was football-related.

“Corky (Rogers) is great,” Del Rio says of the Bolles football coach. “We loved it at Bolles. But Luke wants to throw the ball and Episcopal throws the ball more.”

How did an NFL linebacker’s son become a quarterback?

“He’s smarter than me,” says dad.

As usual, Del Rio was smiling, looking like a man without a worry in the world. Only he knows how he feels inside about his many critics and his future, but on the outside the man looks cooler than the other side of the pillow.

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