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Labriola on the history of Steelers at Jaguars

Ready or not, here it comes:

• The date was Sept. 1, 1996, and as an NFL regular season opener was coming to an end, a minor league baseball game broke out: “Hap-py birth-day to you. Hap-py birth-day to you. Hap-py birth-day, Coach Cough-lin. Hap-py birth-day to you.”

• Some years earlier, before that sold out NFL stadium was prompted by the home team to sing a song other than the national anthem, Commissioner Paul Tagliabue was in charge of the curious decision, as it was perceived at the time, to award an expansion franchise to Jacksonville, Florida. In the league’s first expansion since Tampa Bay and Seattle were added for the 1976 season, the favorites to begin play in the 1995 season were seen as Carolina and Baltimore.

• But instead of Baltimore, it was Jacksonville, and the impact on the Steelers began almost immediately after the official announcement.

• Because the AFC Central and the NFC West were the only divisions to contain four teams, while the AFC East, AFC West, NFC East, and NFC Central all already contained five, the Steelers were going to be getting a new neighbor. Interpreting geography the way only professional sports leagues can, the Carolina Panthers were assigned to the NFC West and the Jacksonville Jaguars joined the AFC Central.

• One of the new franchise’s first hires was Tom Coughlin, and not long thereafter he came to two conclusions: the Pittsburgh Steelers were the team to beat in the AFC Central, and the way to beat them was to try to be them.

• And so it began, a “rivalry” for the Jaguars but more of an annoyance for the Steelers.

• The 1995 Steelers would win the AFC Championship and represent the conference in Super Bowl XXX, but before all that came the ignominy of losing to the expansion Jaguars. After an 0-4 start, Jacksonville had visited the Astrodome and recorded the first victory in franchise history, 17-16, over the Houston Oilers, and the following Sunday would mark the occasion of their first-ever meeting vs. the team they had identified as their primary target.

• That game, pitting a Steelers team that was 12-4 in 1994 and came within 3 yards of going to Super Bowl XXIX vs. an expansion team, was way more important to the Jaguars, and the play on the field reflected that. Jacksonville took the opening kickoff and marched 79 yards in seven plays to take a 7-0 lead that became 14-0 after a lost fumble on a punt gave the Jaguars the ball back at the Steelers 31-yard line.

• The Steelers moved the football but settled for field goals. A first-and-goal at the 7-yard line turned into a 19-yard field goal. A second-and-goal at the 4-yard line turned into a 22-yard field goal. A fourth-and-1 from the 7-yard line turned into nothing. And so the Steelers, lost, 20-16.

• The next season, 1996, the Steelers opened the regular season in Jacksonville, on a warm and humid Sept. 1 afternoon. The weather would claim Jerome Bettis, whose asthma acted up in the 86 percent humidity; Greg Lloyd was lost for the season to a torn patellar tendon; and Jim Miller’s stint as the starting quarterback lasted exactly one half when Coach Bill Cowher pulled him at halftime following an overthrow of a receiver in the end zone. Cowher replaced Miller with Mike Tomczak.

• That game ended in a 24-9 Steelers loss that also drastically altered the team’s course moving forward, because Lloyd was the team’s second-best defender after Rod Woodson, and Tomczak was a mediocre quarterback who already had reached his ceiling. And the day ended with the singing of “Happy Birthday” to Coughlin, who had turned 50 on Aug. 31, and the singing was prompted by the PA announcer before the clock read 0:00.

• In 1997, the Steelers again had an early-season game in Jacksonville, this time on Sept. 22, and the NFL added to the degree of difficulty by making it the first Monday night game in Jaguars history. After finishing 4-12 in their inaugural season of 1995, the Jaguars had made the playoffs as a 9-7 Wild Card entrant in 1996, and by the start of the 1997 season they had established themselves as the Steelers’ primary competition for AFC Central supremacy.

• The atmosphere was charged, and while the Jaguars had a 17-7 lead at halftime, the Steelers stormed back to take a 21-20 lead on a Kordell Stewart-to-Mark Bruener touchdown pass early in the fourth quarter. A 27-yard field goal by Mike Hollis put Jacksonville up, 23-21, with 4:14 left, but on the final play of the game the Steelers were lining up for a 40-yard field goal for the win.

• Norm Johnson, who had converted 80.3 percent of his field goal attempts with the Steelers to that point, had his kick blocked, recovered, and returned 58 yards for a touchdown by Chris Hudson. And the lasting image of the play was Cowher seemingly about to cross the sideline and hit/tackle Hudson as he raced past him down the sideline with the football.

• Games in Jacksonville always were physical, competitive battles, because Coughlin had succeeded in creating a team in the Steelers’ likeness. But it often was the other stuff, the minor league baseball-type stuff, that was annoying and often sophomoric.

• The singing of “Happy Birthday.”

• The overblown and intrusive antics of the Jacksonville mascot, including one instance of it trying to get into the Steelers offensive huddle and another tasteless skit lowlighted by the hanging in effigy on the crossbar of a stuffed dummy wearing a Kordell Stewart jersey.

• In 1992, the Steelers drafted offensive tackle Leon Searcy in the first round, and in 1996 the Jaguars signed him as an unrestricted free agent to the largest contract for an offensive lineman in NFL history before he even had been voted to the Pro Bowl. In 1999, they signed 10-year veteran Carnell Lake. The current rule requiring a team to keep any player it signs off another team’s practice squad on its active roster through three games was in part a response to Coughlin’s tactic of signing a guy off the Steelers practice squad a week or two before the teams met and then cutting the guy shortly after the teams’ game.

• And it wasn’t just players the Jaguars liked to pilfer. They lured the Steelers PR guy to the same position with their organization. They hired a newspaper guy who covered the Steelers for 20-plus years, through the Super Bowls of the 1970s, to be the editor of their team paper. For a while, it seemed as though their Steelers-envy knew no bounds.

• A lot of that changed after Coughlin was fired in 2002, which was the same year the NFL added the expansion Houston Texans and divided the 32 teams into eight divisions of four teams apiece, with each conference made up of four divisions.

• When that was being figured out, the Jaguars lobbied hard to be in the same division as the Steelers – the AFC North – because it was getting to the point that a visit from the Steelers was necessary to sell out their stadium.

• But Dan Rooney saw his team as much more logical division partners with Cleveland, Baltimore, and Cincinnati. Not only did it make better geographic sense, but it also was a nod to the old AFC Central Division, because the Browns and Bengals were original members of that group along with the Steelers and Houston Oilers, and since the Baltimore Ravens essentially were the Cleveland Browns except for the purple jerseys and a different ZIP Code, they made perfect sense to fill out the foursome.

• In the 17 seasons since that realignment, these teams have met only 11 times, with only five of those 11 played in Jacksonville. Sunday will mark the 26th installment in the all-time series. The Jaguars own a 7-5 record vs. the Steelers in Jacksonville. Bill Cowher was 3-7 in games there, and while Mike Tomlin is 2-0 there, his teams are 1-4, including 0-2 in the playoffs, vs. them at Heinz Field.

• Coughlin, who after being fired went on to coach the New York Giants to two Super Bowl victories over Bill Belichick’s New England Patriots, is back with the team he birthed in 1995. Whatever his current title, Coughlin’s job involves being in charge of everything associated with the football team.

• Once again, he has put together a team in his own image, a run-the-football, physical outfit, and despite a 3-6 record these Jaguars will be a formidable test for the Steelers. Just as they always have been.

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