Del Rio names Brackens starter for Jags

Updated: September 4, 2003, 11:47 AM ET
By Len Pasquarelli | ESPN.com

For the first time since last October, when his balky knees sidelined Tony Brackens after only five games and put his football future in doubt, the leading sacker in Jacksonville Jaguars history is back in the starting lineup.

And while Brackens suggested he is not stunned that rookie coach Jack Del Rio named him a starter for Sunday's season opener at Carolina, only two weeks after the seven-year veteran wondered aloud if his career might be over, he allowed he is pleasantly surprised by the move.

And gratified, as well, that his hard work has paid off.

"It's good to be among the land of the living, the land of the employed," Brackens said. "It's something I like to do. I enjoy the game. I'm going to do it until I can't do it."

There were whispers in the offseason, even during training camp, that Brackens could not "do it" anymore. He had undergone knee surgery last fall, another offseason procedure, and then had an emergency appendectomy in the late spring. It wasn't until mid-July that he could begin conditioning himself again, and even then, there were some restrictions.

Only two weeks ago, Del Rio hinted that Brackens might not even make the team, and that he certainly would not be a starter if he did hang on to his roster spot. But Brackens apparently flashed enough in his limited playing time during the preseason to prove to the new coaching staff he is still among the Jaguars' top defensive linemen.

"He did some good things," Del Rio said. Countered Brackens: "Hey, I'm only 28 (years old), you know? It's not time yet to start looking for a new job."

He will not play 50-60 snaps, as he did when he was younger, but Brackens will rotate with Paul Spicer. His playing time probably will be skewed more toward passing downs. The leading sacker in franchise history, Brackens has 49 career sacks, but posted just one in 2002. The year before, despite gimping around on bad knees and being relegated to just one or two practices a week, he had 11 sacks.

Whether or not Del Rio used his remarks as an intentional prod, to motivate Brackens and perhaps scare him a little, is immaterial. Brackens insisted early this week that, while he was haunted at times by the possibility he might not be ready for the start of the season, he always felt his rehabilitation was on target.

Still, there were days, before he was cleared to practice, when he simply walked up and down the field, waving his arms and exhorting the fans to pay attention. He was, at that point, more a cheerleader than anything else. Now he'll be back, though, to chasing the quarterback, albeit it from a fresh perspective.

Because the Jaguars signed former Philadelphia pass rusher Hugh Douglas this spring as an unrestricted free agent and starting right end, Brackens will move to the left side. That means he will face more double-team blocks, with tight ends and fullbacks "chipping" on him. The move will keep opponents from doubling on Douglas, and free him up to just have to beat a tackle, but Brackens will find the route to the quarterback more difficult than in his previous seven seasons.

"It's like running around a track one way, and then turning around, and trying to run around the (opposite) way," Brackens acknowledged of the move to the left side. "It's the same distance, just a little different running."

Then again, given all the doubts about Brackens that existed only a few weeks ago, he's happy to be running anywhere and from any side of the field.

One of the few remaining ties to the glory days of a franchise that advanced to the AFC championship game in only its second season of existence, Brackens looks around and sees the results of change, and understands that nothing is forever.

"You just take it as it comes, roll with things, try to make the best of it," Brackens said. "I'm just happy to be back out here again and doing the things I love."

Len Pasquarelli is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

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