How much is too much in the NFL preseason? That was the question being batted around Alltel Stadium Sunday after the Jacksonville Jaguars hammered the Carolina Panthers -- their despised expansion rivals -- 23-9 in the first exhibition for both teams.
It was an embarrassing debut on national television for Carolina, which was plagued by disappointing performances by its offensive line and its first-team defense.
For Jacksonville, it was a muscle-flexing pose of a win. The Jaguars scored touchdowns on two of their first three possessions and never allowed the Panthers into the end zone.
But what stirred the postgame buzz was the way the Jaguars attacked with an aggressive array of blitzes and exotic pass-rushing schemes.
``It looks like they take the rivalry more serious than we do,'' said Panthers quarterback Kerry Collins. ``They came into the game today with the notion that they were going to win at all costs. We have a little different approach going into the preseason.''
Panthers players, operating under a simplified game plan from coach Dom Capers that didn't incorporate many blitzes, made it clear they thought Jacksonville coach Tom Coughlin crossed the line that divides the meaning of the exhibition and regular seasons.
Carolina offensive lineman Matt Elliott called the Jags' heavy defensive heat ``uncalled for.'' Guard Greg Skrepenak said he'd never seen a team use such a sophisticated defensive approach for an exhibition in his six-year NFL career.
"If you want to show a look, you usually wait for the third or fourth preseason game," Skrepenak said. "But never do you want to use your trump card this early. But that's their decision. It's obvious they wanted to win in the worst way. We didn't want to lose, but at the same time we knew this was the first step to evaluating our team."
Panthers linebacker Micheal Barrow used two analogies to get the point across.
First, he said: ``We brought paper plates to the party, but they used their fine china.''
Then, Barrow expounded on the theme: ``It was like fighting with one hand. They came out jabbing and trying to knock us out. Then they got us on the ground and started biting our ear.''
The Jaguars, offended by the criticism, fired back.
``I say that's bull and they're full of it,'' said Jacksonville offensive tackle Leon Searcy. ``Anytime you play a football game, anytime you put the pads on, you play to win. For them to say they took this game a little lighter than we did is because they got beat, plain and simple. That's a cop-out.''
Jacksonville center Dave Widell said the Jaguars merely gave the Panthers a dose of what they dished out two years ago when the teams played in the Hall of Fame Game in Canton, Ohio. That was the inaugural game for both franchises.
"They blitzed us 60 percent of the time in Canton and wore us out," Widell said.
The coaches, Capers and Coughlin, stayed out of the verbal debate.
Coughlin declined comment on the issue except to note the Jaguars were experimenting with some of the new pressure defenses they plan to use this season.
Capers acknowledged Coughlin had a more expansive game plan, but said it would benefit the Panthers in the long run.
"They put a lot of pressure on us in the first half and, personally, I'm glad they did," Capers said. "There are people on our offensive line we've taken and put in new positions. So we're going to have to work. It takes continuity there. This is going to give us a chance to look at it and hopefully it'll make us a better team next week."
No matter which side of the issue you take, however, this much is clear: Carolina's pass protection against Jacksonville's blitzes was about as effective as you'd expect a Little League hitter to be against a Randy Johnson fastball.
There were times when Jacksonville defenders shot through gaps and got into the backfield untouched. The Jaguars took special aim at left guard Blake Brockermeyer, who's still adjusting to being moved from tackle to guard.
``Blake was playing in his first game at guard and it's a big difference from tackle,'' said Skrepenak, who made the same switch last year. ``I'm sure they looked at him and said, `The guy's been a tackle all his life. Let's see what he can do at guard.' ''
Brockermeyer wouldn't answer questions after the game.
The Jaguars finished with seven sacks for Carolina losses totaling 46 yards. Fittingly, the game ended with the Jaguars recording consecutive sacks of reserve quarterback Jay Barker.
One of the few highlights for Carolina was an encouraging performance by running back Tshimanga Biakabutuka, who had a dazzling 11-yard run to highlight a five-carry, 20-yard day. It was Biakabutuka's first game action since he suffered a season-ending knee injury at Jacksonville in the fourth game of last season.
Two backup runners also had good showings. Fred Lane, the surprising star of training camp so far, had six carries for 38 yards, including a 25-yarder. Marquette Smith, also returning from a serious knee injury, had four attempts for 23 yards.
Collins completed 8-of-16 passes for 77 yards and one interception.
All of the Panthers' scoring came from kicker John Kasay, who made field goals of 40, 28 and 35 yards.
"We weren't as sharp as we wanted to be in the area of fundamentals -- the things we take a lot of pride in," said Capers. "We were sloppy on defense in the area of getting off blocks and tackling. On offense, it was blocking and taking care of the football."
But there was no mood of gloom in the Panthers' locker room.
"Today was not indicative of the way we've been practicing or the attitude of the team," Collins said. "The regular season is still three weeks away. I don't think there's any reason for us to hit the panic button."